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Police Shoot, Kill 2 Men Suspected in Robbery Spree

Undercover officers from a controversial LAPD unit tailed four suspects to a cul-de-sac after a holdup at a Northridge salon.

September 18, 2003|Andrew Blankstein and Monte Morin | Times Staff Writers

Undercover officers who had tailed four suspected serial robbers Wednesday shot and killed two of them after the men held up a Northridge beauty salon, police said.

The suspects, who were not identified, were killed in a residential cul-de-sac a few miles from the salon after the officers followed them and one of the suspects pointed a gun, police said.

The men are believed responsible for a string of robberies in the last month of individuals, recycling centers and retail shops across the Valley.

The undercover officers, members of the Los Angeles Police Department's Special Investigation Section, had watched the suspects drive up to the Northridge Beauty Club on Reseda Boulevard near Parthenia Street at about 7 p.m.

LAPD spokesman Art Miller said that officers watched one of the men run into the salon "screaming and hollering" and rob people at gunpoint. The victims and witnesses, he said, were "hysterical."

As the men drove away, they apparently didn't know they were being followed until they turned onto the cul-de-sac near Gloria Avenue and Community Street in North Hills, police said.

There, a team of 11 officers pulled up near the suspects' Ford Mustang as three of the four men "got out in tight formation," Miller said, adding that the driver stayed inside. Officers, who stood about 15 feet away, said that one of the men pointed a gun at them and they responded by firing handguns, shotguns and a semiautomatic rifle.

"The job they have is very dangerous," Miller said of the SIS officers. "When the suspects got out of their car, they were armed and they were standing very close together in close proximity. Officers, fearing for their life, fired, killing two of them."

Police then captured one suspect near the car, and another about two blocks away.

All four suspects appeared to be in their 20s.

No officers were injured, and police said a weapon was recovered at the scene. Area residents said the incident occurred suddenly, and that they were not aware of a chase.

"All I heard was four shots outside my bedroom window," said neighbor Jennifer Millnintz, 20. "I didn't see anything. I locked all the doors and windows. At first I thought it was a car backfiring."

Another resident, Naser Musallam, 39, said he heard between seven and nine shots.

The SIS, formed in 1965, has had a controversial past. It has been involved in more than 50 gun battles, with at least 34 suspects killed and dozens wounded. And the city of Los Angeles has paid more than $2 million to people who say they or their relatives were victimized by the unit.

While its officers have captured notorious criminals -- including the Alphabet Bomber, the Freeway Strangler and the killer of Ennis Cosby -- the section has been criticized for its tactics. Members follow suspects in hopes of catching them in the act of committing crimes, sometimes standing by as the crimes occur.

In June, SIS detectives shot and killed a 36-year-old man suspected of robbing more than 30 San Fernando Valley businesses in the four previous months. The detectives followed Craig Lee Smith, 36, to a Taco Bell restaurant in Van Nuys. When he left, employees told police a robbery had been attempted, and detectives followed Smith to an International House of Pancakes restaurant in Encino and cornered his car. When he refused their orders to surrender and pointed a revolver at them, police said, officers shot him.

Opponents have argued that police are duty-bound to stop a robbery before it happens, because of the risks to innocent bystanders. Advocates say surveillance is an effective way to combat serial criminals whose expertise and speed make them among the most difficult to capture.

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