Deputy Slays Teen-ager Wielding Toy Laser Gun
A San Bernardino County sheriff’s deputy summoned to investigate a late-night report of armed prowlers at a schoolyard shot and killed a teen-ager who, along with three companions, had been playing a popular mock combat game with toy laser guns, authorities said Wednesday.
A department spokesman said 19-year-old Leonard Joseph Falcon “jumped out from the dark and posed in a shooting stance, pointing a gun at the deputy.”
“The deputy, observing a flash from the gun aimed at him, reacted by racking a shell into the chamber of his 12-gauge shotgun and firing,” the spokesman said.
After the first shotgun blast, Falcon again “fired his gun, and the deputy fired a second time,” said the spokesman, James Bryant.
The deputy never had time to identify himself as a law enforcement officer, Bryant said.
When the man fell to the ground, the deputy reached down to recover the fallen man’s “gun,” only then realizing that it “was a toy laser made of plastic,” Bryant said.
Detectives said they did not know what prompted the man to leap from the darkness and then level and apparently “fire” his plastic gun at the uniformed officer.
“Maybe he was still playing a game,” said Ramiro Rosales, a San Bernardino County sheriff’s investigator. “Maybe he didn’t know there was a cop there.”
The shooting occurred shortly after 10 p.m. Tuesday at Central Elementary School. Sheriff’s officials declined to reveal the name of the deputy.
Falcon was taken by ambulance to a hospital three miles away, where he was pronounced dead at 10:58 p.m. Phil Alexander, chief deputy coroner, said an autopsy Wednesday placed the cause of death as shotgun wounds to the chest and abdomen. It was not immediately known if Falcon had been struck by one or both of the blasts from the deputy’s shotgun.
The victim’s father, Joseph Falcon, told in a halting voice Wednesday night how deputies had arrived at the family home at 4 a.m. to report the shooting.
“I was groggy from sleep. I didn’t know what was going on,” said Falcon, a 45-year-old aircraft industry worker.
He said that the encounter was emotional and that one of the sheriff’s investigators “went down on his knees talking his case to me.”
The elder Falcon said he had retained an attorney to represent the family.
“It was a mistake--a mistake that has to be paid for one way or another,” Falcon said of his son’s death. “Somebody is going to have to tell me what happened.”
Officials described the deputy as a six-year veteran of the force. He has been placed on leave, with pay, pending an investigation of the shooting, and was counseled Wednesday by a department psychiatrist.
“It’s a very sad thing,” said Bryant, the department’s civilian spokesman.
He said he personally knew the deputy who shot Falcon.
“It’s a tragedy for the boy’s family and a tragedy for the deputy involved. He’s a compassionate human being and a good citizen,” Bryant said.
Falcon and his companions, ranging in age from 16 to 20 years old, were described by Rosales as four “clean-cut young men. . . .”
“They were having a game, and it was an unfortunate incident,” he said.
Falcon’s father said his son was a full-time student at Chaffey College, a community college in Ontario. He planned to enter California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, in a year and study electronics. The younger Falcon worked nights at a fast-food restaurant.
Two of Falcon’s companions described in interviews how the pursuit of their newest passion--stalking each other at night with laser toys, zapping each other with electronic rounds that registered on plastic helmets--erupted almost inexplicably into real gunfire, real terror and real death.
Kevin Bishop, 16, and Ronald Gross, 20, said they, Falcon and a fourth youth, 17-year-old Michael Henderson, purchased the toy weapon kits only four days before the shooting. Each paid approximately $45 for the plastic guns, helmets and other accessories. The money came largely from their night jobs at fast-food restaurants.
The kits were made by Worlds of Wonder of Fremont, Calif., and marketed under the name Lazer Tag. The game swept the nation last year and became one of the top-selling toys at Christmas time.
After they bought the laser toys, the foursome convened nightly at the elementary school. They would divide into teams of two, and the game would be on.
On Tuesday night, Falcon separated from his companions, sneaking around a corner into the darkness of a school corridor.
The players did not know that the Sheriff’s Department had already received reports from neighbors of “persons with guns” prowling the schoolyard and that two squad cars had been dispatched.
Sheriff’s officials said that as the deputies arrived, they spotted a person running toward them. The person wheeled around and fled to what was described as “a darkened area.” The deputies then began to search the school grounds.
“We did not know the police were there,” Kevin said Wednesday. “It was getting late, and we were going to leave . . . when we heard shots.
“We started running away, out of the school,” he said, “because we said, ‘That’s a real gun.’ ”
A woman deputy shouted at them, “Freeze. Drop everything. Get down on the floor and don’t move,” Kevin said.
Gross recalled how, while on the ground, the players called out to the officers, “It’s only a game.”
“They said, ‘Don’t move,’ ” he said.
Their equipment was confiscated, and Kevin said the deputies “looked surprised that they were plastic toys.”
Three of the players, including Falcon, had worn especially dark clothes to enhance the potential for concealment during the game.
Gross said he saw one deputy seated on a curb as they were being led to patrol cars.
“His eyes were filled with tears,” Gross said.
“He looked at me,” Gross said of the stunned deputy. “I looked at him. And he looked away.”
Later, Kevin and Gross said, the three were taken to the sheriff’s substation here and questioned intensively. Kevin said two requests to telephone his mother were denied, although the officers assured the young men that they were not under arrest.
At about midnight, Kevin’s mother became worried that her son had not returned home. Diana Bishop said she telephoned the substation and was informed that her son was there. The trio was released about an hour later.
Lazer Tag and similar toys exploded in popularity last year. An executive at Worlds of Wonder said in a December interview that the toy maker registered wholesale receipts of $75 million to $100 million for laser weaponry toys last year.
Now, at least three toy makers market or have plans to market versions of laser tag.
A spokeswoman for Worlds of Wonder said the company would have no comment on the shooting.
Law enforcement officials and some consumer advocates have been critical of laser tag games, contending that they promote violence. Some law officers had warned that the toy guns could cause confusion among officers and lead to tragedy.
They frequently cited the case of a 5-year-old Stanton boy slain by a police officer who mistook a plastic pistol for the real thing in 1983.
With bitter irony, Falcon’s father recalled Wednesday how the Stanton incident had convinced him to not replace the broken water gun of his 12-year-old son, Leonard Falcon’s brother. The toy resembled a submachine gun, “and I didn’t replace it because I’d heard of children playing with toy guns and getting hurt.”
Louis Sahagun reported from Rancho Cucamonga and Peter H. King from Los Angeles