Confrontation Reminiscent of Onion Field Killing, Where Gunmen Killed Officer After Partner Surrendered His Gun : Hostage Shot by Officer in Standoff Files Suit to Settle Score

Times Staff Writer

A flashlight beam split the darkness, followed by shouting, then rapid gunfire. When silence returned to the night, the muscular body of James A. Owensby lay crumpled in an alley off Palmer Court, punctured in the head, shoulders, chest and left leg by bullets from a police officer's .45.

The dead man's jacket pockets were stuffed with 26 12-gauge shotgun shells. The double-barrel Charles Daly he had wielded seconds before was dropped on the pavement nearby.

So was Francene Landry, bleeding from several wounds and barely alive. The 19-year-old waitress had been taken hostage by Owensby while she was a guest in his parents house at 1889 Palmer.

Drugged on PCP, as the coroner's report would later show, Owensby--a 22-year-old delivery truck driver--had reportedly crooked his left arm around the woman's neck, pointed the shotgun at her head and threatened to pull the trigger for no apparent reason. He had dragged her from the house to the alley when two Long Beach police officers arrived in a patrol car. The gunman and his human shield were walking steadily toward the cruiser when shooting erupted.

But all of Landry's wounds that chilly midnight last May 25 came from the .38 carried by the second police officer.

That officer had fired to save her life, says William A. Reidder, Long Beach's senior deputy city attorney.

Landry's lawyer, Paul W. Rosenfield, says he doesn't necessarily doubt that. Yet he notes that the young woman was struck "center front" with four rounds from the second officer's .38-caliber revolver.

"The shots went directly into her," Rosenfield said. "If he had (meant to identify) her as the target, it would have been excellent shooting."

Suit Seeks Compensatory Damages

On March 17, Landry filed suit in Los Angeles Superior Court to recover $50,000 in medical expenses plus an unspecified amount of additional compensatory damages. Named as defendants are Owensby's estate, his parents, the City of Long Beach as well as Police Officers Jeffery L. Johnson and Nicholas G. Lovel.

"She knew her life was at risk," Rosenfield said. "The problem is the police officers didn't take into consideration the safety of the victim. We're not going for punitive damages to punish the officers in any way. But if they're 'To serve and protect,' something went astray."

The story behind the shooting seems at first to be the stuff of a made-for-television movie. But in the end, it bears too many inconclusive and contradictory elements, the kind only real life provides with regularity. Did two police officers overreact by virtually emptying their guns at a man shielding himself with a wholly innocent hostage? Or did Francene Landry contribute to her predicament, at least in part, by associating with a likes of a drug user?

Ten months after the incident off Palmer Court, Johnson and Lovel continue to patrol as partners on the midnight-to-sunrise graveyard shift. Johnson, 27, has been with the department 3 1/2 years and is distinguished by eight commendations, while Lovel, 33, has six commendations in his four years on the force.

Through a spokesman, the officers decline to comment, in keeping with department policy where litigation is involved.

Internal Affairs Shooting Board

But an internal affairs shooting board long ago decided that the two had reacted to Owensby as any good officers would, using deadly force because they felt that their own lives were in jeopardy. The inquiry was conducted by detectives under Criminal Investigations Division Cmdr. David Dusenbury, who also declines to talk about the case.

"We don't have hostage situations that frequently in Long Beach," Dusenbury said. "Every officer

that goes into the field knows that at any given moment he may be faced with a difficult situation. None of them look forward to that situation, but they have to deal with it."

Reidder, the deputy city attorney, said the officers "were probably in fear of their own lives" as they confronted Owensby in the alley. "They believed that he not only was going to kill the female but was going to kill them also."

Please see HOSTAGE, Page 3 That was justification enough, Reidder said, for the Long Beach City Council to deny Landry's negligence claim last Oct. 29, after which she sought damages in excess of $1 million. (Before anyone can sue a government agency, California law requires that they present an administrative damage claim. If the agency rejects the claim, the matter can then be taken to court.) That same day, the council rejected a similar claim filed by Owensby's father and mother, apparently without aid of an attorney. On the short, bureaucratically terse form, said Reidder, the parents simply wrote, "Long Beach Police Department shot my son at the above referenced address and was murdered."

