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Riverside Deputy Slain With His Baton

Authorities say the officer was responding to a call when a man grabbed the weapon and attacked. A backup then killed the assailant.

May 14, 2003|Louis Sahagun and Lance Pugmire | Times Staff Writers

A Riverside County sheriff's deputy was bludgeoned to death with his own police baton in a La Quinta neighborhood Tuesday when a man apparently overpowered him and wrestled the weapon from his grip, authorities said.

The attacker, whom neighbors described as a disturbed former resident, was shot and killed by a backup deputy, the Sheriff's Department said.

Deputy Bruce Lee, 45, was responding to a report of a domestic disturbance in the 54000 block of Avenida Velasco just before 10 a.m., when he was confronted by Kevin Diabo, 24, outside the home of Diabo's parents.

"Lee encountered a suspect who began to struggle and was able to take away the deputy's baton," said a statement issued by Gov. Gray Davis. "The suspect then struck the deputy over the head."

Sheriff's spokeswoman Shelly Kennedy-Smith offered no details but did say that "several minutes later, our backup deputy arrived on scene and found our first deputy lying on the ground, motionless."

The second deputy, who was not identified, saw that Diabo was carrying what appeared to be a police baton. The deputy shot and killed Diabo when he approached him in a "threatening manner," Kennedy-Smith said.

Diabo reportedly was thrown out of his mother's home a month earlier and showed up on her doorstep Tuesday in an angry state. Residents said Diabo's mother called police when her son tried to break in.

Kennedy-Smith said an emergency call was made from a home that appeared to belong to Diabo's parents.

Diabo was declared dead at the scene. Lee, a 22-year veteran, was originally transported to John F. Kennedy Medical Center in La Quinta, then moved to the trauma unit at Desert Regional Medical Center, where he died at 11:45 a.m.

The killing shook members of the Sheriff's Department, and the governor ordered flags atop the Capitol to be lowered to half staff. "[Lee] was very well-liked, very well-known," sheriff's spokesman John Kaiser said.

Residents of this working-class Coachella Valley neighborhood, which nestles against rocky desert peaks, said they were stunned and saddened by the killings. Many residents knew both the deputy and his assailant.

Sandra Maurer recalled that Lee responded to her call for help after she was involved in a minor traffic accident a year ago. "He came to my house. He was tough, thorough and he wanted to get to the facts. He was also a kind man who took his job seriously," Maurer said. She also remembers Diabo as a "skinny kid walking up and down the street all day."

Others described Diabo as an eccentric character but said they never dreamed he would attack an officer.

Neighbor Janette Chapman, 48, described a recent encounter with Diabo: "I had a situation with him last Saturday. I had parked my bike at a nearby liquor store. He walked up and asked me where I was traveling to. I asked him, 'Where are you traveling to?' He said, 'I'm just sitting here waiting for a spaceship.' "

Residents said that after a falling-out between Diabo and his mother, the son left or was thrown out of the home. Ever since, he was often seen walking neighborhood streets wearing camouflage pants and swigging water from a soda bottle.

Neighbor Carmen Castanon said she could not understand why Diabo would attack the officer. "I remember Kevin when he was a typical sweet little baby. So cute. What happened is a very sad and tragic thing. I really feel for the mother."

The Sheriff's Department said a dozen deputies have died in the line of duty since 1921. The most recent occurred March 18, when Deputy Brent Jenkins, 45, was killed in a traffic accident.

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Times staff writer Monte Morin contributed to this report.

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