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Garden Grove Officer’s Vest, Pen Halt Bullet

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A 28-year-old Garden Grove reserve police officer was shot near the heart during a gang fight at the Strawberry Festival, but a bullet-resistant vest saved him from serious injury, police said Sunday.

Officer Gary Cunningham was trying to break up a melee involving 50 members of two rival gangs about 11 p.m. Saturday when one youth pulled a small-caliber handgun from his waistband and fired at Cunningham, who was standing five to 10 feet away, said Capt. Scott Jordan.

“The vest saved (Cunningham’s) life because the bullet hit right about where his heart is,” Jordan said. “If he didn’t have the vest on, the bullet could have killed him.”

Although Campbell survived, the shooting served as a grim reminder for the department, still recovering from the slaying of veteran officer Howard E. Dallies Jr., who was shot to death March 9, 1993, during a routine traffic stop.

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The department requires its officers to wear the vests, yet it has seen five officers slain in the line of duty since 1912, more than any other law enforcement agency in Orange County.

In Saturday’s incident, the bullet deflected off of a Cross pen in Cunningham’s left breast pocket before lodging into the lining of the vest, which is made of Kevlar, a tough synthetic fiber.

Cunningham suffered a bruised chest but was otherwise uninjured, Jordan said. The officer was taken to a local hospital, where he was examined but not admitted. He could not be reached for comment later.

The alleged gunman, 18-year-old Cesar Julio Luevano of Santa Ana, was arrested a few blocks from the festival as he tried to hide between two houses on Walnut Street, Jordan said. Another officer apparently tried to subdue Luevano before the shooting, but the suspect broke free of the officer’s grip, turned around and shot Cunningham “point-blank,” according to Jordan.

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Police initially detained eight people as possible suspects, but soon focused on Luevano when he was seen quickly walking away from the festival, held at Village Green Park on Main Street.

“We spotted him and he took off running into a residential neighborhood just north of the park,” Jordan said. “He tossed his gun over a fence and into a back yard, then tried to hide.”

Police recovered a .25-caliber pistol believed to have been used in the shooting. A spent casing and a live round of ammunition were found at the site of the shooting. The bullet fired at the officer was found lodged in the vest, Jordan said.

He said Luevano was identified as the alleged gunman by several witnesses and another police officer. Luevano is being held at Orange County Jail on suspicion of attempted murder of a police officer. Bail was set at $250,000.

Seven other males were arrested in connection with the fight prior to the shooting, Jordan said.

The popular festival, expected to draw about 200,000 visitors over the three-day weekend, has attracted gang members late at night, police said.

“The festival seems to be family oriented until the late evening, when a younger crowd comes in and some of the problems happen,” Jordan said.

Following the shooting, officers immediately shut down the festival, an hour before its scheduled closing time of midnight, and closed the event two hours early on Sunday to avoid any further problems. The festival ends today.

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Additional officers were sent to the grounds to serve as reinforcements as officers escorted the crowd out of the festival two hours early Sunday. Jordan declined to say how many officers were present.

Festival officials weren’t available for comment. Jordan said the officials didn’t want to make a statement and asked police to handle news media inquiries.

Most festival-goers on Sunday seemed unaware of Saturday’s shooting, but many supported the decision to close the event early.

“It’s a cruising scene when it gets to be that late,” said Angel Granados, a 22-year-old bank teller from Westminster.

Giancarlo Poncedeleon, a 16-year-old Garden Grove Boy Scout working in a game booth, said “midnight is too late to be open anyway. It doesn’t matter to me that we are closing earlier. Actually, I think it would be better.”

Several festival-goers were concerned about troublemakers returning to the festival.

“Unfortunately, they can’t provide everyone with a vest, not just the cops,” said Pete Werth, a 28-year-old contractor from Fountain Valley. “It just seems like everyone should get one.”

Law enforcement officials estimate that since the 1970s, more than 1,500 officers lives have been saved by bullet-resistant vests. Although the body armor is not a cure-all for the dangers on the street, it can reduce the likelihood of fatal gunshots to the chest.

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In the fatal shooting of Dallies, his vest shielded him against one round fired by a motorcyclist during a routine traffic stop but couldn’t stop another bullet that entered beneath his vest and tore through his abdomen.

“It’s the luck of the draw,” Jordan said when comparing the two shootings. “The vest will only protect you in certain ways.”

Cunningham was reportedly traumatized by the shooting and will be given time off. He has been a reserve officer in Garden Grove for more than four years, Jordan said.

“He’s home and he’s OK,” Jordan said. “He is shaken up by the realization that he has been shot, but he’s really thankful that he was wearing the vest.”

Jordan said officers are carrying on like “business as usual” but such incidents have a sobering affect on them.

“It’s a fun and rewarding job, but incidents like this serve to remind us that someone can kill us without notice or provocation,” Jordan said.

Times staff writers David Reyes and David Haldane contributed to this story.


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