Through an attorney, Owensby's parents decline to comment.

Trained Not to Surrender Weapons

"Ever read 'The Onion Field'?" Reidder asked, referring to Joseph Wambaugh's novel about a pair of ex-convicts who pull a gun on a Los Angeles police officer and, in a standoff, coax his partner into surrendering his own drawn revolver. The ex-convicts end up killing one of the officers. The book is based on an event that occurred in an onion field near Bakersfield in 1963.

"Generally," Reidder said, "officers are trained not to give up their weapons."

Which is what officials said James Owensby wanted the Long Beach officers to do that night near Palmer Court. "He (was) trying to disarm the officers," Reidder said. For Johnson and Lovel, it came down to "basically a no-win situation."

Rosenfield acknowledged that he has "a lot of empathy for the police position . . . . I think the cops were offered a real tough decision." But, the Fountain Valley lawyer concluded, "I think they may have gone overboard."

After the shooting, Landry was rushed to St. Mary Medical Center, where she spent 2 1/2 months recovering. The bullets took part of her spleen, part of her liver, part of a lung, and, "I believe her leg was injured pretty badly," Rosenfield said. She now faces the $50,000 in medical bills without any health insurance. And she suffers from "psychological problems" including "severe temperament changes," he said.

According to Steve Martin, some of those changes were obvious when he and other employees of Tony's Famous French Dip restaurant in Long Beach, where Landry had waited tables for about a year, visited the woman in the hospital.

"She was real down, real depressed," said Martin, the restaurant manager. "She hurt for a long time . . . . We took her stuff to try to cheer her up . . . . She was receptive toward us, but she never got out of that depression. After she got out of the hospital, I'd say she was quite a bit withdrawn."

Waitress Called a Dependable Worker

Landry, a short, friendly brunette, had been a dependable worker who was "never pushy and (had) never really gotten in anybody's way," Martin said.

Although she normally "kind of kept to herself," he remembers that a day or two before the shooting Landry mentioned that she was "starting to get worried about this guy (Owensby), saying that he was acting weird."

Except for the coroner's investigative report and Owensby's autopsy, few police records are publicly available to describe the shooting incident. But in a series of interviews last week, officials familiar with the case confirmed details that will surface when and if the suit reaches trial.

Absent, however, is any comment from Landry. Rosenfield declined to let his client be interviewed, saying that the woman's emotions have already been "put through the ringer."

Even before being wheeled into surgery, Landry was reportedly questioned by investigators searching for some explanation of Owensby's alleged action. She was in critical condition and found it hard to speak because an endotracheal tube had been removed from her throat, leaving it rough and scratchy. Nevertheless, she struggled to cooperate by writing her replies on a note pad.

The investigators asked if she thought Owensby had taken phencyclidine, or PCP, a psychoactive drug bearing the street name "angel dust." Landry nodded affirmatively, police records reportedly show. "I didn't know he was going to pull a gun out," she wrote.

What did Owensby say when he grabbed you? "He was tired of everybody playing games."

'I Could Feel the Gun'

With one arm she motioned across her neck to illustrate how Owensby allegedly held her in a chokehold, and told the investigators: "I could feel the gun in the back of my neck. I was scared."

The Palmer Court drama began building, according to several accounts, after Landry finished her waitress shift that Friday night and Owensby returned home from his job at Hurley Electronics. For about a 1 1/2 years, Owensby drove a pickup truck for the Long Beach firm, delivering a range of company-made parts for videocassette recorders, televisions and industrial equipment.

"He was a nice kid . . . a big, strong kid," with light-brown hair and blue eyes, recalled sales employee Dell Thurston.

But another Hurley employee reportedly told police that Owensby had acted peculiarly the day before, apparently after having argued with Landry, who was the girlfriend of his 24-year-old brother, Richard.

Landry and the younger Owensby were sharing the house while his parents were away on vacation. At the time, Richard Owensby was in Texas--serving a one year prison term at the Federal Correctional Institute at LaTuna for drug possession. Just last week, a Superior Court jury in Long Beach convicted the older brother along with two other men in the 1983 rape of a teen-age girl. He is to be sentenced on April 22 and could return to prison for as much as 18 years.

