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School officer's account raised doubts from start

Investigators say his story of being shot was riddled with inconsistencies.

January 29, 2011|Scott Gold, Andrew Blankstein and Richard Winton

As it turns out, Jeff Stenroos became a suspect almost as quickly as he became a hero.

While investigators scrambled to find out who shot the Los Angeles school police officer earlier this month in Woodland Hills, Stenroos told his tale haltingly, even grudgingly, officials said Friday, and, from the start, with unmistakable inconsistency.

There had been a single gunshot, Stenroos told investigators from his hospital bed. No -- several shots. That's odd, he was told; just one shell casing was found at the scene. Oh -- well, maybe it was just the one shot after all.

He had been alerted to a suspicious-looking man peering into cars, he claimed, by a woman walking her dog. That's who shot him, Stenroos said -- white guy, ponytail, bomber jacket.

He was asked: What happened to the woman with the dog? No idea. Actually, scratch that -- he had been asked to respond through the in-house radio system at El Camino Real High School. Who made the radio call? No idea. Are there recordings? No.

In the end, disheartened officials said Friday, it appears that Stenroos concocted the entire event -- an event that prompted a massive dragnet that locked 9,000 students in their schools, left parents fretting and fuming and inconvenienced tens of thousands of residents in the San Fernando Valley.

"The entire city was led down a path of misinformation," Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck said a day after investigators arrested Stenroos, 30, and booked him on a felony charge of filing a false police report. Stenroos was released from custody Friday after posting $20,000 bail; he could not be reached for comment.

Immediately after the Jan. 19 shooting, when Stenroos came home from the hospital, the mood was celebratory on the tidy, quiet cul-de-sac in Santa Clarita where he lives with his wife and daughter in a two-story, brown and slate-blue home.

In the neighborhood, Stenroos was known as a family man, helpful to his neighbors.

Greg Leland, 27, has lived next door for four years and recently borrowed Stenroos' jack to fix the fender of his brother's car. "He was the first person to offer to lend you something," Leland said.

There was great relief that Stenroos had survived the shooting. "He said he was just really happy to be home," Leland said, "and that it was the best day of his life."

Quietly, though, detectives assigned to the case were considerably less jovial about the whole thing. They were having trouble confirming even a single piece of Stenroos' account.

Police and residents, it's now clear, had engaged in a sort of symbiosis of panic and alarm. More than 350 officers had cordoned off seven square miles and told those trying to get out that they might not be able to return to their homes for some time.

Some resorted to locking themselves inside businesses. Some schoolchildren were kept without necessities for so long they resorted to using trash cans as toilets.

When Stenroos provided a description of the suspect, sightings popped up across the west end of the Valley. One caller reported that he had vaulted over her backyard fence. SWAT officers swarmed another home after a woman reported that she had found the door to her trailer unlocked. The suspect, she was certain, was inside. He was not.

Meanwhile, Stenroos, a seven-year veteran of the school district police force, seemed to give no hint to investigators that he had been traumatized or even particularly affected by the shooting, sources close to the case told The Times, even after doctors revealed that he probably would have died had it not been for his protective vest.

Law enforcement officials noted that the details Stenroos had provided to a police sketch artist were remarkably similar to a photograph of a parolee that had been circulated among law enforcement officials in the area -- and may have come across the desk of Stenroos himself.

Publicly, city officials maintained a unified front.

At one point, for instance, they held a news conference to praise a good Samaritan who had discovered Stenroos on the ground and asked for help on the officer's radio, and to announce a $100,000 reward for the capture of the assailant.

But investigators' suspicions were only ratcheting up.

Repeatedly, they tried to arrange a meeting with Stenroos; they hadn't wanted to press him too hard when he was in the hospital, and now needed to conduct a follow-up interview.

Stenroos, according to the sources, seemed to be avoiding them.

Days after the incident, Stenroos checked himself into Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital, complaining of chest pains. That piqued investigators' concerns even more; officials began to suspect that stress was getting to him.

On Thursday, police administered what amounted to a final test of their suspicions, according to officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the investigation was continuing.

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