1 Suspect Is Killed, 1 Wounded in Fierce South L.A. Shootout

No one else is hit despite more than 120 shots by police and two men who fired from moving SUV.

By Richard Winton and natasha lee
Times Staff Writers

March 11, 2005

A slow-speed police pursuit escalated into a furious gun battle before dawn Thursday, rattling a South Los Angeles neighborhood as police fired more than 100 rounds, killing one suspect and wounding another who had fired first, authorities said.

In the shootout, 16 to 18 officers fired weapons in a 40-minute, 35-block-long chase that ended in a volley of gunfire after the fleeing vehicle plowed into a fence in a supermarket parking lot at the northwest corner of Vermont and Vernon avenues.

No one else was injured

“It was like a war zone,” said Linda English, who was in a home 50 yards from where the chase ended. “The gunfire was so loud and you could smell the gunpowder in the air. This is why you have to keep an eye on your kids.”

Dozens of businesses along Vermont were closed Thursday after police cordoned off several blocks of the busy street. Investigators pored over the massive crime scene, swarming with three dozen police cars. So many officers were involved in the incident that the department declared an alert and kept officers working night shifts on duty into the morning.

Police identified the dead man as Tony Diaz, 23.

A half-dozen people gathered at 41st Place and Vermont to protest the shooting. They identified themselves as friends of Diaz and described him as an associate of a street gang who always carried a gun for protection.

But a friend who said she spoke with Diaz twice during the chase by cellphone insisted that he would not have challenged police. Rebecca Gallegos, who said she was a close friend, said he did carry a gun. “He sounded nervous and scared,” she said of the first call. “I knew they were going to do that to him.”

The second time he called, he thought that police were going to put out tire spikes, and he was going to surrender, Gallegos said.

Then she said she heard the shots and ran out of her house and down Vermont trying to find Diaz. “I was screaming, ‘Please give up,’ ” she said.

The surviving driver, Ryan Vargas, 20, was captured about 6 a.m. after a nearly three-hour standoff with an LAPD SWAT team. Diaz was found dead in the passenger seat.

LAPD Chief William J. Bratton said the suspects fired “numerous” rounds at pursuing officers. He said 500 rounds of ammunition were recovered from the suspects’ vehicle, along with a rifle and 20 shell casings.

Vargas, who was on probation for possession of a controlled substance, underwent surgery and was in critical condition Thursday. Bratton said tests showed “high levels of cocaine and amphetamines in his system.”

“It’s a miracle that none of our officers or any civilians were struck,” Bratton said at a news conference.

The pursuit began at 88th Street and Vermont, when officers tried to stop what they thought was a drunk driver. At least eight police cruisers were involved in the chase.

“The suspects began throwing out beer cans,” said LAPD Police Lt. Paul Vernon. “Then officers thought they heard firecrackers. Then they realized they were being shot at from the vehicle. They saw the rifle being pointed out the passenger side window.

“The suspects would make U-turns, and each time they would fire at police cars.”

Near 39th Street, a shot fired from the fleeing vehicle struck the windshield of the patrol car leading the pursuit, Bratton said.

Either because he had been hit or was trying to avoid police gunfire, Vargas drove the SUV through a fence, and it ground to halt at 3:15 a.m., police said.

After more heavy gunfire, the LAPD demanded surrender. Then a SWAT team blocked the suspects’ car with armored vehicles.

After waiting nearly three hours, officers pulled the driver from the vehicle and took him into custody.

Television news footage showed police taking cover with assault rifles pointed toward the SUV, and then a hail of gunfire. All of the windows in the suspects’ car were blown out, and the vehicle’s body was pock-marked with bullet holes.

Vernon said the motive for the incident was unknown. An investigation will determine whether the shooting was within LAPD guidelines, Vernon said. But he said the gunfire from the .22-caliber rifle did represent an immediate threat to life.

In the neighborhood Thursday, people struggled to resume their daily routines. Many residents awoke about 3 a.m. to the clatter of gunfire.

“It sounded like rapid shooting, just like when you turn on the TV and see one of those cowboy movies,” said Annie Bogar, 62, who has lived near 45th Street and Vermont for 37 years. “Why would you want to have a shootout with the LAPD?”

Owners of about two dozen businesses within the cordoned-off area grumbled about the lack of commerce.

“It’s slow,” said George Chavez of George’s Custom Upholstery and Foam Enterprises.

“It just totally messed up my day,” said Patrice Lewis, who could not pay her pawn ticket because the broker was in the supermarket plaza.

It appeared to be the first time that officers have fired at a moving vehicle since the Police Commission approved a policy that forbids officers from firing at moving vehicles unless there is a threat other than the vehicle itself. That change followed the fatal shooting of 13-year-old Devin Brown after he backed a stolen car toward a police cruiser in South Los Angeles.

“Today, our officers were lucky,” said Bob Baker, president of the Los Angeles Police Protective League. “Tomorrow the outcome might be different.”

Baker said the shooting was a reminder that there were circumstances under which officers must fire at moving vehicles.

In protest of the shooting, friends of the dead man, including Gallegos, used markers to dot their bodies to symbolize gunshots.

Diaz would have shot at police only if they fired first, said Anthony Gonsalez, 18, another friend.

“Tony wouldn’t do that,” said Reina Fujino, Diaz’s girlfriend. “He would not shoot at a cop. He knew you couldn’t win.”

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