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Sheriff's deputies mistakenly killed aspiring TV producer

Los Angeles County Sheriff's deputies mistakenly shot and killed an aspiring TV producer earlier this week while responding to a stabbing and hostage standoff in West Hollywood, officials said Thursday.

Sheriff’s officials said deputies believed John Winkler, 30, was the attacker when they encountered him at a Palm Avenue apartment complex Monday night. In fact, he was one of three hostages being held inside an apartment by a man with a knife.

Three deputies shot Winkler when he rushed out of the apartment with one of the other victims, sheriff's officials said in a statement.

“The apartment door suddenly opened and a male victim came rushing out,” the statement said. “He was covered in blood and bleeding profusely from the neck. Simultaneously, Winkler ran out of the door, lunging at the back of the fleeing victim. Both ran directly at the deputies.”

Winkler’s black shirt matched the description of the assailant, so when he bolted out of the apartment, deputies thought Winkler was the suspect, officials said.

He was hit once in the chest and died at a local hospital. The other victim was also shot in the leg, officials said.

Interim Sheriff John Scott on Thursday called the shooting “very tragic.”

Winkler's friend Devin Richardson said Winkler was friends with two of the people held hostage and had rushed over to the apartment when he heard them screaming. [Updated 5:45 p.m. April 10: Sheriff’s officials said they believe Winkler was already in the apartment visiting friends when disturbance began.]

“It's just a really sad story,” Richardson said. “He basically went to help some neighbors and ends up getting shot.”

Winkler had moved to West Hollywood from Washington state six months ago to pursue a career in entertainment and had recently been hired for several days as a production assistant for the comedy show “Tosh.0.” Richardson said Winkler wanted to become a producer.

An aunt said Winkler was thrilled about being in Hollywood.

“He was quite excited the last time we talked to him,” said Anne-Marie Van Wart, 62, of Tacoma, Wash.

She remembered the last time she talked to him. She was at his parents' house in January and Winkler’s whole family was there, including his two younger brothers.

“He was just boisterous and excited, he was just getting his foot in the door of life. Just, the light was right around the corner…and [now] he’s gone.”

The incident unfolded about 9:30 pm on Monday night in a large apartment complex off Santa Monica Boulevard.

Sheriff’s deputies said they got a call about an assailant with a knife inside one of the units. When they got to the complex, a witness told them there were two men in the apartment and that the assailant was a thin white man wearing a black shirt, according to the statement.

Deputies “announced themselves” at the apartment but got no response. The door suddenly burst open and a bloodied man came out. At the same moment, Winkler ran out, “lunging at the back of the fleeing victim,” according to the department.

The deputies believed that “Winkler was the assailant and the assault was ongoing and he would attack the entry team.”

After the deputies fired on Winkler and the other man, they heard “sounds of a fight coming from inside the apartment,” according to the statement. They burst into the room and saw another male victim as well as the suspect, identified as Alexander McDonald. McDonald was choking the third victim and “tearing at his face,” officials said.

The deputies subdued McDonald and arrested him.

Later, officials said, they learned that McDonald had held Winkler and the two other men hostage. When deputies arrived, McDonald flew into “a rage ... began stabbing the men and fighting with them.”

The second man shot by deputies was taken to a hospital where he was treated for stab wounds to the neck and a gunshot wound to the leg. He is in stable condition.

The third victim, who was treated at a hospital for stab wounds to the leg, arms and chest, has been released. Officials said that McDonald and one of the victims were roommates.

McDonald, 27, has been charged with one count of murder, two counts of attempted murder, and one count of torture. He is being held on $4-million bail.

The Sheriff’s Department’s initial news release the day after the shooting made no mention of the mistaken identity and said the two people shot had “aggressed the deputies.”

Assistant Sheriff Todd Rogers said that it was “pretty apparent” the night of the incident that it was a case of mistaken identity. He said he was officially briefed of that determination Tuesday.

Scott, the acting sheriff, said the case was complicated and it took some time to sort out.

The violence stunned residents of the apartment building and West Hollywood.

Apartment 201, where the violence took place, faces the elevator and a stairway. On Thursday, the marble floor outside the door was still stained with blood.

A woman who lives directly below, who did not want to be named, said she heard a commotion Monday night.

She heard voices shouting, “Get down! Get down!” and several popping noises.

Then she heard a man scream.

“It was a primal scream,” the woman said. “It was fear, it was absolutely horrible.”

Residents said the apartment complex was already on edge because of a fatal stabbing two weeks ago.

A Yale-educated physician, Kurtland Ma, 34, was stabbed to death inside his apartment March 29. His partner has been charged with homicide.

West Hollywood officials said they had been inquiring about the circumstances of the shooting for several days and were stunned to get the sheriff’s statement.

“This was already a tragic situation but this makes it all the more tragic,” said Councilman Jeff Prang.

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Times staff writers Richard Winton and Robert Faturechi contributed to this report.

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