It was the 4 1/2 minutes that forever changed the California Highway Patrol.
Thirty-eight years ago today, four CHP officers died in a fierce gunfight with a pair of heavily armed motorists outside a Valencia coffee shop after a seemingly routine traffic stop.
On Friday, a five-mile stretch of Interstate 5 in Santa Clarita that runs past the shooting scene was renamed in honor of the dead officers as surviving family members and witnesses recalled what generations of CHP officers know as the “Newhall Incident.”
Patrol officials said the rampage permanently changed the agency from a corps of highway helpers to hard-core cops. It also prompted police departments across the country to adopt tough procedures for cautiously pulling over cars and carefully taking suspects into custody.
Grandchildren of the slain patrol officers helped unveil one of the large signs that will proclaim the freeway as the “CHP Officers James E. Pence, Jr., Roger D. Gore, Walter C. Frago, George M. Alleyn Memorial Highway.”
During the unveiling ceremony a few miles from the site of the shootout on April 5, 1970, state and local leaders proclaimed the four slain officers heroes. And pointing into the crowd of about 300, they singled out Palmdale resident Gary Kness and bestowed the same label on him.
Kness was a passerby who ran toward the gun battle as shots were still being fired. He tried to drag the mortally wounded Alleyn out of the line of fire. When one of the two assailants began firing at him, he grabbed Alleyn’s service revolver and shot back, wounding the attacker.
Now 69, Kness was hugged by Alleyn’s relatives. A long line of CHP officers and other law enforcement authorities formed to shake his hand. “I’ve always heard of you. I’ve wanted to meet you all my life,” said retired San Fernando Police Officer Fred Iversen.
Kness shrugged off the hero designation.
“I was driving to work as a computer operator when I turned the corner on the Old Road and saw the gunfire,” he told Iversen. “I saw two CHP cars and a red car. I always say my brain said to get out of the way, but my feet ran the wrong way.”
As he struggled to pull the 24-year-old Alleyn to safety by his service belt, Kness grabbed a CHP shotgun lying on the ground and aimed it at one of the gunmen. The shotgun was empty, however.
Kness snatched Alleyn’s service revolver from the ground, aimed with both hands and fired, hitting gunman Bobby Augusta Davis in the chest. When Davis kept advancing toward him, Kness tried to shoot again, but the CHP pistol was out of bullets.
“I was upset there weren’t four or five more rounds in there,” Kness said. “After that, I ran and jumped in a ditch. The dumbest thing is, I still had the service revolver in my hand. I was afraid when more police came they’d think I was one of the gunman. So I put it behind me and said, ‘They went that way.’ ”
One of the arriving backup officers, retired CHP Sgt. Harry Ingold of Canyon Country, recalled that one of the gunmen shot at him as he pulled his cruiser into the parking lot of J’s Coffee Shop. These days it’s the site of the Marie Callender’s restaurant at I-5 and Magic Mountain Parkway.
J’s was full of customers, including members of a church choir who had stopped in for a late-night snack, when the gunfire broke out at 11:55 p.m. By midnight, Ingold could see a cloud of gun smoke hanging over the four officers lying on the ground. The two gunmen were fleeing.
“Everybody was pointing toward where the gunmen had gone. I was in a state of shock,” recalled Ingold, now 64. “Later, I circled all four bodies with chalk and wrote their names on the pavement so we’d know where they’d fallen when they were taken away.”
In the end, gunman Jack W. Twinning, 35, of Winston-Salem, N.C., killed himself as Los Angeles sheriff’s deputies closed in on him. The wounded Davis, 29, of Houston surrendered without incident. He is serving four life sentences at Pelican Bay State Prison.
Newer officers were among more than 150 uniformed CHP members and other police on hand for Friday’s ceremony. They listened quietly as state CHP Commissioner Joseph Farrow related how his agency changed after the shooting, tightening procedures and ramping up training.
Officer Mike Pizzi, 33, assigned to the CHP’s Woodland Hills office, said that when he was attending the agency’s training academy 2 1/2 years ago, recruits were shown a video depicting the 1970 shootout.
“Everybody there had already heard about the Newhall Incident,” Pizzi said. “The video reminded us all that this is what can happen to you.”
The slain officers were all married and had children.
Childhood friends Gore and Frago, both 23, lived a block apart in Newhall. Gore left wife Valerie, and daughter Elyce, 18 months. Frago was survived by wife Nikki and daughters Amorette, 4, and Gabrielle, 3.
Pence, 25, was a Sylmar resident. He left behind wife Janet, son Jay, 14 months, and daughter Theresa, 3. Alleyn, 24, known as Mike, was survived by wife Shirley, daughter Julie, 3, and son Kevin, 9 months.
About 70 of the officers’ relatives attended the ceremony.
Nikki Frago of Merced said she was happy her husband and the others were being remembered. “Thank you so very much for not forgetting, not forgetting,” she told officials.
Elyce Gore Taylor of South Padre Island, Texas, attended with her son, Jarred Taylor, 10. Her father’s photograph never stands alone at her home, Taylor said. “I didn’t have one father. I had four. We were bonded.”
Jay Pence of Napa thanked officials on behalf of his family.
Kevin Alleyn of Copperopolis, east of Stockton, spoke for his family and praised changes made after the shootout. “It makes us feel better they didn’t die in vain,” he told the crowd. “Lessons were learned.”
Some wondered why the ceremony was 38 years in the making. “Why did it take so long? It’s a shame. It should have been done that year,” said Vanessa Frago, 21, of Sacramento, a niece of slain officer Frago.
Newhall station commander Capt. Steve Bernard said freeway memorial designations are relatively new for the CHP, and the procedure for getting signs approved and funded and for organizing the families’ attendance took time.
But a plaque, a stone marker and four cypress trees planted in memory of the four officers have long graced the Newhall station. And in recognition of the importance of the Newhall Incident, that’s what the station will always be called, Bernard said.
Santa Clarita city officials once asked that the headquarters be renamed the Santa Clarita station, he said.
“No way,” he said. “ ‘Newhall’ means that much to us.”