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3 People Die in Incidents With Officers

Mentally ill man is slain in a confrontation and two suspects are killed in a crash during pursuit.

January 03, 2003|Richard Winton and Denise M. Bonilla | Times Staff Writers

Three people were killed in two separate incidents involving Los Angeles police officers Wednesday night while another man was shot and wounded by El Monte police in a bloody start to the new year.

Troy Smith, 26, of Los Angeles and Zsaza McMillan, 19, died about 6 p.m. Wednesday when the stolen car Smith was driving crashed into a parked van in South Los Angeles while being pursued by Los Angeles Police Department officers.

Less than two hours later in Boyle Heights, an LAPD SWAT officer shot to death a 22-year-old man with a history of mental illness when he allegedly threw a machete at them and then charged them holding a knife in each hand, authorities said. The death of Jess Hernandez occurred when he emerged from his family's house after a standoff of nearly four hours, authorities said.

Hernandez's brother expressed outrage Thursday at the officers' conduct. "They couldn't handle one man? They had to shoot him in the torso and in the head. It is uncalled for," said Angel Hernandez, 26, whose initial pleas for help had brought police to the home.

In El Monte on Wednesday night, police responding to a domestic disturbance shot a man they said had lunged at them with a knife in one hand and a cross in the other. Ventura Sanchez, 43, was in critical but stable condition Thursday at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center.

The pursuit in South Los Angeles that resulted in two deaths came as the Los Angeles Police Commission was about to consider a recommendation from Chief William J. Bratton to forbid officers from chasing motorists for traffic infractions.

Los Angeles police said the fatal pursuit began when a motorcycle officer spotted Smith driving about 60 mph in a 35-mph zone southbound on Central Avenue. The officer, Andrew Vergara, sped up alongside the 2002 Chevy Cavalier and indicated to the driver that he should slow down, said LAPD spokesman Jack Richter. Instead of reducing speed, Smith tried to ram the motorcycle, Richter said.

After swerving to avoid a collision, Vergara immediately called for additional units and chased the Cavalier on Central, Richter said. After crossing 73rd Street, the Cavalier struck the rear of a 1995 Toyota and then struck a parked van. McMillan was pronounced dead at the scene by paramedics. Smith was taken to County-USC where he died Thursday morning, Richter said. Officers learned later that the Cavalier had been reported stolen in Compton on Dec. 30, Richter said.

Although the motorcycle officer was forced to travel about 60 mph to try to wave down the Cavalier initially, department officials said Thursday that they did not consider it a pursuit.

Richter said the incident became a pursuit after Smith attempted to ram the LAPD motorcycle. He said that the attempted ramming had been an assault with a deadly weapon. Because of a rising toll of injuries and deaths, Bratton has proposed using helicopters and supervisors whenever possible to take control of chases while banning pursuits that begin with minor offenses.

In the Boyle Heights shooting, Hernandez was off his medication and suffering from a violent psychotic episode when he confronted LAPD officers Wednesday night, Sgt. John Pasquariello said

Hernandez's brothers contacted the Hollenbeck Community Police Station about 3:30 p.m. about his violent behavior, and the LAPD's mental health assessment team quickly learned of his history of mental illness.

Officers surrounded the home in the 100 block of North Fickett Street and crisis negotiators tried unsuccessfully to make contact with Hernandez, who barricaded himself inside, Pasquariello said. Unable to get him to talk, SWAT officers fired "copious" amounts of tear gas into the home, but Hernandez did not surrender, police said.

Pasquariello said that, as SWAT officers outside formulated a plan of entry about 7:30 p.m., Hernandez appeared, machete and knives in hand. The spokesman said Officer Richard Alba, 38, a 14-year veteran, fired at the charging man with a beanbag round. Pasquariello said Officer Troy Thomas, 34, a 13-year veteran, fearing for his life and for his colleagues, fired a shotgun and killed Hernandez.

Angel Hernandez said he had pleaded with the police not to use force. "There was no need for deadly force; they had many other options. They have Tasers. They have shields," he said.

To the east, Sanchez was shot several times in the upper body by El Monte police, who had responded twice to the home Wednesday night after domestic disturbance calls from his relatives, authorities said.

Los Angeles County Sheriff's Deputy Rick Varela said it appeared to officers who found Sanchez in a converted garage that he had self-inflicted knife wounds. Officers told investigators that Sanchez refused their orders to drop his knife and then lunged at them, forcing them to use a Taser and a beanbag weapon. When he lunged a second time, officers shot him multiple times, Varela said.

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