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California and the West | MIKE DOWNEY

Officer Died as He Lived, One of LAPD's Finest

March 24, 2000|MIKE DOWNEY

They will go to Louis Villalobos' funeral today, so they can say goodbye and swap stories about what kind of man he was and talk about the brave things he did.

Somebody will single out the time in May 1997 when a domestic violence suspect holed up inside a Canoga Park warehouse, taking shots at cops.

He had already ambushed a couple of Glendale law enforcement officers, killing one of them. Villalobos was part of a SWAT team that went into the warehouse to rescue the second Glendale detective as the gunman fired away, with deadly accuracy, wounding two more cops before turning the gun on himself.

Louie Villalobos won the department's Medal of Valor for that.

And somebody else is bound to mention what happened 30 years earlier, when Villalobos was able to survive a ferocious 1967 battle with the North Vietnamese that wiped out much of his Marine unit.

A year later, he was a forward observer during the Tet Offensive, fighting heroically to save himself and others in his artillery unit.

Louie Villalobos won a Silver Star for that.

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To make it safely through so many life-threatening situations . . . and then to die the way he did.

That's the other thing his LAPD peers and friends will be unable to resist talking about as they arrive in San Pedro for this morning's services.

The crazy way Louie died.

He was doing what the department calls advanced training at Camp Pendleton, the Marine base, observing a live-fire drill at a "shooting house"--a staged setting that trains police officers to enter an unknown situation and to expect the unexpected.

It's the kind of exercise where a flash grenade might go off suddenly, or where a series of Shoot/Don't Shoot targets might appear, just to test an officer's reflexes.

Villalobos, 52, was about to take a seat on a catwalk, 10 feet off the ground, when apparently he reached back to brace himself, lost his balance and fell. He suffered serious head trauma and was taken to Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla, where he died a week ago today.

A 30-year veteran of the department, he was six months from retirement.

"This is a tragic accident," Chief Bernard C. Parks says. "I have known Officer Villalobos for many years. He represented everything that was good about our department."

Gov. Gray Davis ordered the flag at the Capitol to be flown at half-staff Wednesday in honor of Villalobos, who was a Sacramento native.

Oh, the stories his fellow officers have to tell, about a man many of them won't easily forget.

They can talk about the time Louie, at 17 years old, went to a Marine recruiter to join up and was so eager that he didn't even know the Corps was going to pay him.

They can talk about the time Louie, at 49, donned his heavy tactical vest and took part in a desert-heat charity hike from Baker, Calif., all the way to Las Vegas.

And they can talk about things Louie didn't talk about . . . about wartime experiences he endured that some of his best buddies knew nothing about for years. Villalobos was the sort who never wore his ribbons, who didn't display his decorations if he could help it.

Only his closest friends knew that Villalobos served two tours of duty in Vietnam, that he had been part of an infantry outfit which, after practically being slaughtered, came to be known as "The Walking Dead."

No, most of his LAPD brothers and sisters knew little more about Officer Villalobos than that he had been assigned to Metro Division's elite special weapons and tactical unit for the better part of 17 years.

"You would know at first glance there was something special about him," says Officer Stuart Guidry, 36, who got to know Villalobos the last couple of years. "He possessed unbelievable skill and knowledge, and had the body of an Olympic athlete. But he was also a man who carried himself with a sincere humility. He was the best of the best."

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A father of four, Villalobos was formally commended last fall for his role in the 1997 rescue of the Glendale detective. He was named the 1999 SWAT officer of the year.

Colleagues described him this week as a guy they sought out for guidance, someone who made time for anyone of any rank, someone Parks himself frequently went out of his way to acknowledge.

Of all the ways to lose him--literally a fallen hero.

Louis Villalobos died exactly the way he lived, though. On duty, looking out for those around him.

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Mike Downey's column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Write to him at Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053. E-mail: mike.downey@latimes.com

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