New details emerged Thursday afternoon about a gunfight in East L.A. that left two Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies wounded and a suspected gang member dead.
The incident began Wednesday evening when three people in a black BMW approached another trio at the intersection of Bonnie Beach Place and 6th Street in East L.A. and asked which gang the group belonged to, said Sheriff’s Lt. Scott Hoglund. The trio replied that they were not part of a gang.
Hoglund said one of the passengers in the BMW pulled out a gun before the car drove off. The trio called the sheriff’s station in East L.A. and reported an assault with a deadly weapon.
A short time later, about a mile from where the call originated, deputies spotted the BMW at Ruben F. Salazar Park on Whittier Boulevard. A sheriff’s cruiser carrying a deputy and a civilian law enforcement technician, who was riding along as part of her training, followed the BMW into the park. Two other patrol cars were also approaching when the BMW came to an abrupt stop.
“The driver exited and began shooting,” Hoglund said. “The deputies began firing.”
The BMW’s driver, identified as Rene Herrera, 39, was shot and killed at the scene. A firearm was recovered under his body, Hoglund said.
A passenger, Fernando Cruz, 18, was struck by gunfire and remains in critical condition at a hospital, Hoglund said. Another passenger, 18-year-old Hector Martinez, fled and was later arrested and booked on suspicion of attempted murder of a police officer. Authorities looked for a possible fourth suspect but determined there were only three.
Hoglund said Herrera had a long criminal history and that all three men were documented gang members from the area.
One deputy was struck in the jaw and remains in a hospital. Another deputy, who was shot in the upper chest, was released Thursday, officials said.
Sheriff Jim McDonnell said both deputies were in their 30s, each with more than 10 years of experience. The lawmen were not identified.
The presence of a civilian Sheriff’s Department employee in one of the patrol cars became a focus of part of a news conference department officials gave about the shooting Thursday after a candidate for sheriff said the incident revealed understaffing in the department.
Retired Lt. Alex Villanueva, who is challenging McDonnell in the November election, alleged that the civilian was assigned to the patrol car so that the vehicle — which is meant to carry two deputies — would appear on time records to be fully staffed. The scenario would allow the department to avoid paying overtime to a deputy, Villanueva said.
Civilians “are not equipped to do the job. They don’t have vests, they don’t have firearms, they don’t have the means to defend themselves. And then it places the extra burden on the deputy because now the deputy has the risk in front of them, and then the liability next to him," Villanueva said at a separate news conference Thursday.
Chronic deputy shortages in the department have contributed to high overtime payments. This year, the department projected a $40-million deficit due in large part to personnel costs.
But McDonnell denied Villanueva’s allegations and said his challenger was using the shooting for political advantage.
McDonnell said the civilian law enforcement technician was doing a routine ride-along after a deputy who normally would have been assigned to the patrol car called in sick. The law enforcement technician works at the East L.A. station as a call-taker and dispatcher, he said.
“Tragically last night she was put in harm's way because of the actions of some individuals that were out there at Salazar Park,” McDonnell said. “It has nothing to do with staffing. “