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Baca Questions Tactics Used by Deputies in Compton Shooting

Times Staff Writers

The Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies who fired 120 rounds at an unarmed car chase suspect early Monday appeared not to have a coordinated plan and at times worked at cross-purposes, department officials said Tuesday after a preliminary investigation.

As a result, some deputies opened fire because they erroneously believed that the suspect had shot two colleagues, while others were firing because they thought the suspect was trying to ram officers, Capt. Ray Peavy said.

The findings prompted Sheriff Lee Baca, who said Monday that he was reserving judgment on the deputies’ action, to question some of their tactics, saying Tuesday that the amount of gunfire seemed excessive.

The shooting, which was broadcast repeatedly on TV newscasts across the country, also came under criticism from Merrick J. Bobb, who serves as the Board of Supervisor’s special counsel on Sheriff’s Department matters.

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He described the deputies’ response as disorganized and undisciplined.

“The fact that 120 rounds were expended indicates panic, lack of planning and an absence of control,” said Bobb, who plans to examine the policy issues surrounding the case and report to the Board of Supervisors.

An unedited videotape of the incident obtained by The Times offered a clearer picture of what happened when deputies blocked in a white SUV they had been chasing through a residential area of Compton early Monday.

The tape shows that deputies fired several shots initially when the suspect, 44-year-old Winston Hayes, backed toward them.

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That was followed a second later by a much larger burst of gunfire coming from deputies who had surrounded Hayes’ Chevrolet Tahoe. The vehicle lurched forward a short distance down Butler Avenue, moving between two groups of deputies, who delivered a third barrage, with bullets flying wildly toward officers and into homes.

Hayes and Deputy Edward Clark were wounded. Clark was treated and released; Hayes, who was shot four times, remains hospitalized.

The video shows frantic deputies pointing guns at one another in apparent confusion, as one or more officers warn: “Watch out for crossfire!”

Baca said he is most troubled about the final round of gunfire, which he estimated to be two dozen shots. He questioned whether the shots were necessary because so many rounds had already been fired and Hayes’ vehicle may have been disabled by then.

“There has to be a pretty significant explanation for those shots,” he said.

Baca said he plans to meet with neighborhood residents, saying that he owes them answers about the gunfire, which left bullet holes in several homes.

All 10 officers involved in the shooting were driving alone in their patrol cars, without a partner to map out a strategy, officials said. (Most deputies patrol by themselves.)

The deputies also received incomplete information from the department when they initially arrived at the scene. The deputies had been told in radio calls that a man in a white SUV had fired shots about 11:51 p.m. and was a possible suspect in a shooting, Peavy said.

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But in fact, sheriff’s officials said, Hayes was not involved in the shooting and was unarmed. Deputies started pursuing Hayes because his truck was similar to the one in radio broadcast.

Investigators believe the shooting could be an example of “contagious fire,” in which officers in different positions open fire because others are shooting, said Michael Gennaco, head of the sheriff’s Office of Independent Review.

The Sheriff’s Department has been attempting to improve the way it handles incidents involving large numbers of deputies. Sgt. Gary Lebeau, who teaches tactics and officer survival training, said the Sheriff’s Department is training deputies in new tactics, which include assigning deputies to separate arrest and containment teams.

“It’s a great concept and is slowly being introduced into our training,” Lebeau said.

The shooting came after Hayes had been driving around the neighborhood for several hours playing loud music.

Deputies responding to a call that shots had been fired in the area approached Hayes, who sped off, taking a circuitous route through the working-class neighborhood of small bungalows off Alondra Boulevard.

A sheriff’s helicopter joined in, and the noise drew residents into the street, where they pleaded with deputies, “Please, don’t shoot him,” said resident Trina Hays, a elementary school classmate of the suspect.

The slow-speed pursuit lasted 12 minutes.

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Deputies put out a spike strip, hoping to puncture the tires on Hayes’ truck. But for reasons authorities could not explain Tuesday, deputies hemmed in his truck in the middle of Butler Avenue before he reached the spike strip.

Blocked in, Hayes drove onto a lawn and backed off. By this time, deputies had drawn their guns, according to witnesses.

Baca said at least three deputies approached the vehicle on foot. Suddenly, they heard tires screech and the SUV backed up.

That’s when the officers first opened fire.

The video shows a few shots, followed by a barrage of gunfire by deputies who had surrounded the truck. Despite the many rounds, Hayes continued to slowly move down the street. Deputies on each side of the street continued to fire, at some point even facing one another.

The gunfire lasted about 18 seconds. Bullets hit one deputy and went into at least five homes, narrowly missing some residents, including a 4-year-old boy.

Moments after the shooting ended, an unidentified deputy pointed a gun at the cameraman and yelled: “Get out of here! There’s shots fired! Go!”

Hayes was taken to a hospital. Authorities said he told them after he was arrested that he was high on drugs.

On Tuesday, the Sheriff’s Department identified 10 deputies who fired their weapons. They are: Clark, Henry Aguilar Jr., Clyde Terry, John Montenegro, Michael Haggerty, William Formica, Vergilina Bolder, Jason Molina, Richard Vargas and Patrick Neal.

A preliminary reconstruction of the incident shows that the officers did not appear to be working in concert, officials said. Some deputies appeared to be firing at the car in an attempt to stop it while others believed they were returning fire from the suspect. Some confusion occurred when one officer slipped and fell, which may have caused other deputies to believe he had been shot, a sheriff’s official said.

Peavy said it was highly unusual to “have some people who are firing to protect themselves from the actions of the driver and then some are firing because they think the driver is shooting.”

On Butler Avenue, many residents continued to express anger at the deputies, saying that they put neighbors’ lives in danger. Compton Councilman Isadore Hall III visited neighbors Tuesday and questioned whether deputies would have acted the same way in a more affluent community.

“I just think it’s a little excessive to have 120 bullets fired into an unarmed vehicle where the suspect was unarmed,” he said.

Times staff writers Nicholas Shields and Tonya Alanez contributed to this report.


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