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Sniper Killed After Battle Injuring Deputies, Worker

Suspect opens fire at a recycling plant in an O.C. canyon, engaging officials in four-hour gunfight.

June 13, 2004|Scott Martelle, Claire Luna and Kevin Pang | Time Staff Writers

A sniper who wounded a recycling-yard worker and two Orange County sheriff's deputies -- including a helicopter pilot -- was shot and killed Saturday after waging a four-hour gunfight with authorities along a remote brush-covered canyon at the edge of the Cleveland National Forest.

According to officials, the gunman, who was not identified, shot Deputy Jerry Larson at the Baker Canyon Green Recycling center after authorities responded to an 11:09 a.m. report of gunfire. He shot Deputy David Tilstra about 2 1/2 hours later as the pilot flew a two-man SWAT team over Baker Canyon.

Larson suffered two gunshot wounds: One bullet passed through his right arm, and the other lodged in his left shoulder. Tilstra was struck in the lower left leg by a bullet that passed through the bottom of the helicopter. Both men were reported in good condition at Western Medical Center-Santa Ana, authorities said.

The recycling-yard worker suffered a graze wound to the arm, authorities said.

Tilstra continued to fly for more than an hour until one of the SWAT members in his helicopter shot and killed the suspect as he hid in a dry creek bed about two miles into Baker Canyon.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday June 15, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
Sniper -- A photo caption accompanying an article in Sunday's California section about the hunt for a sniper in Orange County misspelled the name of a firefighter. He is Steve Kerrigan, not Steve Karrigan.

"He's an ex-Vietnam pilot," said Orange County Sheriff's Department spokesman Jim Amormino. "We left it up to his judgment" whether it was safe for him to continue flying.

Sheriff Michael S. Carona said investigators were trying to identify the gunman, described as African American, wearing green clothing and armed with a .22-caliber rifle.

"We have no idea why it started -- it's a random act of violence," Carona said. "I have no idea who this man is. I have no idea what his motivation was."

Saturday's gunfight began with a sniper attack on workers at Baker Canyon Green Recycling, which composts landscapers' yard waste, just north of the intersection of Silverado Canyon and Santiago Canyon roads in an unincorporated area of Orange County about two miles southeast of Irvine Lake.

Mark Ferguson, who manages the recycling yard, said he was driving a pickup through the center when a front-loader operator asked whether he had given anyone permission for target shooting on the 150-acre site. Ferguson said no, and the worker volunteered to look for the source of gunshots he had heard.

"I told him I'd go -- and the minute I said that, he got shot at," Ferguson said. "It hit the loader six inches above his head. ... I told him to dive into the back of my truck, which he did, and I pulled a 'Dukes of Hazzard' 180 and we got out of there."

Ferguson said he did not see the gunman, but thought the shots came from the direction of the center's 30,000-gallon water tank, built partway up the canyon wall. He estimated the gunman fired 15 shots, strafing the grounds and machinery.

"One is embedded in my truck window," Ferguson said.

Ferguson used a mobile phone to call 911 as he drove away, and sheriff's deputies began arriving minutes later. Amormino said Larson and two other deputies made their way across the recycling site to the riverbed, where the gunman opened fire, hitting Larson. The two deputies with Larson returned fire before losing sight of the gunman in the brush.

Ferguson said he remained near one of the squad cars.

"Then we heard on the radio, 'Officer down -- I've been shot.' " Ferguson said. "They brought him out, and you could see his arm was all bloody."

Authorities blocked the road into Black Star Canyon and Baker Canyon, sealing off the 62-lot Black Star RV Ranch for about four hours. Manager Amy Ferguson, who is married to Mark Ferguson, said about five campers were turned back when they tried to leave, but most people stayed put.

Deputies on the ground and in the air converged on the canyon, and about 20 minutes after Larson was shot, a helicopter pilot spotted the gunman farther up the riverbed, Amormino said. Deputies closed in, exchanging gunfire in sharp spurts as the man moved up the canyon and then sought cover in brush.

Deputies and the gunman engaged in a shouted conversation, Amormino said, but he declined to detail it.

More than 50 law enforcement and fire officials were involved, including the Orange County Sheriff's Department, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, the Anaheim Police Department and the Orange County Fire Authority. Firefighters were on guard against the danger that a wildfire could be triggered by the gunfire -- or by a helicopter crash.

The gunman's bullets hit an Anaheim police helicopter and an Orange County sheriff's armored vehicle in addition to the helicopter Tilstra was flying, authorities said.

It was unclear whether Saturday's sniper attack was related to one two days earlier, when an unknown assailant fired at least two shots at two people taking target practice at a private gun range in nearby Black Star Canyon.

The chain of events began Thursday morning, when Connie Mahaffey said she was frightened by a man she described as African American peering into a window of her house. He didn't respond when she told him to leave, and she locked the door. Mahaffey said she called a friend, and about 6:30 p.m., they went to the gun range two miles away. She had just fired her gun, she said, when someone took at least two shots at her. One bullet passed between her and her friend.

"I dropped my keys and ran," she said.

Times staff writers Stanley Allison and Richard Koehler contributed to this report.

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