The festive early morning Fourth of July atmosphere on the Santa Monica Pier was shattered Tuesday when a murder suspect shot and wounded three police officers and two bystanders and held 15 hostages inside an arcade during a five-hour siege, police reported.
The shooting sent dozens of people diving for cover and transformed the popular pier from a fun zone into a chaotic crime scene. The dramatic events forced closure of the Santa Monica landmark until the evening of the July Fourth holiday.
The crisis ended at 6:40 a.m. with the negotiated surrender of Oswaldo Amezcua, 25, of Baldwin Park, who was being sought by police as an accomplice in three gang-related slayings--in Victorville, Ontario and Baldwin Park.
He had come to the pier with Joseph Flores, 30, also of Baldwin Park, a suspect in the slayings. Both men also were wanted for an assault last month in Fontana on a San Bernardino County sheriff's deputy. Flores was overpowered by police as the drama began.
Hours after the hostages were freed and Amezcua surrendered, waves of people--fishermen, families with children in strollers, tourists and refugees from the heat of inland valleys--flooded toward the pier entrance only to be turned away by uniformed officers.
The brightly colored Ferris wheel was still and the pier emptied of fun seekers, street vendors and performance artists. Instead, yellow police tape fluttered in the wind.
Jeff Klocke, marketing director for the pier amusement park, said the closure was "a huge disappointment for us. July Four is one of our most popular days."
The pier became a scene of gunfire and terror in the early morning hours when Santa Monica police, alerted by San Bernardino County sheriff's deputies, moved in on Flores. Amezcua was nearby.
Flores was wrestled to the ground by several officers. He reached for a semiautomatic handgun in his waistband before he was subdued, said Santa Monica Police Lt. Gary Gallinot. Police later recovered a second handgun from Flores.
But Amezcua ran down the pier and officers pursued him. Santa Monica police said Amezcua opened fire, wounding the three officers and the two bystanders. None of the victims sustained life-threatening injuries, authorities said.
"People were screaming and running from gunshots," said eyewitness Marie Scott. "They were just rolling under cars, just trying to get under cars for cover."
Santa Monica police said a female police officer, Chris Coria, was shot in the arm and may have suffered nerve damage. Officer Steven Wong and Sgt. Jim Hirt were shot in the leg. All were hospitalized.
Also shot in the leg were a 17-year-old male and a 35-year-old woman, who were treated and released from a local hospital. Authorities did not disclose their names.
Santa Monica police located Flores in an unusual fashion.
San Bernardino County sheriff's detectives contacted Santa Monica officers at 1:04 a.m. to tell them that Flores was on the pier.
The San Bernardino deputies knew Flores' whereabouts because they obtained his pager number. When Flores called them back, authorities traced the call to the pier.
After Flores was arrested and Amezcua fled, the sound of music and games in the arcade was drowned out by screams and gunshots.
Susana Valdez and Jenny Gaitan, both 18 and from the San Fernando Valley, said they were just a few feet from the gunman when he started shooting. They hit the floor of the arcade, lying flat until the gunfire stopped, obeying the urging of police, who yelled at the bystanders to get down.
Then they escaped. But at least 15 others inside were not so lucky.
Police Lt. Gallinot said Amezcua held them hostage in the arcade. Four to six children were among those held.
About 100 people who had been enjoying a night at the pier were stuck at the ocean end of the structure because police thought it would be unsafe to move them past the arcade. Police brought in a SWAT team and crisis negotiators.
At times, Amezcua allowed the hostages to use a cell phone to call their families and let them know they were all right.
Carol Stone got a call from her 18-year-old daughter Bonnie about 4 a.m. "She told me don't be scared. It's OK. He's cool. He's being good to us. Of course, she didn't know what he had done."
Bonnie and her 17-year-old boyfriend, Michael Lopez, both from Palmdale, were the last two hostages to be freed. Afterward, Bonnie said she was still frightened but glad that the ordeal was over.
Throughout the early morning, negotiators tried to persuade Amezcua to release hostages. By 5 a.m., nine of the 15 had been released, including all the children.
A female officer was the primary negotiator. She talked to Amezcua about the hostages' families and doing the right thing, Gallinot said. "He was remorseful for what he had done. The negotiators are trained to play on this."
By 6:15 a.m. four more hostages had been released. After Amezcua surrendered peacefully , the shirtless gunman was handcuffed and led away to a patrol car. He will be charged with attempted murder and kidnapping and is being held on $1-million bail. Flores was held on a variety of charges, including being a felon with a gun.
"This was a situation that could have been catastrophic," Gallinot said. Instead, he called it a "textbook ending" to a hostage crisis.
Amezcua and Flores were wanted in connection with slayings in Victorville, Baldwin Park and Ontario, authorities said. "These were two hard-core, dangerous and desperate individuals who were involved in three other crimes and a shootout with deputies in San Bernardino," Gallinot said.
Until the last of the hostages were freed, the others at the far end of the pier remained trapped, unable to leave. "We're just happy we're out," said Jenny Gonzalez, 18, of Wilmington, when they were finally allowed to go.
Gonzalez said she had been kept in a small game room all night. The mood in the room was mostly quiet with no rowdiness or panic, she said. Periodically, police would tell them what was happening.
"We kinda felt like hostages because we couldn't leave either," Gonzalez said.
During the long night, concerned parents, some of them frantic, came to the pier to pick up their children who work there.
Kimberly Davidson, of South Los Angeles, said she forced her way past the police in search of her son, Bobby Patterson. "I told them there was no way in hell I was going to go back down the stairs as long as my son was out there," she said.
Others waited in a parking lot off the pier, desperate for any information about loved ones. Laura Dowd of South Los Angeles wanted to know about the safety of her 15-year-old, Mary Carey. "I didn't know what was going on with my daughter. They weren't letting anyone in and they weren't letting anyone out."
Afterward, a relieved Bill Shenault, whose wife owns the Playland arcade, said there has been "little to no problem" on the pier since a police substation opened. "This is just one of those unusual, tragic things," he said. "But it is terrible, our employees were traumatized."
The closure scuttled reunion plans for a group of friends who graduated in the 1970s from Fountain Valley High School in Orange County and agreed they would meet at noon on July 4, 2000, at the end of the pier.
They arrived from points as far away as Texas, Mexico and Oregon, only to find the entrance blocked. "We came early. We didn't know we'd get a police escort," joked Tim Robertson of Cupertino, Calif. He and his wife, Kathy, and son, Peter, 15, wandered about the pier entrance trying to recognize faces from the past.
Eventually, the entire group converged, laughing and hugging despite the police presence. "We'll try again in 2020," said Dean Olsen, who had come from Klamath Falls, Ore., for the weekend.
In the afternoon, a man dressed as a clown with a red rubber nose glued to his made-up face headed toward the pier with a bag of balloons for children, only to be told the pier was closed and he would have to take his act elsewhere.
Marcos, as he called himself, is an actor from Uruguay who turns to clowning when money gets tight. He said the closure could cost him at least a couple of hundred dollars.
For merchants on the pier, where the Fourth of July is one of the busiest and most profitable days of the year, the estimated loss was greater.
"This will hurt the pier a lot," said Jack DeNichola, manager of the Lobster Restaurant at the pier's entrance. "I think the police could have wrapped it up much faster. I feel bad for people who have businesses here."