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Police Say Shots That Hit Bystanders Justified

Report says suspect in a shopkeeper's death fired on officers, who shot and killed the man.

January 17, 2003|Denise M. Bonilla and Andrew Blankstein | Times Staff Writers

Two police officers who exchanged gunfire with a murder suspect and shot two bystanders appeared to have been justified in their actions, according to a preliminary assessment Thursday by the Los Angeles Police Department.

One victim said the suspect fired at the officers first, but complained that they failed to warn her before they opened fire, killing the suspect.

It was the first shooting of bystanders by LAPD officers in three years, the department said.

Authorities identified the dead suspect as Gabriel Herrera, 67, who allegedly shot a shopkeeper about 4 p.m. Wednesday and then was shot by the officers at a bus stop two blocks away in Monterey Hills.

The Hollenbeck Division officers were identified as 16-year LAPD veteran Mark Dimitt, 40, and James Lopez, 29, who has seven years on the force.

Dimitt and Lopez confronted Herrera when he pulled out a semiautomatic handgun and began firing at them, police said. Dimitt has been involved in three shootings during his LAPD career.

"When [the officers] arrived there, they told a male teenager to leave the area and several times ordered the suspect to raise his hands," said Officer Jack Richter, an LAPD spokesman. "Before the teenager was able to leave the scene, the suspect reached into his waistband, pulled out a pistol and fired at the officers."

An LAPD statement on the incident said: "It appears that during the exchange of gunfire with the suspect, the officers inadvertently" wounded two teenagers.

The 17-year-old boy underwent surgery at County-USC Medical Center after he was shot in the forearm. He could not be reached for comment.

Sandra Alvarez, 16, was treated and released from the same hospital with a calf wound.

In an interview, she said she saw Herrera come down a hill to the bus stop where she was standing. Police arrived moments later and told Herrera, who she said smelled of beer and cigarettes, to put his hands up.

Herrera fired once at the officers, Sandra said. They returned fire numerous times, she said.

Sandra's father, Florencio Alvarez, 49, said he was concerned because his daughter told him police fired close to 20 shots.

"I think it was a bad idea because they took so many shots," he said. "They hit another guy, they hit my daughter -- now they've left her with a bad leg."

Sandra, who was on her way to a friend's house, said the officers should have warned bystanders that they were going to shoot.

"I don't think it was such a good idea for them to shoot like that," Sandra said. "They didn't say drop or move out of the way, they just started shooting.

"They should have at least told us to drop -- we know what that means," she said. "It could have killed us."

Richter said the officers were responding to "a dangerous situation in which they were confronted with gunfire."

According to police officials, the suspect was in the store in the 4200 block of Maycrest Avenue near Huntington Drive when he began arguing with the owner, then fired several times.

The wounded man staggered to a barbershop next door.

As he fell into the back of the shop pleading for help, the killer fired again and killed him, police said. Police said they believe that the shooting stemmed from an argument but had no details.

Robert Morales was cutting a customer's hair when he heard two loud pops. "I thought it was kids playing; I just continued cutting hair," he said.

Then "the guy from next door came through the back, he leaned against the wall, and blood was dripping from his arm."

He asked in Spanish for help and then "the old man came in and shot him again," Morales said.

Neighbors of Herrera in Los Angeles said they were surprised that Herrera had a gun, much less used one.

"He was always joking and was very friendly with everybody," Adrian Urias said.

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