When tow truck driver John L. Daniels Jr. pulled into a Southwest Los Angeles gas station Wednesday evening and spotted two Los Angeles police officers standing nearby, he hastily scribbled a note listing the name and phone number of his business partner, the station’s owner and an employee disclosed Friday.
They said he stepped out of his truck and handed one of them the message. “If something happens to me, call this number,” he told them.
A moment later, Daniels was dead, shot once--through the arm and into the chest--by one of the officers as he drove his tow truck away from the gas station.
Daniels, with a series of arrests, was well known to police. He maintained that officers had been harassing him since his father, John L. Daniels Sr., was fatally shot by Los Angeles police in 1985.
Joey Kim and Steve Chon recalled Friday that they were working at the Chevron station in the Hyde Park area when Daniels--as he did about three or four times a week--pulled up to the pumps. He bought some gas and, as he was about to leave, noticed the two LAPD motorcycle officers nearby, they said. After writing the name, phone number and message on the back of an envelope, he handed it to Kim, along with some other papers from the truck.
“He just said that, ‘if something happens to me, call this number and say what happened,’ ” Kim said. “He was nervous, and he was afraid something might go wrong. . . . It was almost like he was expecting something to happen.”
Chon, the owner of the station, said he wandered over to hear what Daniels was saying. “He was expecting some kind of trouble from the police,” Chon said. “He was expecting some kind of a problem.
“He mentioned something about some kind of a case that was not completed,” Chon said.
Kim said that a minute later, after Daniels was shot and killed, he looked at the envelope and recognized the name of Daniels’ partner, Ronnie Sims, who also frequented the station. Kim said he telephoned Sims, as Daniels had asked, and that Sims arrived at the scene within minutes.
Sims, Daniels’ brother-in-law, could not be reached for comment Friday.
In their account of the shooting, police said Daniels was shot by 15-year Officer Douglas Iversen when he refused to stop and began to pull away from the gas station. Iversen has maintained that he shot Daniels because he feared that the tow truck driver would run over pedestrians, investigators said.
Iversen, 42, who has been suspended without pay for a total of 100 days for three violations of departmental policy, has been placed on administrative leave until police complete their investigation, authorities said.
Daniels, 36, died of a gunshot wound to the chest, said Thomas Schwabe, a coroner’s investigator. A comparison of Daniels’ fingerprints to police fingerprint records shows that Daniels once used the alias John L. McLain.
Despite the officers’ account of what went on before the shooting, witnesses have told The Times that Daniels posed no threat to anyone when he was shot. And another witness said Friday that Daniels had not been acting recklessly.
Jackie Davis, 40, a Compton resident, said she was among several passengers on an RTD bus that had stopped in traffic about 6:20 p.m. at the heavily traveled intersection of Florence Avenue and Crenshaw Boulevard.
Davis said one police officer struggled with the tow truck driver for about 15 seconds, trying to yank the man from the open door of the truck’s cab as it rolled, stopping and starting, as Daniels attempted to exit the station.
“This guy’s hands were locked on the steering wheel, and the officer just couldn’t pry him from the steering wheel,” Davis said. “Obviously, this guy was trying to get away. Then the officer stepped back, went into a stance, and shot him. . . . This officer shot him point-blank--maybe (from) three feet.”
Davis recalled hearing two shots in short succession, but said she saw the officer fire only one.
The tow truck driver did not seem to be a threat to other people, Davis said.
“All the pedestrians got out of the way,” she said. “There were pedestrians there, but they were looking at the whole scene.”
After Daniels was shot, Davis said, he gestured to a motorist blocking his exit. “He tried to wave this car off that was in the closest lane to the driveway,” Davis said.
The tow truck maneuvered around that car and then out of Davis’ view. Davis said that she, the bus driver and about four passengers exited the bus to provide statements when authorities arrived.
“I had to get off the bus because what I saw was not right. (The officer) could have shot the tires out. You could see the anger in his face,” Davis said.
Police officers who arrived at the scene “didn’t listen to any of us,” she said. “I tried to give my statement to police, but they wouldn’t listen.”
Daniels, who maintained for years that police were out to get him, was described by those who knew him as a colorful character with 17 aliases who was in and out of legal trouble.
“If I were to write a book about my 20 most interesting clients--and I’ve probably represented 2,000 over the years--he would be in there,” said criminal defense attorney Madelynn Kopple, who represented Daniels in a 1981 burglary case and kept in touch with him over the years.
She said Daniels was an intelligent, articulate and charming man whose potential was steadily chipped away by his temper and a knack of finding his way into confrontations with authorities. Always, she said, he seemed to be “skating on the edge.”
She said she defended Daniels after he was arrested with two television sets in his car outside a just-burglarized electronics store. During the trial, he took the stand and explained that he was in the security business, happened to be driving by and saw burglary suspects fleeing the scene. He testified that he tried to chase them down but failed, and then put the looted TVs in his car for safekeeping.
Also found in his car, according to a police report, was a $16.95 receipt for a sledgehammer. Inside the burgled store was a new sledgehammer, Kopple said.
Yet the trial ended with a hung jury--which Kopple attributed mostly to her client’s persuasiveness as a witness. The judge was so convinced of Daniels’ guilt that she felt compelled to recuse herself from the retrial, Kopple said. Daniels later pleaded guilty and received a reduced sentence.
About Daniels’ death, Kopple said: “It seems there could have been a way to stop that tow truck without killing somebody. And I feel very bad to hear that he came to a bad end, but I can’t say I’m surprised.”
Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Sgt. Mike Bornman arrested Daniels in a 1986 arson case in which he allegedly stole a truck belonging to a security dog business and set it afire, killing two dogs and setting loose another two dozen attack-trained dogs. He was convicted of grand theft, arson and cruelty to animals, Bornman said.
When Daniels was caught in the arson case, he recognized a sheriff’s surveillance crew and jumped from his car, despite warnings that he would be shot, Bornman said.
“The investigator told me that John basically turned around and said: ‘Go ahead!'--knowing that they wouldn’t,” Bornman said. “He got out of the car and ran.”
He was right. The authorities did not fire that time. But, ironically, he was caught after a police dog cornered him underneath a house.
Times staff writer Laurie Becklund contributed to this story.