Settlement Ends Longstanding Suit Over Police Slaying of Hostage in Escondido

Times Staff Writer

Saying it was time to get on with life, the husband of Leslie Landersman, the hostage who was inadvertently killed in a police shoot-out with a bank robber nearly five years ago, has agreed to drop a wrongful-death suit against the City of Escondido for an undisclosed sum.

Mark Landersman said Monday that it was time to leave the tragedy behind, in part because he was sapped by the frustration of trying to put the Escondido Police Department on trial for the death of his wife, who was shot on Aug. 26, 1983.

“I was hoping to see some justice, but it became apparent that there wasn’t ever going to be any, and I was told by some judges that I would never feel satisfied, even if it did get to court,” Landersman said.

Landersman said he and his mother-in-law, Marlene Cook, agreed late Friday by telephone to settle the lawsuit out of court. He declined to say what the terms of the settlement are.


However, Landersman’s lawyers, San Francisco attorney Melvin Belli and associate Richard Brown, said last September that the family had discussed, and rejected, the idea of settling the lawsuit out of court for $500,000.

‘All the Parties Are Pleased’

Robert Gallagher, the attorney representing the Escondido and its insurance carriers, characterized the settlement as “fair and equitable. All the parties are pleased. Everyone walked away giving up something and getting something, and that makes it a good settlement.”

Leslie Landersman was a 22-year-old secretary and former beauty queen who was kidnaped at gunpoint from her office, just a block from the Escondido police station, by Timothy Harding minutes after he and two accomplices robbed a nearby bank of $5,000.

Harding, leaving his accomplices behind and fleeing after police stopped the getaway van, ducked into a nearby manufacturing company. There, he forced a stunned Landersman to drive her pickup truck on a serpentine, slow-moving escape through Escondido with 20 police officers in tow. They eventually found themselves trapped on a cul-de-sac where police disabled the truck with gunfire.

As Landersman tried to run from the driver’s seat and away from Harding’s grasp, she was shot and killed by a shotgun blast fired by Officer David DeLange, a police and district attorney’s investigation showed.

Harding was killed in the same gun battle by another police officer.

At the conclusion of the 13-minute episode, 10 officers had fired their shotguns 12 times and their handguns 35 times, the department said. Five police officers were disciplined for actions contrary to department policy--including shooting their weapons with fellow officers in danger of being struck in the cross fire.

DeLange was indicted on charges of manslaughter, but acquitted after testifying that, in the heat of the moment, he did not see Landersman in his line of sight as he aimed to shoot Harding. He later was given medical retirement at half pay after psychologists said he was unfit to continue in police work because of the traumatic experience.

Landersman’s family originally sought $14 million in a claim against the city, DeLange and then-Police Chief Jim Connole. Belli said later that he would ask a jury for $1.2 million to $2 million in compensation for Landersman’s mother and husband.

The lawsuit became mired in Vista Superior Court. The trial was put off time and time again for several reasons, including the unavailability of courtrooms since criminal trials take precedence. When courtrooms did become available, Landersman’s attorneys were out of town on other cases.

The family was last in court in September--just days after the fourth anniversary of the killing--when they were told that no courtrooms were yet available. Settlement talks at that time failed, despite the direct intervention of Superior Court Judge Zalman Scherer.

‘Looking for Whole Picture’

“What we want is a viewpoint from the community--a jury--that there was wrongdoing,” Mark Landersman said at the time. “We’re still looking for the whole picture to be shown about what happened that day, and we want to hear what the city can possibly say to justify it. The fact is, they cannot pay us what they owe us.”

Both sides were told to come back to court this week.

In the meantime, Superior Court Judge Jeffery Miller dropped DeLange and Connole from the lawsuit, saying they could not be held liable for their role while working for the city.

Gallagher, the city’s attorney, said the dropping of Connole and DeLange “caused the two parties to evaluate their respective positions, in favor of the city.”

He said the city’s longstanding settlement offer “has been somewhat consistent,” while the family’s position has changed several times.

City Had Paid Deductible

The city, meanwhile, had paid its $100,000 deductible to its insurance carriers by picking up some of the defense costs related to the case, said City Atty. David Chapman. This left the city’s insurance carriers in litigation with Landersman’s family.

“It wasn’t our money, so we didn’t have a say in the settlement,” Chapman said Monday.

Finally on Friday, Mark Landersman said, the family decided to end the matter.

“I was not pressured by the city,” he said. “I was only pressured by the justice system and where it is lacking. This case is almost 5 years old, and we were told that we couldn’t even expect a courtroom this week. That’s why we ended it. It was getting ridiculous. I’ve done all I can do to air the events in a trial and now I’m really apathetic because I don’t think a whole lot can be done about it.”

Landersman said he still hoped the trial would have shown inadequacies in the training and supervision of the Escondido Police Department, shortcomings that he maintains still exist despite department assurances that training methods have been improved and policies have been rewritten to prevent a similar tragedy.

“They’re in a position to say they’ve fixed things. The chief has retired, officers have left the force and the page has been turned,” Landersman said. “Some people say I’m overreactive, and maybe I am more critical than most people, but I don’t think they’re any better.”

Landersman said he is relieved that he won’t have to relive the shoot-out in court any more but feels frustrated that there will not be a final public hearing.

“But there was no guarantee it would ever come to trial. It was time to come to grips with that possibility and say I’ve got a life to live and I’ve got to move on. I can only stick with this thing so long.

“I don’t have that much of a feeling of duty to Leslie. She’s gone. But I just wanted the public to see how that whole shooting was handled so maybe it wouldn’t happen again to someone else.”

Escondido Police Chief Vince Jimno said poor morale in the wake of the Landersman shooting hung over the department “like a dark cloud” long afterward.

Guilt Affected Everyone

“The guilt of the whole incident affected everyone, even those not personally involved,” Jimno said. “But the morale has really improved. Jim Connole made great strides in getting the organization back in a positive posture, and, when I came along last June, it moved along further.

“Now it’s time to put it behind us. It was a tragic affair, and a lot of lessons were learned.”

Connole, an attorney now practicing civil law in Escondido, said he is happy it is over.

Escondido Mayor Jim Rady said he is relieved over the settlement, although he doesn’t know its terms. “I’m glad to have it behind us. It’s an episode in our history that I trust will never be repeated.”