Gunfire Hit Houses Next to Suspect’s
The violence that claimed the life of a Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy in the Santa Clarita Valley caught authorities off guard, plunging a quiet neighborhood into such chaos that officers fired not only at the suspect but into homes on both sides of his, officials said Saturday.
The extent to which officers were taken by surprise in the Friday morning raid was evident Saturday in the charred ruins of James Allen Beck’s home, where investigators found a body believed to be that of the former police officer and convicted felon.
Federal agents were serving a search warrant on Beck’s house when he allegedly responded with gunfire, triggering a gun battle that ended when his home caught fire and burned to the ground. A sheriff’s official said deputies and the federal agents fired at least 150 rounds during the fight, the worst of which lasted 15 to 20 minutes.
Sporadic fire followed for about three hours as more officers arrived, including some from the California Highway Patrol and the Los Angeles Police Department.
Officials said they found three assault rifles in the ashes, including an AK-47 and AR-15, as well as a shotgun, a .380-caliber semiautomatic pistol and other handguns, and large amounts of ammunition. They said they also found an old CHP badge near the body believed to be Beck’s.
Authorities say Beck shot sheriff’s Deputy Hagop “Jake” Kuredjian. An autopsy Saturday determined that the officer died of a bullet wound to the head.
Relatives of Beck in the San Diego community of Scripps Ranch released a statement saying the family was “deeply saddened by the death of Dep. Kuredjian. We would like to offer our condolences to the deputy’s family and to the entire police community on their tragic loss,” the statement said.
“We are struggling to come to terms with James’ actions and do not understand what caused him to do what he did,” the statement said.
Residents of surrounding homes in the sedate Stevenson Ranch subdivision where Beck lived were full of questions in the aftermath of the tragedy. Some were critical of the way in which a simple legal maneuver--the serving of a search warrant--quickly escalated into a violent inferno that threatened the entire neighborhood.
The questions zeroed in on the tactics used in the siege and fire, with suggestions that the incident veered out of control as law enforcement officials struggled with a dangerous situation.
Law enforcement officials, while acknowledging that they were surprised, said it was too early to answer many of the questions raised by the episode. They also said the only person to blame for the explosion of violence was Beck, who was under investigation for impersonating a U.S. marshal and for being a felon in possession of a firearm.
“At this time we’re not in a position to start addressing tactical issues,” said Capt. Ray Leyva, commanding officer of the sheriff’s Headquarter’s Bureau. “It is still too early in the investigation. We have a multi-agency investigation going on.”
A man who lived across the street from Beck said he saw sheriff’s deputies firing at a home next door to the suspect’s.
“I hollered out the window, ‘You’re shooting at the wrong house!’ ” said the man, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “They must have heard us or something, because I could hear one of the deputies say, ‘Is it the house with the Explorer?’ And another guy says, ‘No, the one next to it.’ ”
Leyva acknowledged that deputies fired at that house, as well as the house on the other side of Beck’s.
“We did hit the houses on either side,” he said. “I don’t know exactly what was happening at the time, I don’t know how well [the deputies’] aim was, but they were returning fire and trying to rescue someone, so I’m sure they were hitting things during the battle.”
The two houses next door to Beck’s--at least one of which was occupied by a couple and a baby during the shooting--were pocked with numerous bullet marks. The baby’s father, who asked not to be identified, said, “The shots came through our [front] window and into our house.”
Terri Gudzin, whose backyard provided a view of Friday morning’s shootout and fire, said “No one tells us anything. . . . We saw [Beck] walking his German shepherd at all hours of the day. Why wouldn’t they serve him [with the warrant] then?”
Gudzin and other neighbors said Beck could have been unarmed during a walk.
“What makes it a shame is that a deputy had to lose his life and homes had to be damaged,” added Jay Gudzin, her husband. “Maybe things would have turned out different.”
Friday morning’s operation was carried out by two U.S. marshals and eight agents of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Three sheriff’s deputies accompanied them for support. Once the gunfight began, the Sheriff’s Department rushed in reinforcements and took charge of the emergency in their jurisdiction.
The Southern California head of the ATF offered some answers to residents’ questions Saturday and defended his agency’s role in the raid.
Donald Kincaid said the ATF had reason to believe that Beck would be cooperative Friday morning. The reason for such confidence, he said, was that the bureau had conducted a similar search a year ago at a different address, which Kincaid could not specify. On that occasion, after federal agents telephoned Beck, he came outside and cooperated fully. Beck even tied up his aggressive German shepherd so it wouldn’t attack agents during the search, which did not result in Beck’s arrest, Kincaid said. He did not say what, if anything, was found in the search.
“We did this once before . . . with this individual with no problems,” Kincaid said. “He came out with his hands up, and he supposedly had a vicious dog which he put away and the search was conducted.”
On Friday, Beck greeted agents very differently, refusing to come outside and then firing a fusillade of automatic weapons fire at them as they advanced on the house, authorities said. That forced agents to scramble for cover on Beck’s front lawn and call for backup, and Beck kept firing.