After all the physical and emotional trauma Landry suffered in the shooting of James Owensby, prosecutors say she seemed healthy enough last week when she testified as a character witness for Richard.

Woke Up With Shotgun Poking Her

In any event, lawyer Rosenfield said that when Landry got home from the restaurant that Friday night last May, she noticed that James Owensby was "acting oddly." So she went to the room she was staying in, "closed the door, took a shower and went to sleep," he said. "An hour later, she woke up with a shotgun poking in her face."

Owensby had allegedly taken the 12-gauge weapon from the family gun cabinet and dragged Landry onto the front porch when Henry L. Pahl, a 53-year-old security guard for the neighboring Boulevard Buick dealership, saw the commotion at about 11:50 p.m.

Landry apparently tried to pull Owensby back inside and was reportedly yelling, "Don't go out, don't go out."

But Owensby allegedly shouted at Pahl, then fired two rounds in his direction. The coroner's report states that the guard "felt something penetrate the seat of his pants but apparently the pellets did not enter his body." Pahl ran for cover and, using a hand-held radio, called for help.

Meanwhile, Owensby took Landry back into the house and starting filling his pockets with shotgun shells. He wore a zippered jacket, dark-blue shorts and slippers, according to the coroner's report. He announced that they were going for a drive, then tugged Landry out into the alley and began walking south. Moments later, officers Johnson and Lovel pulled their cruiser onto the narrow, dirt-and-asphalt road, about 80 feet directly in Owensby's path.

According to the coroner's report, the officers stopped the car, threw open the doors and took cover behind them. One officer shined a flashlight on Owensby and the woman as they stood with the shotgun between them.

"Don't come near me, I'll blow her away," Owensby is reported to have screamed.

Slowly Walked Toward Officers

But with his left arm still around his hostage's neck and the 12-gauge pointed at her head, the gunman began slowly walking toward--rather than away from--the officers.

It is unclear which officer carried the .38-caliber revolver and which carried the .45. But the autopsy report states that the larger weapon was loaded with hollow-point bullets, acceptable among some law enforcement agencies, such as Long Beach and the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, but outlawed by some, such as the Los Angeles Police Department.

(Because a hollow-point bullet shatters on impact, it makes a more devastating wound in its target, leaving a hole up to six times greater than that made by standard round-nosed ammunition. By the same token, a hollow-point round is less likely to pass through its target and strike something else or ricochet.

(After contrasting both projectiles in a 1981 study, former Los Angeles County Chief Medical Examiner--Coroner Thomas T. Noguchi stated that being hit by a hollow-point round might feel "like a blow from a big sledgehammer," while a round-nosed bullet might be more like "being stabbed by a long ice pick.")

Owensby ordered the officers to "give up their guns or that he was going to kill both them and the female if he had to," the coroner's report says. In reply, the officers ordered him to halt and throw down the shotgun. But Owensby and his hostage kept walking, moving closer and closer until they found themselves roughly eight feet from Johnson and Lovel.

There is some dispute about whether Owensby then leveled the shotgun at the officers or kept it trained on Landry's head. But for whatever reason, the hostage seemed to "faint to one side," giving the officers what they thought was "their first opportunity to shoot without hitting her," said Reidder, the city's attorney.

Hit in Midsection by 4 Rounds

Owensby's body jerked in a clockwise direction as he was struck by the four hollow-point bullets from the .45. As he fell, his loaded shotgun dropped to his feet unfired. Landry was hit in the midsection by four rounds from the .38. Her body lurched toward the patrol car, according to the Coroner's account. In all, medical officials say that either 10 or 11 shots came from the police revolvers. They estimate that Owensby died in a matter of seconds, at most minutes.

Had the police officers been merely concerned about their own safety, Reidder argues, they could have pulled out a shotgun of their own. Instead, they chose weapons that could be more accurately directed, even in a dimly lit alley at midnight.

The gunman and his hostage had "traveled a distance of 72 feet," Reidder concludes, in defense of the officers. "And all that time they waited, until they could wait no further."

Despite all that Francene Landry may have suffered in the cross fire, the lawyer said, "We probably saved her life."

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