It All Started On the Fourth Of July

By Sled Smith


Forty-six years ago today on 4 July 1956 I boarded a bus at the Long Beach Greyhound Depot.  I was seventeen and with four friends who were also taking the same journey south to the beautiful city of San Diego.  We anxiously got on the bus and all of us sat together on the very back seat.  After traveling for a while we noticed there were two young men with extremely short haircuts seated two seats in front of us on the right side.  It seemed strange but they kept turning around looking at us several different times.  Finally one of these men asked, “Where are you guys going?  One of my friends proudly told him, we’re going to MCRD in San Diego we’re going to be Marines.  This man sort of chuckled then looked at us with a very straight face and stated in a very serious tone, “Do you see that emergency exit right behind you?  You’d better open that up and jump out right here because you are not going to like what is about to happen to you when you get down there”.  All I can say is we didn’t have guts enough to open the exit or to jump out.  I have always been more than ecstatic with the training I received in the Corps.  I learned several things that have saved my life more than several of times.  I also learned the basics of being a good marksman with handgun, rifle, shotgun and even machine guns.


Before going to work for the Los Angeles County Sheriff I was employed as a deputy marshal.   I had the opportunity to work at the Compton office.  I met a bailiff and became friends with, Cecil Mills, who was among many other things a very bright and skilled gunsmith. We used to go to qualification together and Cecil was impressed with my shooting scores.  I was invited and participated on the official Los Angeles County Marshal’s Pistol Team.  We fired match competition all over the state against other law enforcement agencies.  This was firing on the PPC course, which is instinctive shooting.  I know in my heart that through this particular training and experience I acquired in shooting on this team practicing between 500 and 1000 rounds a month made a significant difference in my ability to function safely and survive.  Cecil J. Mills is now a retired Superior Court Judge and serving his third year as a director of the NRA along with my president, Charleton Heston.      


One night I was assigned to work 12D as a comp spot on early mornings.  The shift was uneventful with routine calls and nothing remarkable until sometime a little after 3:00 AM.   There was a possible 927D call with shots fired given to Bill Asmus with Virgil Bartlett assisting.  I decided to roll over and see if I could help.  When I got to the scene they were both there trying to sort out what had happened?  Mama didn’t make it and was lying on the floor of the upstairs bedroom assuming room temperature.  Her 14-year-old son was inside the house and was able to tell part of the story of what had happened.  He related how his stepfather had been very angry with his mother and they were arguing loudly.  Finally his stepfather got hold of a pistol and shot twice at his mother downstairs in the hall hitting her once in the leg.   She then managed to run upstairs and into the bedroom where he shot at her two more times.  One round went into her left side through her lower back and out of her right side leaving a significant leak in her Aorta, which had a profound effect on her blood pressure.  The other round missed and she died where she fell on the floor.


The kid was able to explain how his stepdad took his younger stepbrother who was only eight years old and left in the family car, a Ford Fairlane.  He then mentioned that the vehicle was blue in color and his stepdad broke the garage door driving through it with the car.  We checked the drawers in all the dressers, chests and a desk and came up with the vehicle registration information.  I found some phone bills and saw that there were many calls to the same extended service numbers in neighboring communities.  About then 10 Sam, Dave Bullis showed up and I decided to get 10-8.  I had made note of the phone numbers I thought might lead to some information.  As I started to walk out of the bedroom I looked over at the bed, which was a four-poster.  I noticed on the bedpost on the left side of the headboard was what appeared to be a khaki work shirt similar to those worn by machinists.  The left breast pocket was hanging out as though it was full of something.  I walked over and looked down into the pocket, which held several new matchbooks from Spires Restaurant, which was open 24 hours a day.  


I left the location with the intention of going to the Station and using the reverse directories to do some follow up with the telephone numbers.  As I drove out of the tract I thought it would only be prudent to go down and check Spires to see if the suspect might possibly have returned there.  I drove east on Del Amo to Wilmington and turned south and went through the intersection of 223rd Street.  Then I turned west into the parking lot of Spires to check for evidence of the suspect there.  As I drove slowly past the main entrance, which faces north I noticed the front service area was darkened with the lights off.  I saw a small black man seated in the booth inside the window right next to the door.  I made note of his presence and continued driving around the building, which is octagonal in shape.  As I reached the opposite side of the restaurant I stopped right behind the emergency exit for a moment.  I looked at the cars parked behind the building and noted that the vehicle parked about two spaces beyond that exit just happened to be a blue Ford Fairlane.  I looked down at my notebook which was lying open on the seat beside me and noticed that it even had the same license number as the Ford I was seeking. 


At this time I broadcast, “12D is code 6 at Spires Restaurant 223rd and Wilmington re: possible 187 suspect at location.  (One minute and forty-four seconds later I had completed one of the most life changing profound experiences in my entire law enforcement career.)  I drove around to the front of the building parking my unit right in front of the main entrance.  I got out of the car took the 37 Ithaca out of its rack and wearing a bright yellow rain coat entered the location holding the shotgun down along my leg so as not to offend anybody.  A waitress saw me and asked me who I was looking for.  I described what we had as a physical description for the suspect and told her he had his eight-year-old son with him.   She then told me that he and his son had been seated on the booth right next to the door until I drove past in the radio car.  She said after I passed he quickly got up and took his boy and they went back to the men’s room.  I walked into the central service area, which consisted of a semi-circular counter with booths along the exterior wall.  At the south end of this area there was a short hallway leading to the restrooms and the emergency exit.  As I reached the center of the counter I heard a noise in the hallway and looked up to see the suspect leaning around the corner of the opening looking toward me. He then disappeared and immediately after that I heard the alarm ringing from the panic bar having been pushed opening the emergency exit door.  I ran to the hallway jacking a round into the shotgun and turned to corner in time to see the child exit through the panic door turning to his right.  As I reached the closing door I looked around it to the right and saw the boy disappear around the corner of an 8-foot high block trash enclosure. 


