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Police Can't Find Holdup Suspects' Handgun

September 26, 2003|Andrew Blankstein and Richard Winton | Times Staff Writers

Authorities cannot find the handgun that undercover detectives said prompted them to fatally shoot two suspected robbers last week in the San Fernando Valley, two high-ranking Los Angeles Police Department sources said Thursday.

The Sept. 17 shootings were by detectives of the LAPD's Special Investigation Section, a unit with a controversial history.

Police said the detectives in the undercover detail were trailing four men suspected in a string of armed robberies. The officers were close by as the armed men -- dressed in bandanas, hoods and baseball caps -- allegedly robbed the Northridge Beauty Club. The men fled in a car after the 7 p.m. holdup.

The officers followed the suspects in unmarked cars to a cul-de-sac in North Hills. Police used their cars to block an escape route, authorities said, and then detectives, dressed in jackets marked "police," shot and killed 19-year-old David Thomas and 20-year-old Byron Smith after they ran from their car.

A third suspect ran several blocks before he was captured and arrested.

"The driver of the suspect vehicle remained seated in the car, while the other three suspects ran south, pointing a handgun at the detectives," according to a written police account of the incident. "In fear of their lives, detectives fired a total of nine rounds."

Despite repeated searches, the only gun recovered from the scene was found inside the suspects' car, according to police sources and an attorney for the family of one of the dead men.

Police said they will conduct a third search to look for the gun allegedly pointed at the officers.

Since its formation 38 years ago, the Special Investigation Section has confronted hundreds of armed suspects, fought in more than 50 gun battles, killed at least 36 suspects and wounded dozens of others.

"There's a tremendous amount of scrutiny on officer-involved shootings," said LAPD Asst. Chief Jim McDonnell. "There's a procedure in place internally with the Use of Force Review board, which will examine the facts in the case and make a recommendation to the chief of police as to whether the tactics and use of force were within department guidelines."

The three detectives who fired weapons were Christopher Brazzill, Anthony Avila and Robert Kraus, according to records reviewed by The Times.

The three were part of an 11-member SIS team. Lt. Art Miller said the officers were about 15 feet away from the suspects when they opened fire with handguns, shotguns and a semiautomatic rifle.

The slain suspects were both shot in the chest, according to a spokesman for the county's coroner's office.

According to police, the four men were part of a ring that robbed 10 recycling centers and six nail and beauty salons at gunpoint across the Valley. About a week before the shooting, detectives learned the license plate number of a rented Mustang believed to have been used in one of the robberies.

The two suspects who survived, Jerome Barnes, 21, and Steve Hunnicut, 19, have been charged with murder in the other suspects' deaths. Under a state law, liability extends to anyone participating in a crime that results in a homicide.

Since the SIS was formed in 1965, the city of Los Angeles has paid more than $2 million to people who have alleged they or their relatives were victimized by the undercover detail. Much of the litigation has challenged the unit's tactics of following suspects in the hope of catching them committing a crime.

The unit is credited with capturing such notorious criminals as the Alphabet Bomber and the killer of comedian Bill Cosby's son, Ennis.

The fatal shooting last week was the fourth officer-involved shooting Kraus has been involved in during 23 years with the LAPD. Eight suspects have died in those shootings, each of which involved multiple police officers, according to police records. All have been ruled justified by the LAPD.

In January 1996, Kraus, along with other officers, fired four shotgun rounds at two suspected kidnappers. The suspects fired first, police said, and the shootings were ruled by the LAPD to be justified.

Brazzill, a 14-year veteran, has been in the SIS unit for three years. Avila has been with the LAPD for 19 years, the last six with the SIS.

Before last week, the most recent SIS-involved fatal shooting was in June. Detectives shot and killed a 36-year-old man suspected of robbing more than 30 Valley businesses during the previous four months.

The detectives followed Craig Lee Smith, 36, to a Taco Bell in Van Nuys. When he left, employees told police that Smith had tried to rob them. Detectives later confronted Smith in the parking lot of an International House of Pancakes. When he refused to surrender and pointed a revolver at officers, police said, they shot and killed him.

Attorney Steven Yagman, who represents the family of one of the men killed by SIS officers last week, said the suspects were not armed.

The LAPD undercover units, said Yagman, "are a death squad who set up confrontations with suspects."

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