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Sheriff's Department Faces Scrutiny in Fatal Standoff

Tactics surrounding the August death of a murder suspect are the subject of four probes.

October 28, 2003|Andrew Blankstein | Times Staff Writer

He had eluded authorities for a week, shielded by Joshua trees and scrub brush in the summer heat of the High Desert east of Palmdale.

Then, late on the morning of Aug. 8, an informant led authorities to a home and cluster of outbuildings. Within hours, 50 heavily armed officers had converged on Donald Kueck's hideout.

Kueck was the chief suspect in the murder of Los Angeles County Sheriff's Deputy Stephen Douglas Sorensen, 46, who had been shot 14 times. Deputies surrounded Kueck not far from the site of Sorensen's killing.

Sheriff Lee Baca arrived at the standoff and told his deputies it was a "dead or alive" situation.

When reached by telephone, Kueck admitted shooting Sorenson, according to Kueck's stepdaughter, Becky Welch, who sat beside the police negotiator during the calls that day. During the 8 1/2-hour standoff, Kueck, a 52-year-old unemployed man with a criminal record and a methamphetamine habit, vacillated between giving up and vowing never to surrender. Over the last hour or so of the standoff, he began shooting at deputies.

At 7 p.m., deputies tried to flush him out with an LAPD battering ram and, when that failed, they shot tear gas canisters, which are believed to have sparked a fire. Kueck's body was found inside the burned compound. The coroner has not yet released the results of Kueck's autopsy. His two sisters said they were told Kueck died of bullet wounds.

The tactics used by Baca and his deputies are the subject of four independent reviews. The investigations are being conducted by the sheriff's homicide and internal affairs bureaus, as well as the department's Office of Independent Review and the Los Angeles County district attorney.

They are focusing on three areas, according to sources:

* Whether officers at the scene gave their negotiator enough time to bring the standoff to a peaceful end.

* Whether the decision to use so-called hot tear gas needlessly risked the fire that burned Kueck.

* And whether Baca's "dead or alive" ultimatum pushed deputies toward the deadly conclusion.

"There's no such thing as a perfect tactical response to a person who murdered a cop, a person who is firing at cops with the intent of murdering [more] cops," Baca said last month.

From the beginning, sheriff's officials made it clear that Kueck had to give up by sundown. Authorities were worried that he would slip away in the darkness, either to escape or to harm deputies, according to Welch. She said she heard most of the communications involving her stepfather, the negotiator and commanders at the scene.

The standoff began about 11 a.m. near Llano in the Antelope Valley. The buildings were isolated on a desolate plain north of the Angeles National Forest.

A review of Kueck's cellular phone bill provided by his family show that he placed 17 calls that day to Welch's Riverside home. Welch said her stepfather contradicted himself repeatedly about what he did, and what he would do.

For instance, Kueck, who had a history of confrontations with police, said deputies were trying to set him up for the Sorenson killing. Later, Welch said, he told her that "I killed a cop. "

A week earlier, on Aug. 2, Sorenson had been checking out a report of a trespasser, according to Baca's office. At 10:17 a.m., Sorenson ran a motor vehicle records check. Ten minutes later, a neighbor called the Palmdale sheriff's station, reporting gunshots in the area of 21001 E. Avenue T-8.

Welch said Kueck told her over the phone that when Sorensen approached, Kueck jumped in his car and tried to leave. Kueck said the officer pointed a gun at him, and ordered Kueck to show his hands. Kueck told Welch that he asked Sorensen to put his gun down but the deputy kept his weapon trained on him, Welch said.

Growing angry, Kueck reached for the deputy's gun and shot him under his bulletproof vest. The two continued to struggle before Kueck went into his trailer and returned with a gun that he used to shoot the deputy again. According to the coroner's report, Sorensen was shot 14 times. The body was tied to a car with a rope and dragged at least a quarter-mile.

The two men had crossed paths before. Kueck filed a lengthy complaint against the deputy after Sorensen tried to pull him over in 1994.

In a handwritten account, Kueck said he was driving in Lancaster when he noticed he was being followed by a man in a red pickup.

After a brief pursuit, Kueck wrote, "I stopped my car and heard him ordering me to get out ... he was very angry and was screaming at me.... He was pointing a gun at me."

Kueck was charged with assaulting a police officer, but the allegations were dropped.

Welch said her stepfather talked about giving up in conversations with her and police negotiator Det. Mark Lillienfeld, who declined to comment.

"He didn't want to go back to jail, but he would surrender if they would do certain things," Welch said. "Mark kept saying, 'We don't want to hurt you, what can we do to get you to give up?' "

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