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Deputies who mistakenly killed aspiring producer to return to duty

The L.A. County sheriff’s deputies who mistakenly shot two victims of a knife attack in West Hollywood, killing one, will return to active duty next week, department officials said.

The three deputies have gone through the psychological evaluation and training required after shootings in which a person is hit and have been cleared to go back on patrol, said West Hollywood station Capt. Gary Honings.

The deputies had been on leave since April 7 when they fatally shot aspiring Hollywood producer John Winkler in the chest as he and another victim ran out of an apartment, officials said.

The pair and a third man were allegedly being held at knife-point by suspect Alexander McDonald, who lived in the apartment with one of the victims.

Though the department’s initial statement said Winkler and another victim “aggressed” deputies when they emerged, officials acknowledged days later that Winkler and the other victim -- whom deputies shot in the leg -- were simply trying to get away from their attacker.

“The apartment door suddenly opened and a male victim came rushing out,” the second 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 also matched the suspect’s physical description, officials noted.

In a statement released on behalf of Winkler’s family through a Seattle public relations firm, relatives said they are struggling to come to grips with how he died. They also expressed sympathy for the deputies. The family has hired a Seattle attorney.

“Moving forward, we seek to understand the reasons why the sheriff’s deputies shot and killed John,” the statement read in part. “We know that shooting and killing an innocent man must be a horrible burden for those deputies, and they are in our prayers as well, as they attempt to cope with the circumstances of his death.”

Winkler had moved to West Hollywood from Washington state about six months ago to pursue a career in entertainment. He had recently been hired for several days as a production assistant for the comedy show “Tosh.0.” Friends and neighbors held a candlelight vigil Sunday at his apartment building.

Meanwhile, detectives said they are still not sure what allegedly motivated the suspect. He had been acting “bizarre” and “incoherent” in the hours before the stabbings, said Lt. Dave Coleman.

McDonald, 27, works in information technology and does not have an apparent history of violence, psychosis or drug abuse, deputies said.

But McDonald began acting "off" the afternoon of the shooting while hanging out with a female acquaintance, Coleman said. The woman told authorities she grew nervous as the two were driving and when she had the opportunity, she got out of the car and found refuge in a restaurant.

Coleman said the woman reported seeing McDonald pacing up and down the street, looking for her before disappearing.

He then reappeared about 8 p.m. at his apartment complex in the 900 block of Palm Avenue. Coleman said McDonald knocked on a neighbor's apartment door and barged in when she opened it.

McDonald “rambled incoherently” and told the woman that black helicopters were watching him, Coleman said. When the woman’s roommate came home, the pair tried to calm him down, but he grew more agitated, Coleman said. The encounter culminated with McDonald grabbing a large chef’s knife from the kitchen and chasing one of the women from the apartment while the other barricaded herself in a bedroom.

The woman who escaped outside called 911 but lost sight of McDonald, who was wandering the building, Coleman said. McDonald was described to deputies as a tall, white man with a slender build and a black shirt.

Winkler also was white, slender and wearing a black shirt that day. Residents said McDonald lived with one person, so deputies expected only two people inside his apartment, Coleman said.

“From the time she lost sight of him, there’s a few minutes where we don’t know where he was. We do know at some point, he climbed the balcony from the outside and dropped down into his own balcony,” Coleman said.

McDonald walked into his apartment, grabbed a golf club from the kitchen and began threatening his roommate, Winkler and their friend, who were watching TV, Coleman said. He took away their cellphones and one of their laptops and accused them of being involved in a conspiracy against him, Coleman said.

At the same time, deputies were closing in on the apartment.

Authorities said McDonald put down the golf club and pulled out the knife, which was tucked into his pants. He allegedly sat down on the couch between two of the men and even put his arm around one.

A moment later, authorities showed up and began pounding on the door, “making their presence known,” Coleman said.

Without warning, McDonald allegedly began stabbing the men, and the altercation turned into a life-and-death struggle, according to law enforcement.

Winkler and one of the other men saw the chance and ran for the door. The man ahead of Winkler had to stop to unlock it, and that’s when Winkler caught up, Coleman said.

The door flung open just as Winkler ran into the back of the other victim, and the two spilled onto the walkway, where they were shot. Deputies thought Winkler was attacking the man in front of him, whose throat was gushing with blood.

Deputies then heard a struggle continuing in the apartment and found McDonald on top of the third victim.

McDonald was arrested and was being held on more than $4-million bail. He has been charged with murder, two counts of attempted murder and torture. He pleaded not guilty and is due back in court May 8. 

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joseph.serna@latimes.com
Twitter: @josephserna

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