Drug Dealer Suspect Fatally Wounded at Placentia Mall

Times Staff Writer

In a police undercover drug operation Monday afternoon in a Placentia shopping center, a suspected drug dealer was fatally wounded by police as he tried to escape, a woman suspect was wounded and two other suspects captured.

No bystanders were reported injured, but a police officer suffered minor injuries when the suspects' truck backed into him, police said.

Police refused late Monday to release details about the shooting, to say whether drugs were recovered in the operation or to identify the suspects.

It was not clear whether the two men and two women returned police gunfire. "Not to my knowledge," Placentia Sgt. Russ Rice said, "but we're not even sure of that."

The slain suspect was pronounced dead about 5 p.m. at Western Medical Center in Santa Ana. He was described by witnesses as about 5 feet, 7 inches tall, with shoulder-length brown hair, wearing a weathered baseball jersey and faded jeans.

The woman suspect was treated for injuries at the UCI Medical Center in Orange, Fullerton Police Sgt. John Shaw said.

Shaw said police were having problems identifying the suspects. According to sketchy police accounts, officers from Placentia, Brea and Fullerton were conducting a "joint narcotics investigation" in a strip shopping center at the corner of Orangethorpe Avenue and Van Buren Street at about 3:45 p.m. when, "in trying to make an arrest, shots were fired by officers, injuring two suspects," Fullerton police said.

The shooting is under investigation by the Placentia Police Department and the county district attorney's office, which routinely investigates most officer-involved shootings.

Witnesses said at least 20 rounds were fired at a blue pickup truck when the driver tried to back up and flee from apparent undercover police officers who were yelling for the truck to stop. The truck ran over a thin tree, jumped a curb and landed on a grassy strip in the parking lot before crashing head on into two electrical transformers.

Hector Castellanos said the incident unfolded outside the window of a Mexican restaurant where he was standing. A four-wheel-drive vehicle and the pickup were both parked out front, with a man and woman in each vehicle, he said.

Suddenly, a van pulled up, followed by a Camaro and a white pickup truck, carrying what he later decided were undercover police officers, Castellanos said.

The blue pickup quickly went into reverse "and hit a policeman behind it," he said. "Then it went forward, and the cops told them to stop. The truck kept going, and that's when they started shooting."

Jan Staley, postmaster at a post office across the street, heard the gunfire. "We heard shooting and looked up," she said. "I screamed, 'Get down on the floor!' I was more concerned about my customers. There were only about three people in here at the time."

Mary Gayman said she was driving by "when I saw the dust go up and a (truck) hit the wall."

"As I saw the dust, I saw the door on the passenger side was open," she said, giving her a view of "a man with his head under the glove compartment, (and) his arm and body were partially out.

She said that man was taken away by a helicopter ambulance. Gayman said another witness told her that the blue pickup's driver, a woman, was shot as she jumped out of the truck after the crash.

Police were out in the parking lot with their guns drawn, wearing black jackets with yellow POLICE written on their backs, Gayman said. Later, she noticed that some were wearing bulletproof vests.

Two suspects, a man and a woman, were lying face down next to the four-wheel-drive truck, said Joe Vonzabern, who had been stopping to visit a next-door video store. He counted at least 20 rounds of spent shells on the asphalt.

"Police were advancing with guns drawn," Gayman said.

A clerk at a nearby liquor store said the woman liked to hang out in the mini-shopping center there.

Police were uncertain late Monday exactly how may shots had been fired, but Vonzabern's count was "a very good possibility," Placentia's Sgt. Rice said.

Rice said investigators were still out Monday night trying to match spent casings with recovered slugs. Police had blocked off Orangethorpe Avenue and the strip shopping center's parking lot, he said.

The suspects' four-wheel-drive vehicle had a Texas license plate.

Marcida Dodson contributed to this report.

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