LAPD Bullet Killed Girl in Clash

LAPD Bullet Killed Girl in Clash
Autopsy results show Suzie Marie Peña was hit by SWAT officers’ gunfire in a shootout that also left her father, Jose Raul Peña, dead.

By Megan Garvey and Jill Leovy
Times Staff Writers

July 14, 2005

A police officer fired the shot that killed a 19-month-old girl held hostage by her father at a Watts auto lot, according to autopsy results released Wednesday.

Police officials from the start said it was most likely that an officer’s bullet killed the toddler an outcome they have described as tragic, but that they also blamed squarely on the suspect, who shot at police and his teenage stepdaughter during the more than two-hour standoff Sunday.

The suspect, Jose Raul Peña, 34, died of multiple gunshot wounds. His daughter, Suzie Marie Peña, was shot once in the head.

Expressing “great regret,” Police Chief William J. Bratton said “it appears that our officers, while engaged in their lawful duty, may have, in fact, taken her life.”

“Believe me, as chief of police and for the officers involved, it is very tough to deal with that,” Bratton said at a news conference to discuss findings of a preliminary inquiry into the shootout events.

The findings confirmed police officials’ worst fears about how the toddler – initially identified as Susie Lopez Peña – died.

But many questions about the circumstances of the shooting are still unanswered, including the identity and position of the shooter who fatally hit Suzie and how the child came to be in the line of fire.

Bratton, in an interview, gave the most detailed account yet of the incident but said he did not yet know what had transpired in the crucial final moments of the standoff.

The body of Peña, who owned the business, was found near his desk in the makeshift office, where, according to witnesses, he had retreated, firing through its thin walls on officers who stormed Raul’s Auto Sales.

The officers had expected to find a wounded Peña down behind the back door.

Toxicology results for Peña, who police have said had ingested cocaine and alcohol at the time of the shootout, were not yet complete.

Officials who viewed the scene said at first that Suzie was found near the door to the office, but on Wednesday they said SWAT team members had apparently moved her body to help her before realizing she was dead.

Bratton said that a complete investigation into the gun battle would be both “complex and lengthy,” and consist of two parts: one to determine if there was criminal wrongdoing on the part of police and another to review tactics.

He said he knew of no evidence that any police officers had broken the law.

He said that over the nearly 40-year history of the LAPD’s SWAT team which has conducted 4,000 operations Suzie’s death marked only the second time “an innocent life” had been lost.

Eleven officers fired weapons at the scene, and 35 additional officers were witnesses. Thirty-five civilian witnesses have been identified.

Bratton said police also are looking for two auto lot employees believed to have been at the scene when police responded to a 911 call from Peña’s 16-year-old stepdaughter.

Nine cameras on the premises captured about 27 hours of videotaped footage of both Peña’s and officers’ actions, Bratton said.

When officers first arrived they were met by the teenage stepdaughter and Peña, who then went into the dealership and reemerged shooting, the chief said.

The stepdaughter, whose name has not been released, escaped under cover of police fire as Peña continued to shoot, officials said.

About 2 1/2 hours after the standoff began – shortly before Peña and Suzie were killed – SWAT Officer Daniel Sanchez, 39, was wounded in the shoulder and had to be pulled to safety.

No one reviewing the tapes had seen any footage of either of the fatal shootings, Bratton said. There was no camera in the office where the bodies were found.

Rather than the three distinct exchanges of gunfire initially described by police one when officers first arrived at the scene, another when the stepdaughter fled and the final barrage Bratton said the videotape evidence showed a “more continuous exchange of gunfire.”

Throughout the shootout, according to officials’ review of the tapes, Peña held the toddler in his right arm and a gun in his left, Bratton said.

Assistant Chief George Gascon cautioned against confusing “sorrow” about the child’s death with “the suggestion that the officers did not do what they were supposed to do.”

“I can tell you now I have SWAT officers having tremendous emotional problems. They are getting therapy. Some may not be coming back to work,” Gascon said.

