Officer gets hero's welcome

BURBANK — It was a hot day this May when St. John Baptist de la Salle Catholic Church held its annual fundraising festival.

Art Perez had been hearing balloons pop that morning due to the heat.

Perez, a Burbank police officer and parishioner at the Granada Hills church, was at the festival, along with his wife and 11-year-old daughter, helping set up.

But when Perez heard a few louder pops before the festival opened to the public at 11 a.m. May 17, he immediately suspected it wasn’t just the sound of balloons, but rather gunfire.

He looked across the church’s field where he had been setting up a booth, and saw, from a distance of about 10 yards, a man pointing a rifle.

“It’s kind of a very surreal moment,” Perez said. “My mind was saying, wait a minute, is this really happening?”

Perez and several other festival volunteers swiftly responded to the situation.

For their decisive reaction, they were honored as heroes by the Los Angeles City Council on Friday.

“Now we want to say thank you to these extraordinary citizens,” said City Councilman Greig Smith, as he presented Perez and four other first-responders with plaques of appreciation during a meeting.

“It could have been much more tragic than it was,” Councilman Dennis Zine agreed.

After seeing the gunman that morning, Perez first tried to secure his family, telling his wife, daughter and another volunteer who was working alongside them to duck below a table to shield themselves.

Perez, who was off duty and didn’t have his gun, then lost sight of the gunman.

He waited with his family for a few long moments, plotting his next move.

“It was the longest 25 seconds of my life,” he said.

After a few seconds, Perez heard a pause in the gunshots.

The shooter was either reloading, or his gun had jammed, Perez surmised.

Another father at the church shouted that the shooter was reloading, and that they should get him.

Perez jumped to his feet and started running with two other men toward the shooter, whom he still couldn’t see at first.

“I was thinking, ‘This is it, I gotta go fast, I gotta go hard,’” he said.

Perez was the third father to reach the shooter. He grabbed the rifle and placed it on the ground several yards away.

“As soon as I got the gun, I knew how to secure it,” he said.

He put another volunteer in charge of watching the gun and making sure no one got to it. Perez and several other men helped restrain the shooter until another off-duty police officer, Mike Williams, arrived at the scene with handcuffs, and until uniformed Los Angeles Police Department officers arrived.

At that point, Perez wasn’t even aware that before the volunteers charged the gunman, he had already shot three people — his ex-wife, who had a restraining order against him, and two bystanders.

All three survived the shooting.

The alleged shooter, Fernando Diaz, was charged with three counts of attempted murder as well as carrying a firearm as an ex-convict, according to Mike Fesperman, the homicide coordinator for the Police Department’s Devonshire area.

Diaz pleaded not guilty to the charges.

The efforts of the citizens at the fair that day quite possibly saved lives, Fesperman said.

“They ran towards danger,” he said.

Perez is thankful that he was there that day — he was scheduled to work but took the day off — and that the gunman paused long enough for volunteers to step in.

“God kind of smiled at us, and fortune smiled at us,” he said.

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