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School officer guilty in shooting hoax

Jeffrey Stenroos, 31, staged a shooting outside a Woodland Hills high school in January that triggered a massive manhunt involving 550 officers. He could face five years in prison.

September 12, 2011|By Joel Rubin, Los Angeles Times
  • Jeffrey Stenroos was ordered to undergo a 90-day psychiatric evaluation to assess whether he should be sent to prison or receive probation.
Jeffrey Stenroos was ordered to undergo a 90-day psychiatric evaluation… (Al Seib, Los Angeles Times )

Jeffrey Stenroos, the Los Angeles school police officer accused of staging his own shooting, was found guilty Monday of the hoax that triggered a massive and costly manhunt.

L.A. County Superior Court Judge Richard N. Kirschner convicted Stenroos, 31, of several felonies and a misdemeanor charge in the non-jury trial, including planting false evidence, insurance fraud and workers' compensation fraud.

Stenroos, who had been free on bail, was taken into custody immediately after Kirschner announced his verdict. The judge ordered that he be sent to state prison for a 90-day psychological evaluation to assess whether he should be sentenced to prison or receive probation. A sentencing hearing is scheduled for Dec. 14. Stenroos could face five years in prison, a district attorney's official said.

Calling Stenroos "a disgrace," John Deasy, superintendent of the L.A. Unified School District, said in a statement that the conviction cleared the way for Stenroos to be fired. He has been on paid leave since the shooting.

"His actions were particularly appalling because he trivialized the real dangers Los Angeles police officers face every day," said LAPD Chief Charlie Beck, who pointed to a sharp increase in the number of attacks on city police this year. "Assaults against officers are up and for someone to turn that into a hoax is abhorrent."

At the time, the Jan. 19 shooting seemed to be as confusing as it was brazen. Stenroos, a nearly eight-year veteran of the school police, was found by a passerby in apparent pain on the sidewalk near El Camino Real High School in Woodland Hills. He told officers that he had been following up on a report of a car burglar in the area, when a man with a ponytail and bomber-style jacket shot him in the chest and fled. Stenroos' bulletproof vest had apparently saved him from serious injury or death.

Believing there was a dangerous gunman in the area, more than 550 police officers fanned out over the quiet neighborhoods near the school. For 10 hours police kept an eight-mile area locked down.

A spent shell casing found at the scene and bruising on Stenroos' chest seemed to support his story. But almost immediately, investigators began to have questions. Stenroos gave police conflicting accounts of how the shooting had unfolded, telling them, for example, that there had been only one shot fired and then changing his story to say there had been several. In the days after the shooting, he tried to avoid investigators, who wanted to question him further.

During the trial, a Los Angeles Police Department detective testified that Stenroos admitted to faking the attack, confessing that he had accidentally shot himself while trying to clean his weapon. It remains unclear whether this account is accurate or whether Stenroos shot himself intentionally to gain notoriety, as prosecutors and police officials have alleged.

City officials are seeking more than $350,000 in restitution from Stenroos to cover the costs of the dragnet, and the school district is seeking $58,000 in medical costs.

Tim Murphy, Stenroos' attorney, said he was "surprised and disappointed" with the judge's ruling. While conceding that his client had made "an incredibly stupid mistake" by lying about the shooting, Murphy said the prosecution had failed to prove Stenroos had been acting intentionally and with intent to commit fraud.

Stenroos had been sitting in his office at the school when he accidentally shot himself while cleaning his gun, Murphy said. After realizing he was not seriously injured, he went about his patrol duties and was overcome by a delayed pain from the impact of the bullet and fell to the sidewalk, Murphy said.

joel.rubin@latimes.com

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