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Sheriff’s Probe Reconstructs Fatal Shootout

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

A late summer shootout in a Santa Clarita Valley housing tract left a sheriff’s deputy dead and endangered dozens of neighbors as authorities exchanged hundreds of rounds with a barricaded gunman.

How did a seemingly routine search end so badly?

Los Angeles County officials hope the answers are in a report by the Sheriff’s Department, which is planning to release the results of a three-month investigation Tuesday.

The gunfight began early Aug. 31 after federal agents tried to search the home of James Allen Beck, a 35-year-old felon known to authorities for stockpiling weapons and ammunition. Beck refused to open his door and began firing from a window as deputies and federal agents ran for cover.

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Deputy Hagop “Jake” Kuredjian was among scores of officers who flocked to the scene. He was shot and killed within minutes of arriving. Beck died hours later, after his house caught fire and burned to the ground.

Sheriff’s officials plan to share the results of their investigation with the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday. Privately, some officials are critical of the conduct of agents from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

From the beginning, Sheriff Lee Baca wondered whether his deputies were put in danger by federal agents and whether proper tactics were used.

ATF agents asked sheriff’s deputies to accompany them in the search of Beck’s home, a routine request. Later, in the confusion of the shootout, Kuredjian ended up in the line of fire. Other officers called to help began shooting into the wrong houses.

“It’s been my experience that when you’re subjected to deadly gunfire with someone who has considerable firepower, then a whole different application of tactics and on-the-scene decisions have to be made,” Baca said.

Residents of the Stevenson Ranch neighborhood, where Beck’s empty lot serves as a reminder of that day, have similar questions:

* Why wasn’t Beck considered armed and potentially dangerous? Neighbors had tipped off authorities that he was building a small arsenal.

* Why weren’t they prepared for the worst? And why, once the shooting started, didn’t authorities immediately retreat and concentrate on evacuating families?

ATF officials in Los Angeles and Washington declined to discuss the agency’s internal investigation, which is months from completion. Nor have they disclosed information to the Sheriff’s Department.

ATF Regional Director Donald Kincaid defends his agents, calling any criticism of their tactics “Monday morning quarterbacking.”

“You are there with a lawful warrant under the color of law,” he said. “You don’t think some moron is going to start shooting at you. You try and be prepared, but you think people will abide by the law.”

Beck was on parole after three convictions for burglary, receiving stolen property and possessing an assault weapon. He was living in a $340,000 house on Brooks Circle purchased by his mother. He liked to tell people that he was in law enforcement, but mostly he was unemployed. The Arcadia Police Department fired him in 1988 before the end of his probation.

When his Stevenson Ranch neighbors grew suspicious, they called authorities and reported that he was collecting weapons and ammunition. It is illegal in California for felons to possess guns.

Beck was cooperative when ATF agents searched his former home a year ago. They found no weapons.

“Obviously, we had no expectation of this reaction,” said Bernard Zapor, the ATF’s assistant special agent in charge. “Had we any indication there was going to be this type of reaction or emotional instability, this operation would have [had] an entirely different flavor.”

Early on the day of the shootout, ATF agents phoned Lt. Steve Dolan of the Santa Clarita sheriff’s station to ask for assistance in serving a search warrant at Beck’s house.

At the time, the agent did not tell Dolan they would be searching for guns or that neighbors reported seeing a stockpile of weapons at the house, according to a sheriff’s tape recording of the conversation, which Dolan reviewed for The Times. Later that morning, agents revealed whom they were going to search and what they were looking for.

At 8 a.m., 14 ATF agents, two deputy U.S. marshals and two sheriff’s deputies arrived on Beck’s street. Authorities say that agents tried calling him by cell phone but that he hung up. Beck peeked out the front door, yelling that he didn’t want his dog hurt. Beck’s girlfriend then left the house.

The ATF agents began a “surround and call-out,” a tactic in which agents use a megaphone to order a suspect out of a house. Beck responded with gunfire.

D.P. Van Blaricom, a former police chief in Washington and use-of-force expert, is critical of the agents’ tactics.

“When you announce your presence and he’s armed and doesn’t come out, you treat it as a barricaded person,” Van Blaricom said. “You contain the incident, you call in SWAT, you start negotiating and, if you think you are going to have a firefight, you evacuate the neighbors who are in the line of fire.”

Other current and former law enforcement officials also take issue with the ATF’s tactics.

“You don’t do a surround and call-out unless you have a heightened belief of danger,” said a former FBI SWAT commander, who declined to be identified. “But then you need the contingencies in place if things don’t go as planned. . . . You better be prepared for a barricade situation. And once you believe the guy ain’t coming out and has a roomful of guns, that’s a barricade situation.”

At 8:30 a.m., as Beck fired from his second-story bedroom window, agents ran for cover--two were pinned against the house, others hid by a sport utility vehicle a few doors down. Two more were at the back of the house.

Responding to calls for help, sheriff’s deputies and Los Angeles police began arriving in the neighborhood.

Sheriff’s Sgt. John Bomben said he and other officers weren’t sure where the gunman was shooting from.

“I stepped out from behind a pillar of the garage and started firing,” Bomben said. “There was some confusion about which house was the suspect’s, and we fired several rounds at the house next door.”

The house belonged to Phil and Marilyn Lombardi and their 2-day-old daughter. The family cowered on a bathroom floor as deputies shot into their home.

Law enforcement officials say chaos is common before SWAT teams arrive to take control. They say officers called to a gunfight often shoot before they receive full instructions. Noise adds to the confusion--helicopters are buzzing overhead, sirens are blaring, police radios are crackling and dogs are barking.

The Sheriff’s Department estimates that 300 to 400 rounds were fired by about two dozen officers. SWAT officers, who arrived at 9:10 a.m., shot only 12 rounds.

Nearly three hours after the first shots, SWAT officers fired tear gas canisters into the house. By noon, officials had heard numerous gunshots coming from Beck’s house. Soon flames engulfed the roof.

Authorities caught a last glimpse of the gunman, clad in body armor and a gas mask, still holding a rifle. Then the top floor caved in.

Firefighters sprayed water on the homes on both sides of Beck’s. Authorities said it was too dangerous to fight the fire at his home. By 3:06 p.m., Beck’s house had been reduced to ashes.

Los Angeles County coroner’s spokesman Scott Carrier said Friday that Beck was formally identified through DNA testing. His body was burned beyond recognition, and it could not be determined how he died, Carrier said.

“We’re not able to offer a mode or a manner of death as being accidental or death at the hands of another,” he said.

Christmas decorations now adorn the neighborhood. Except for the burned-out lot at 26444 Brooks Circle.

*

Times staff writers Josh Meyer, Kristina Sauerwein, Carol Chambers, Andrew Blankstein, Caitlin Liu, Patricia Ward Biederman and Massie Ritsch contributed to this report.


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