At this point I figured that if the suspect was going to ambush me it would be from the other end of the wall or from behind a large Edison transformer located a few feet beyond that location.  I had been trained about incidents where shooters would bounce a bullet off of a block wall and hit someone downstream.  Due to my training and experience I determined that the best course of action was to walk at an oblique angle to my left crab style walking sideways keeping the shotgun at shoulderpoint aiming toward where I believed the suspect to be.  As I reached a point that was no more than 30 feet away from the block wall I first observed the suspect.  He was crouched down very low and his face was looking down the wall toward the emergency exit.  His head slowly rotated toward my location and when he finally got around to staring right at me he jumped out from the corner of the wall and fired a shot right at me.  (Later I recall that the muzzle flash was perfectly round which most likely meant the round was coming directly at me.)  I fired the first round from my shotgun and saw something strike him in the area of his left upper chest but he didn’t go down.  We later determined it was probably the initial wadding.  He then turned toward his left and I ran toward him reloading the shotgun then firing toward his upper body.  To my surprise I thought I hit him square and he didn’t move.  He appeared to still be standing so I jacked another round into the Ithaca.  I then drew down on him one more time and didn’t realize that he was slowly sinking toward the ground.  I fired a third time as he finally fell to the ground.  The third round went over his body and killed a car and an adjacent tree. The shooting itself was over in at least one but no more than two heartbeats.  It gives one pause to consider just how fast someone can die.  When I fired the first round his son ran out from behind the trash enclosure and around toward the front of the restaurant.


I jumped over his prostrate body and ran out to an area where I could see if the boy had been hit.   I couldn’t see the child anywhere as I looked back to where the suspect was lying.  I saw his pistol lying in a spot on the pavement that appeared to be close to his reach so I ran back and bent down picking the revolver up using my pencil inside the barrel.  I stopped to check to see if the suspect was still alive and couldn’t find any pulse.  I then ran to my unit and dropped the revolver on the right front seat.  I moved the car around to an area close to where the suspect was lying.  At this time I realized that I had to put a broadcast out.  I had spent much of my time in patrol training and I have seen far too many deputies injured attempting to respond to some serious situation far too fast and furiously.  I carefully worded my broadcast as, “12D 911B my dispatcher via landline, advise officer involved in a shooting, it is code 4 at my location, the suspect is 927D, request one unit non emergent back up at this time, request a 902N and a 926, 12D”.  From the time I pushed the button to put out my first broadcast going
Code 6 until I pushed it the second time for this broadcast was one minute and forty four seconds.  It seemed to me longer than a lifetime.  


The reason I mentioned my experience in the United States Marine Corps was partly because today is the fourth of July. It was because a lot of my actions reflect the training and experience I received there.  When they spent the amount of time they do teaching you how to survive some of it sticks. I’m sure that someone with less experience and training might not have walked away later that day.  I’m sure the Marines had a significant impact on my desire to become a Los Angeles County Deputy Sheriff.  After all their uniform was at least the right color, tan & green and I met many former Marines working for the sheriff’s office.  There is some kind of unusual very special camaraderie there between those who have served Semper Fi. 


My first day back I took my trainee, Drew Rusnak, down to Spires to reenact the shooting for his benefit.  I asked him to crouch down where the suspect was and hold his hand as if he was holding a pistol aimed at me.  I stood out in the parking lot about where I had been at the time of the shooting.  The bullet impact point of the first round he fired at me was some 165 feet south of where I was standing and it was about 17 feet up on the building wall.  I assumed the bullet was way over my head.  Drew crouched down held his hand up then said, “Oh (expletive deleted), you’d better come here and take a look at this”, his face turned ashen.  I traded places with Drew and when I crouched down it became abundantly clear that the suspect was holding a dead center head shot sight picture between my eyes.  Thank God he was a bad shot or by the grace of God the bullet didn’t hit me where he intended.  If anything ever makes you pucker up it is something like this incident that is never far off in your memory.  It was six years before I ever forgot a single significant fact of this story. 


My broadcast was intended by me not to be broadcast over the entire net.  I learned later on that it was in fact broadcast several times over the net.  At the station I was led to believe that the tape of that broadcast was used in training within the department.  My only intention in structuring the broadcast the way I did was to avoid anyone getting hurt rolling down to help.  After most of the incident as far as I was concerned was over I was ordered by Homicide Lieutenant Caraway to go back to Firestone and sequester myself until the shooting team arrived.  The shooting team was Sergeant Ed Pia and Deputy Dan Tankersly who finally showed up at the station some seven hours later.  I was in self-imposed custody in the boiler room and unable to sleep at all.  Not really a very nice place to spend that amount of time twiddling one’s thumbs. 


A few months later I had to take a month off to do some masonry work so I could make the money I was not being paid for that month.  I did in fact make at the very least four times my usual paycheck.  The initial IIB investigation was from Firestone but the punishment was administered at Carson after I transferred.  When I returned to duty I arrived at Carson Station to find I had been assigned to APSET at SEB.  I thought that was great and went up there with a completely open mind.  The first day they took us up to the academy for a PT test.  The staff of SEB then asked if there was anyone in the class who wanted to run from the academy back to the bureau with them.  I was the only one in the class who chose to run but I had served at SEB during 1969 and knew what PT nuts they were.  We were scheduled for a shooting and survival class there one afternoon.  This was a class where they shared various shootings that had occurred within our department.  To my surprise one of the shootings they were going to discuss was mine.  They asked me to share what happened rather than use their regular lesson plan to present the facts.  The instructors had many detailed questions they asked me.  We then went through the exercise of discussing and critiquing the incident.