San Bernardino County Sheriff Floyd Tidwell on Thursday blamed the death of a 19-year-old man who was fatally shot by a deputy sheriff on the toy laser gun that the man was holding and that the deputy apparently mistook for the real thing.
Tidwell's department Thursday was conducting an internal investigation of the Tuesday night shooting, but Tidwell said in an interview in his office that "I don't think the deputy is to blame."
"That toy gun cost a young man his life the other night," Tidwell said while holding up a laser toy. "I am certainly angry about it."
Shoots Harmless Beam
The laser gun, manufactured by Worlds of Wonder Inc. of Fremont, Calif., and marketed under the trade name Lazer Tag, shoots a harmless electronic beam that is recorded on the helmets of others playing the laser tag game. The black plastic gun is not modeled on a real weapon, and it looks like a prop in a science-fiction movie.
Leonard Joseph Falcon, a Chaffey College student with a love of electronic gadgets, was playing Lazer Tag with three friends Tuesday night at the dimly lit Central Elementary School when he was shot twice with a 12-gauge shotgun fired by a deputy. The deputy, who has not been identified by the Sheriff's Department, had been summoned to the school at 10 p.m. by a report of armed prowlers in the area.
Falcon jumped out of a darkened area and pointed the gun, which emits a flash of light, at the deputy, authorities said. The deputy saw a flash from the laser gun before he could identify himself and responded with blasts from his shotgun, authorities said.
Sheriff's Department sources indicated Thursday that Falcon said something to the deputy before he died, but Tidwell refused to comment, citing the pending internal investigation, which is expected to last up to two weeks.
The deputy, a six-year veteran of the force, has been placed on leave, with pay, and has been counseled by a department psychiatrist. Witnesses said they saw him sitting on a curb, fighting back tears, after the shooting.
In his meeting with reporters, Tidwell displayed a variety of toy guns, including some that are virtual replicas of real weapons. He called for "legislation to ban these plastic weapons."
"People buy these guns, use them to play games and then get shot," he said. "My officers have to make split-second decisions when they run up against these plastic weapons--with no idea what they are looking down the barrel of.
"Our liabilities are hanging out over a mile and we certainly are going to protect our officer . . . and if there is anything we can do for that family (of the dead youth), we'll be glad to do it."
The Falcon family has hired an attorney, John Mannerino, who in an interview at the Falcon home on Thursday said he has already launched his own investigation into the incident.
"We intend to investigate the entire incident and every facet of it I can think of," Mannerino told reporters gathered at the house owned by Falcon's father, Joseph Falcon, a 45-year-old aircraft worker.
Mannerino also joined Tidwell in criticizing manufacturers of toy guns.
"It seems to me that whenever a manufacturer creates a game the object of which is to shoot at other people, they cannot do anything but create a hazardous situation in a variety of ways, including this one," he said.
Joseph Falcon, who spoke briefly with reporters, said his son was born with "very poor eyesight" and had worn either contact lenses or glasses for years. "But I don't know if his vision was worse at night," he said.
Falcon was remembered by friends, co-workers and relatives as a quiet, dedicated, inquisitive full-time electronics student at Chaffey College.
"He was a very dependable young man," said Cherie Acosta, 37, of Rancho Cucamonga, who managed the Taco Bell restaurant where Falcon worked part-time. "We just can't believe he was shot."
"After school and on weekends we went bowling, played miniature golf and went to movies together," said Ron Gross, 20, of Rancho Cucamonga, one of the others playing Lazer Tag on the school grounds Tuesday night. "He was my best friend. He never did anything wrong."
A rosary is scheduled for Falcon at 7:30 Sunday at Richardson-Peterson Mortuary in Ontario, and a Mass is scheduled for 10 a.m. Monday at St. Peter & St. Paul Catholic Church in Rancho Cucamonga, with burial at Forest Lawn Covina Hills cemetery afterward.