Deputy Shot as He Crouched Behind SUV
Early in the battle, Beck allegedly shot and killed Kuredjian, who suffered a head wound while trying to provide cover to deputies pinned down in the fusillade, authorities said. The deputy arrived a few minutes after the shooting started and was hit almost immediately, as he crouched behind an SUV four houses down from the Beck home, officials said.
Authorities said they believe Beck shot Kuredjian from an upstairs window, although they were still gathering information about the killing. “No one saw Beck shoot Jake,” said Sheriff’s Lt. Carl Deeley. “People right next to him just saw him go down. There were so many shots going off; it’s hard to tell where they are coming from.”
Kincaid called Beck’s response “unanticipated resistance” and acknowledged that it took his agents by surprise, even though they had prepared extensively for the search.
Kincaid said that his agents were as prepared as they needed to be in executing the search warrant, and that they had developed more than enough probable cause to do so. He said the ATF had information that Beck had purchased ammunition for an assault weapon.
A spokesman for the marshals service said agents intended to arrest Beck if a single weapon was found. William Woolsey, a marshal’s supervisor, said Beck could not legally possess a gun because of his criminal background, which included convictions for weapons violations.
The specific reasons for the search are laid out in an affidavit by a federal agent that was shown to a federal prosecutor and a federal judge, both of whom approved the search. Kincaid said the affidavit was sealed and he would not discuss its specifics.
Kincaid said the ATF will aggressively review all tactics used by the agents.
He said the agents and sheriff’s deputies were being interviewed Saturday.
During the “shooting review,” agents will be asked about their locations, how many rounds they fired and other details that will allow the ATF to reconstruct each stage of the incident.
“We are going through this very meticulously. I’m not saying we did anything wrong, but if we can do something better I want to find out how to do that,” Kincaid said.
Dozens of investigators picked through the rubble that was Beck’s house on Saturday, ultimately finding what they believe were the badly charred remains of his body--encased in a bulletproof vest and lying on an assault rifle--and that of his dog.
Inspector Mike Brown, a spokesman for the Los Angeles County Fire Department, said investigators were still working to determine the cause of the fire Saturday. Federal authorities had said Friday that it was possible that the blaze was started by tear gas canisters fired into the building, although sheriff’s deputies had said they believed Beck himself started the fire.
Brown said the handling of Friday’s crisis was “absolutely not” a strategy to let Beck burn to death or to smoke him out of the building.
“As professionals we don’t want to risk anybody’s life, or not take into consideration someone’s life. We did try by all possible means to assist law enforcement and try to prevent anybody else from being injured. But here was a fire we couldn’t effectively fight from the position we were.”
County fire officials responded to the incident with four engine companies, a truck company and two paramedic squads at about 8:37 a.m., Brown said.
While smoke began billowing from the building at around 11:50 a.m., authorities initially thought it was from tear gas canisters, and didn’t realize the house was on fire, Brown said.
Once they realized it was a fire, sheriff’s and fire officials decided to direct a water-spraying aerial ladder and a hose on Beck’s house at about 12:30 p.m., Brown said. Given the gunplay and the layout of the neighborhood, they were the only water sources that could fit, he added.
But Brown said further attempts to put the blaze out were stymied by safety concerns.
“The suspect could have still been in firing range,” he said. “It was my understanding that the gunman had some firearms and the ones used were definitely automatic weapons, so we’re still in harm’s way. We didn’t want to place firefighters in that position.”
Fire officials realized that the ladder and hose alone could not stop the flames inside the house, said Capt. Brian Jordan.
“To save that house, we knew we had to be inside it,” Jordan said. “You’d think we could just take our appliances from a distance and squirt water inside and put it out. But those appliances don’t get into the nooks and crannies where the fire continues to burn.”
A water-dropping helicopter would have been similarly limited, but fire officials didn’t try to use one because Beck was firing on news and police copters already on the scene, Jordan said.
With the heat growing in intensity, the Fire Department eventually decided to direct the water streams at both Beck’s house and the ones on either side to keep the fire from spreading, officials said.
Law enforcement officials said Saturday they were trying to make life as normal as possible for residents in the subdivision of master-planned stucco homes that vary ever so slightly in their beige, cream, gray and pink hues.
In a neighborhood where a real estate agent once boasted that one in every few houses belonged to a police officer, where cars sport “I (Heart) Cops” bumper stickers, residents remained fearful--so much so that several declined to give their names. Some questioned whether Beck was really dead.
“He could have had a tunnel or a vault,” said one woman, washing the charred embers off her SUV, which police used as a barricade. “He was that crazy. You just don’t know.”
In Brentwood, a woman who identified herself only as a Beck family member met reporters outside the extensive one-story bungalow where Beck’s mother, Donna Beck, lives.
“We’re sorry for what happened,” the woman said.
Visitation for Kuredjian is set for 7 p.m. Monday at the Old North Church at Forest Lawn Hollywood Hills, 300 Forest Lawn Drive, a sheriff’s spokesman said. Funeral services will be at 11 a.m. Tuesday at St. Mary’s Armenian Apostolic Church in Glendale, with burial at Forest Lawn.
Times staff writers Richard Fausset, Michael Krikorian, Kristina Sauerwein and Richard Winton contributed to this story.