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Santa Maria officer’s friends struggle with account of his death

Friends of a police officer killed during his arrest for alleged sex crimes were racked with disbelief Monday -- at the charges as much as the fatal outcome.

They gathered at a street-corner shrine, remembering Albert Covarrubias Jr., 29, as a man far different from the one portrayed by his bosses after he was fatally shot by a fellow officer while police tried to arrest him a few blocks from department headquarters.

Police suspected Covarrubias, who reportedly was wed for a second time just a few weeks ago, of having a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old high school girl.

Officers were attempting to detain him early Saturday as his shift ended and he was dismantling a DUI checkpoint, Santa Maria Police Chief Danny Macagni said at a somber weekend news conference. Covarrubias struggled with his colleagues, fired his own gun and was shot in return, the chief said.

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In addition to suspecting Covarrubias of having a sexual relationship with a minor, Santa Maria police investigators believed that witnesses in the case were being intimidated, Macagni said at the news conference. The chief was unavailable for comment Monday, and other Santa Maria officers said only he was authorized to speak about the situation.

On Monday, friends who attended Santa Maria High School with Covarrubias voiced skepticism about the official account.

“I just don’t believe what they say,” said Tiffany Almaguer, 29. “It just doesn’t sound right.”

Why, she asked, arrest a uniformed officer in public while he’s on duty?

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“Even in retail, if you’re suspected of shoplifting, you’re called to the office,” she said. “He came to work and he was ambushed.”

The shooting is being investigated by the Santa Maria Police Department and the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department, a standard procedure in shootings by officers.

Sheriff’s spokesman Drew Sugars said he didn’t know when the investigation would be complete. He also said he wasn’t certain whether investigators would look at Covarrubias’ alleged crimes.

At the makeshift shrine near the shooting scene, friends of Covarrubias recalled him as the class clown. “He was an awesome person,” Almaguer said. “He was hilarious -- in capital letters.”

Fabiela Frausto, 29, had trouble believing the accusations against her high school pal. “That wasn’t the person we knew him to be,” she said.

The shooting was the second in seven weeks by officers in the agricultural city.

Last December, police officers fatally shot Samyr Ceballos, suspected of being a drug dealer, after a brief pursuit. Two officers were wounded by friendly fire, Macagni said in the wake of that shooting. The Sheriff’s Department’s investigation is ongoing.

steve.chawkins@latimes.com

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