It wasn’t supposed to be a dangerous call.
Officer Natalie Corona, 22, responded alone to the scene of a three-car crash near 5th and D streets just before 7 p.m. Thursday. She was considered a rookie — fresh from the Davis Police Department’s field training program — and had been assigned to patrol on her own for less than a month.
Of all the situations police officers face during a shift, a car crash is often a simple one. But the routine call turned deadly when a man gunned her down in the street before fleeing into the darkness. Firefighters rushed Corona to UC Davis Medical Center, where she died.
“I worried about her, of course. It’s always in the back of your mind, but you just don’t think it’s going to happen to your family,” her father, Merced Corona, said Friday. “She just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and this guy was out to kill somebody.”
Authorities narrowed their search for the shooter — a man in his 20s wearing a baseball cap, black jacket and black tactical boots — to about a block away. Authorities suspect the gunman turned the weapon on himself. He was found dead inside a home early Friday with what police said appeared to be a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
The gunman was believed to have waited in a shadowy area before firing at Corona, approaching her from the side.
“She was a rising star in the department,” Davis Police Chief Darren Pytel said at a somber news conference just before midnight. “She just worked like you can’t believe.”
The shooting scene, just a few blocks from the UC Davis campus, is on a main street that slices through the middle of town. On Friday, the area remained cordoned off as investigators continued to scour the area.
The collision that started it all happened just outside the Davis Community Church. The crash involved three vehicles and made such a loud bang that staff and others inside the sanctuary ran out to help.
The church was buzzing with activity when the shooting occurred, said Elisa Stone, the church’s minister of congregational care. Stone said a church pastor and others began helping the injured from the crash, then the gunfire began.
“We had Boy Scouts here. We had a nursery school board meeting … we had the choir,” Stone, 52, said. “So our staff very quickly put us all on lockdown and protected everyone.”
Stone has called Davis home for most of her life. She describes the city, a 15-mile drive west of Sacramento, as a “progressive, safe, family-oriented university community.” Her daughter worked for the Davis Police Department for the last 10 years, though she recently left the agency, and she knew Corona.
“She loved Natalie, as everybody did. She was very sweet person. As the police chief said last night to the media, she was everybody’s sister,” Stone said. “I think right now, everyone is feeling heavily traumatized and concerned for our police department. And Natalie’s family.”
Christian Pascual, a 25-year-old UC Davis graduate, told the Sacramento Bee he was driving an Infiniti on 5th Street when another vehicle struck his and sent it out of control, causing it to hit a third car.
A gold-toned Infiniti remained parked along the curb Friday morning, appearing to have left front-end damage.
Pascual told the Bee he got out of his car and handed Corona his driver’s license when suddenly shots were fired from directly behind him.
“When I looked up and I saw the officer on the ground, he was already walking due west toward C Street, like just shooting at what appeared to be random people to me,” Pascual told the Bee. “I just knew I had to get out of there once I saw the gun and what was happening.”
The last time a police officer died in the line of duty in Davis, a city of 69,000 people, was in 1959.
Thursday’s fatal shooting comes less than a month after another police officer died in the line of duty in the Central Valley, about 90 miles south of Davis in the city of Newman.
Cpl. Ronil Singh, 33, was shot after he pulled over a vehicle for a traffic stop, believing the driver to be drunk, police said. Authorities filed a murder charge in the case against Gustavo Perez Arriaga, 32, a Mexican national with known gang ties who was living in the country illegally.
Corona’s death came a day after another female rookie officer, Chateri Payne, was shot dead at a home in Shreveport, La.
On Friday morning in Davis, Fred Bagood was walking his beagle, Beau, when he stopped to talk to a Yolo County sheriff’s deputy securing the crime scene. He was shocked to learn that an officer had been killed in the middle of town.
“We just never worry about stuff like that,” he said.
Corona’s father was recently sworn in as a supervisor in Colusa County. He spent two decades as a sheriff’s deputy before retiring. It was clear from the time his eldest daughter started elementary school that she would someday follow in his footsteps.
At an age when most girls are excited to don tutus and princess dresses, Natalie would run through the house wearing the shirt from her father’s Colusa County sheriff’s uniform, he said. She peppered him with questions after every shift, soaking up the details.
“She would see me come home in my uniform and she just couldn’t get enough,” he said. “She’d ask me ‘Dad, did you arrest anybody?’ She had it in her blood.”
By high school, she longed to be a part of the action. Corona would beg her father to take her on ride-alongs after she finished her homework. She beamed as she sat next to him in his patrol car. Her smile, her father said, lighted up every room she entered.
“The look on her face would be so happy,” he said, his voice breaking as he was overcome by emotion. “I just knew that’s where she belonged.”
After graduating from Pierce High School in Arbuckle — a small community about 40 miles north of Davis where she lived with her parents — Corona attended Yuba College. She eventually earned an associate’s degree in criminal justice, her father said.
One of her teachers at Yuba College helped Corona secure a position as a community services officer at the Davis Police Department while she was still in school. When funding dried up for the position, she stayed on as an unpaid volunteer.
She completed training at the academy in July and was sworn in as a police officer during a ceremony in August. She stood proudly, her smile wide, as her father pinned her badge onto her uniform.
Her heart was as big as her dreams, he said, and she showed compassion, kindness and generosity to everyone she met — whether she was off-duty or wearing her badge. She delivered a care package to a family who moved to Davis after their home was destroyed in the Camp fire in Paradise. She slipped $5 into a homeless man’s belongings so he could eat after he was released from the city jail.
“That’s who she was,” he said. “She gave whatever she had.”
She completed the department’s six-month field-training program just before Christmas and had been out on her own as an officer assigned to patrol for less than a month when she was shot.
On Friday, as her father struggled to find the words to explain the tragedy to her three younger sisters, he recounted a recent conversation with his oldest daughter that brought some measure of peace.
“A few days ago, she told my wife, ‘Mom, if I die today, I would die happy because I’ve achieved my lifelong dream. At 22, how many people can say that? I’m happy,’ ” he recalled.
“And she was so happy.”
Times staff writer Fry reported from Los Angeles and Willon from Davis.