Signs it was a hoax surfaced quickly.
On Wednesday evening, only hours after Deputy Angel Reinosa had put out a call for help over his radio that he had been shot by a sniper, investigators were beginning to doubt the rookie’s story.
Reinosa, a 21-year-old deputy assigned to the department’s Lancaster station, said he had been on his way to his car in the station’s parking lot when he was hit by rifle fire from a nearby apartment building. He claimed the protective vest he was wearing stopped a shot to his chest, while another bullet had grazed his shoulder.
But investigators noted there had been no 911 calls reporting gunfire in the area and no bullets were found in the parking lot. A hole in his shirt that Reinosa said came from a bullet was far too large.
And on the radio Reinosa sounded much too calm for someone who had just been shot, let alone a green deputy still in his first year on the job, multiple sheriff’s officials and others with knowledge of the investigation told the L.A. Times on Sunday.
So, by nightfall, even as a massive manhunt for his would-be killer continued, Reinosa became the focus of the investigation he had set in motion. Those early suspicions were borne out late Saturday night, when investigators announced Reinosa had concocted the shooting.
“We are all appalled and disappointed,” Sheriff Alex Villanueva said in an interview with The Times on Sunday. “We intend to hold the individual responsible for breaking the law and most importantly for betraying the community.”
The dramatic twist in the case came after days of fruitless searches for a gunman, which focused largely on the apartment building from where Reinosa claimed the bullets had come.
When Reinosa put out the call for help, there was no choice but to assume he was telling the truth and set in motion the massive response that included locking down the apartment building overnight to conduct a thorough, door-to-door search, the sheriff said.
Although it soon became clear that the deputy’s story did not add up, investigators couldn’t jump to conclusions, the sheriff added. On Saturday, he said Reinosa confessed when investigators confronted him with the evidence that indicated the shooting was bogus.
“He admitted to cutting the holes in his shirt,” Villanueva said. “We know the ‘what’ and the ‘how.’ We don’t know the ‘why.’”
Reinosa’s motive for faking an assassination attempt remained unknown, but Lancaster Mayor R. Rex Parris said in an interview that the deputy had been struggling in his first year in the field — a probationary training period that all deputies must complete before becoming full-fledged deputies.
“He was not advancing through the training program at an adequate pace,” Parris said. “There had been a lot of attention on him.”
Parris declined to elaborate further on Reinosa’s performance, citing police privacy laws, but said the deputy was scheduled to be transferred from the Lancaster station and speculated that he had been unhappy about the pending move.
Word that one of their own had gone from shooting victim to fraud brought angry responses from different corners of the Sheriff’s Department.
“Angry. Embarrassed. Furious. Unbelievable. Ashamed. These are some of the words circulating our station’s hallways since last night as our deputies try to wrap their minds around” the news, read a message posted Sunday morning on the Facebook page of the Lancaster sheriff’s station.
“Not only does it bring discredit to the department and our deputies, it jeopardizes the trust and good faith we ask for from the public and elected officials,” union officials representing deputies wrote in the statement. “Worst of all, it’s a slap in the face of deputies who have been shot in the line of duty.”
Reinosa had been with the Sheriff’s Department for a year and joined the Lancaster station in May for patrol training.
On Wednesday, the deputy made a radio call from the helipad at the sheriff’s station’s parking lot and reported that two shots had been fired at him from a nearby apartment building, authorities said. Reinosa then went back to the station purportedly to receive medical help.
Reinosa was taken to a hospital, where doctors found no obvious injuries that backed up his claims of having been shot. A small wound to his shoulder and the holes in his shirt were unconvincing.
Nonetheless, the story took hold that Reinosa had been shot and his vest saved his life.
“He is doing great, thankfully,” Sheriff’s Capt. Todd Weber said at the time. “The wound was minor and he’s been treated and he’s doing well, in high spirits.”
The incident drew a massive police presence, with a SWAT team and armored vehicles called to the area. Deputies blocked off the apartment building, believing the shooter to be trapped inside.
The message posted Sunday on the sheriff’s website was unapologetic about the response.
“Our deputies responded to a cry for help and did exactly what they have been trained to do to protect our civilian staff, residents and community. Our community and other first responder partners worked side by side with us to move quickly, effectively and efficiently. There is no shame in that,” the statement read.
The case will be turned over to the Los Angeles County district attorney, and Reinosa could face charges of filing a false report about a crime, Villanueva and other sheriff’s officials said. Reinosa has been relieved of duty, a sheriff’s spokeswoman confirmed.
“Of course we’re all embarrassed. There’s no doubt about that,” Parris, the Lancaster mayor, said Sunday. “At the same time, I’m grateful we don’t have a sniper running around. And I’m really proud of how the Sheriff’s Department handled it. There was no attempt to cover it up.”
Parris said a sheriff’s official called him about 9 p.m. Saturday to tell him investigators had confirmed that night that the shooting was a hoax. Sheriff’s officials then hastily arranged an unusual 11 p.m. news conference to announce their findings.
“Rather than delay reporting what we learned for another day, I felt that it was urgent that we share the truth with the public,” Villanueva said in a statement released by the department Sunday. “After investigators were able to establish the facts, we were compelled to share the disappointing truth in our wish to be transparent with the public.”
Parris said he was “unrepentant” about comments he made in the immediate aftermath of the apparent shooting about the apartment building from which Reinosa claimed the sniper had shot.
The building, which overlooks the sheriff’s station parking lot and is used in part by a nonprofit organization to house people with mental illness, is a safety hazard, he said.
Parris said he expected the building’s landlord would “work with us” either to install bulletproof windows that cannot open or to erect a barrier blocking the view of the station.