2 LAPD Officers Killed in Attempt to Defuse Bomb
The head of the Los Angeles Police Department’s bomb squad and another veteran member of the unit were killed Saturday when a booby-trapped pipe bomb they were attempting to defuse exploded in the garage of a house in North Hollywood.
The blast occurred at about 11:30 a.m., several hours after officers had entered the home and taken away a movie makeup artist and hairdresser, Donnell Morse, to question him about the ambush and wounding of a makeup artists union official Wednesday.
Police Chief Daryl F. Gates said Morse will be charged with the murders of Detective Arleigh McCree, 46, the bomb unit’s commander, and Officer Ronald Ball, 43, a 17-year veteran of the department.
McCree--a 21-year veteran considered among the foremost experts on explosives and terrorism in American law enforcement--died instantly in the explosion. Ball was wounded and declared dead after being taken to Medical Center of North Hollywood.
Both officers suffered massive shrapnel wounds in the blast, which blew a hole in the roof of the attached garage at 6849 N. Vanscoy Ave. and was powerful enough to partly knock the garage’s heavy door from its hinges.
Gates said it was the first time in his 36 years with the department that he could recall a member of the bomb squad being killed in the line of duty.
“Arleigh’s been a friend of mine for years, and it has affected me, yes,” a solemn Gates told reporters at the scene.
Authorities cordoned off Morse’s house before the explosion and continued to maintain a perimeter well into the evening. They said department bomb experts were searching the house for additional explosive devices.
Gates said officers had gone to Morse’s house armed with a search warrant to look for a gun that may have been used in last week’s ambush shooting of Howard Smit, 74, the business manager of Makeup Artists and Hair Stylists Union Local No. 706.
Smit was wounded in the chest by a single gunshot as he left a union board meeting early Wednesday in North Hollywood. He was unlocking his car behind the union’s offices when a masked sniper fired from behind a fence. The gunman fired four or five more shots at others standing near the fallen Smit before fleeing in a car occupied by another person.
Morse, about 35, is considered a suspect in the Smit shooting, Gates said. No motive has been offered for the attack.
Inside Morse’s house, officers Saturday morning apparently discovered two or more explosive devices in a storage cabinet in the garage, and members of the bomb squad were called in.
Moments before the explosion, McCree announced that he had found a booby trap and ordered everyone back except himself and Ball. Then, at least one of the bombs detonated.
According to those who live on and near the quiet, middle-class block where the explosion occurred, Morse has resided in the same one-story yellow house for nine or more years. He was described as quiet and pleasant, drove a van with personalized license plates bearing his nickname, “Sir Don” and was frequently seen at Neighborhood Watch meetings.
“He just seemed like a regular guy,” said one neighbor, Doris Anderson. “I never thought of anything like this happening with him.”
John Inzerella, president of Local 706, said Morse has a history of being behind in paying his union dues and frequently bounced checks written to the union.
Smit, Inzerella said, has frequently warned Morse that he could be thrown out of the union for not paying his dues. Inzerella said he believes that Morse is paid up and in good standing now.
Inzerella, who worked with Morse in January on the set of the television show “The Last Precinct,” said Morse has a hot temper. He recalled one fight Morse had in the late 1970s on the set of the television series “Eight Is Enough.” According to Inzerella, Morse threw a table and chair at a wardrobe man he accused of blowing cigarette smoke in his face.
Ironically, Inzerella said, it was Smit who defended Morse when the studio wanted to discipline him. On Saturday, residents said eight officers arrived in front of Morse’s house at about 8:45 a.m. and entered with their guns drawn.
Then, about 30 minutes later, officers emerged with Morse and another man, possibly a relative. The two were handcuffed, placed in a patrol car and driven away.
Soon afterward, a woman believed to be Morse’s sister, Ernestine, was brought out with three children. They, too, were driven away in squad cars.
As residents watched, police erected portable barriers around the block while paramedics and a fire engine arrived. There was no forewarning when the explosion occurred more than two hours later.
“I was outdoors, and you heard like a piff--like a sizzle,” said Chad Ward, 10, who lives on the other side of the street. “When I looked, there was smoke coming out.”
One neighbor, Paul Taylor, said he met Morse’s sister in December, three months after she and her children had moved from Florida to live with her brother.
Taylor, who said he visited Morse’s sister several times, said the family never appeared to use the garage, which he described as “air tight.”
He said there appeared to be some sort of cloth seal around the door. “I thought it was a little strange,” Taylor said.
Investigators declined to discuss specifically what they found inside the garage nor would they speculate why Morse may have possessed explosives.
The officers killed in Saturday’s explosion were highly respected by co-workers, who were stunned by their deaths.
“It (the bomb) must have been a real monster for it to have gotten them,” one experienced detective said.
McCree and Ball were the fifth and sixth Los Angeles police officers killed in line of duty in recent years.
Others slain include robbery Detective Thomas C. Williams, 42, who was gunned down from ambush as he picked up his son at a Canoga Park day-care center in October; Officer Duane Johnson, 27, slain an a shoot-out with bandits at a store in Chinatown in 1984, and Officers William Wong, 33, and Arthur Soo Hoo, 34, of the anti-gang unit, who died in an on-duty car crash in 1983.
Ball received the department’s highest award, the Medal of Valor, after he and Detective David K. Weller disarmed a terrorist group’s bomb in December, 1980, on the porch of a city commissioner’s home in San Pedro. The two disarmed the dynamite device with only 60 seconds to spare as nearby residents were still being evacuated.
A Simi Valley resident active in the Boy Scouts of America, Ball was dubbed “the wizard” by co-workers who respected his knowledge of physics and chemistry.
“If you had some particular chemical, he’d tell you everything it reacts with,” said one detective who works in the Police Department’s Scientific Investigations Division, of which the bomb squad is a part.
Staff writers James Bates, Bill Farr, David Holley, Bob Pool and Boris Yaro contributed to this story.