“These people took this very, very hard. I want to make this clear. This is very important. This is not something we take lightly or are proud of,” he said.

Confirmation that a police officer shot and killed Suzie came the day after tensions in the case flared as Bratton sharply refuted statements from Peña’s family that he was a “good man” and that police haste had precipitated the deaths.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa on Wednesday called for a cooling-off period for all parties affected by the shootout.

However, asked if his remarks were intended to forestall further comments like the statements issued Tuesday by Bratton, the mayor demurred.

“What I’m saying is that all of us need to understand that this is a very painful situation for everybody involved, for the family who lost their baby, for the police officers who mourn the loss of that baby and the fact that one of their fellow officers was shot in that situation,” he said, speaking to reporters after an unrelated conference at USC.

Villaraigosa said he had not spoken directly to Bratton about the chief’s comments.

The mayor would not say whether he thought Bratton had contributed to raising tensions.

“That’s a question you can ask the chief,” he said. “What I can tell you is this: My job is to calm the waters. My job is to extend my condolences and prayers to the family … to say to the police officers, one of whom was wounded, my heart is out with you and your family as well, and to ensure that this process is carried out fully.”

Bratton, asked a short time later at the same conference if his comments had inflamed tensions, said: “I think not.”

“It’s not rhetoric, it is what it is,” he said of his remarks about Peña on Tuesday.

“Mr. Peña came very close to taking the lives of a number of my police officers and citizens and his own daughter,” he said. “Again, I’m pretty plain-speaking. I’m pretty blunt. I think I tell it as it is from my perspective. I don’t think that’s over the top. Again, if others have that impression, well, I’m sorry if they have that.”

Bratton also stood by his description of Peña as a “cold-blooded killer,” despite the autopsy finding that a police officer’s bullet killed Suzie.

“Firing 40 rounds at police officers and his own family members, he made it quite clear that was his intention,” Bratton said, “so I have no problem with that definition.”

Late Wednesday, a crowd of about 50 protesters gathered near the shooting scene at 104th Street and Avalon Boulevard. Police responded and briefly went on tactical alert, but said the crowd began dispersing a short time later.

At the scene of the shootout, where grieving relatives and neighbors have created a makeshift shrine of candles, flowers and notes, scars from the incident were still prominent.

A trash bin in the alley behind the building has three deep bullet marks in the side facing the dealership’s back door.

The slugs puckered, but did not pierce the metal.

First-hand accounts from people at the scene bolstered initial police reports that Peña had come out shooting.

Restaurant owner Earl Foster watched the drama unfold through his windows, and said he saw Peña firing shots at random out of the building throughout the afternoon. Peña, he said, “didn’t care where he was shooting.”

“The guy was shooting at [police] the whole time. Bullets were pinging off cars. Ping here. Ping there. This guy was no innocent bystander,” added Foster, 62, owner of Foster’s Fried Fish.

Police offered a chilling new detail Wednesday that Peña had brought the toddler from her mother’s home during the time it took police to respond to the 16-year-old stepdaughter’s 911 call from the office.

Lorena Lopez, who lives around the corner from the auto sales shop, said she did not know about the teenager’s call for help or what had prompted it .

“He said, ‘Give me the baby,’ ” Lopez said. “He took her to the lot. It was normal. He would take her there often. That’s why I gave her to him. It was daily routine.”

Lopez although first denying and later confirming that she had filed a police report against Peña earlier that day said Peña didn’t seem nervous, drunk or angry.

Bratton earlier said she had reported a domestic terror threat. She would not say what the cause of the earlier police report had been, insisting that she had a “nice relationship” with Peña.

His family in El Salvador described the relationship as troubled and punctuated by fights.

Within minutes of giving Suzie to her father, Lopez heard gunshots and ran around the corner to see what was happening.

She said she ran to police, crying in her broken English: “‘Don’t shoot. My baby’s there,’ ” she said. “I was crying, ‘My baby, my baby, my baby.’ “

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