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Burnt Remains, Muddled Debris Stymie Coroner

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

An intense fire and the mixing of crime-scene debris by sheriff’s investigators made it impossible to determine what killed James Allen Beck, who exchanged gunfire with law enforcement officers in August at his Stevenson Ranch home, coroner’s officials said Friday.

Autopsy and forensic reports obtained Friday indicate Beck died before a fire believed to have been sparked by a tear gas canister engulfed the house. But because only partial, badly burned remains were recovered, coroner’s officials could not determine whether he had been shot, according to the reports.

Coroner’s officials said they were kept from Beck’s remains for more than 24 hours after the Aug. 31 shootout, while sheriff’s investigators sifted through charred rubble.

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“Because of mixing of debris at the scene prior to the arrival of coroner personnel . . . information was lost,” the reports said.

Sheriff’s officials say Beck shot and killed Deputy Hagop “Jake” Kuredjian early in the three-hour gunfight. Beck, a former Arcadia police officer, opened fire after federal agents tried to serve him with a search warrant, officials said.

The coroner’s chief of operations, Craig Harvey, said his investigators were frustrated by the way the Sheriff’s Department handled the crime scene.

“We don’t know what information we would have gotten had the scene not been disturbed,” he added. “We would’ve preferred them not to do that, but they were doing whatever they felt like they had to do.”

Harvey said sheriff’s officials insisted that his investigators work into the night, when daylight is preferable.

Sheriff’s Homicide Capt. Frank Merriman said that in hindsight, he should have suspended the sheriff’s search of the rubble until the coroner’s team had finished its job.

“Our insistence of them working into the night violated the coroner’s protocol for that type of recovery,” Merriman said. “If we had it to do over, we would have stopped.”

Sheriff’s investigators called the coroner’s office as soon as the remains were found and gave them access to the site three hours before nightfall the day after the shootout, Merriman said.

Coroner’s and sheriff’s officials said they discussed ways to avoid clashes in the future.

“There’s an understanding now that if [coroner’s investigators] need to do something, [sheriff’s investigators] will abide by our needs,” Harvey said. “They have agreed to yield to our professional opinion as to how a scene would be processed, so we can do the best job we can.”

Agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms tried to search Beck’s house after neighbors in the upscale Santa Clarita Valley community told them he was stockpiling weapons and impersonating a U.S. marshal. Kuredjian was among the deputies called to the scene after the shooting began.

Kuredjian died from a single gunshot wound in the head.

Beck was identified through a DNA analysis of muscle tissue and matching DNA from his mother, Harvey said.

The coroner’s reports were delayed by the DNA testing, which took several months.


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