Five killed in police standoff

February 7, 2008 5:31:28 PM PST
A gunman killed three apparent relatives and a veteran SWAT officer and wounded another officer before police shot him to death early Thursday in a home that erupted in flames during a long standoff. A woman escaped near the end of the siege.

Police Chief William Bratton said investigators going through the house afterward believed there may be an additional victim inside, so "we are even at this stage of the game not certain how many victims we have."

Two other SWAT officers received minor fragment wounds in a barrage of gunfire, Bratton said.

There was no immediate explanation of what triggered the bloodbath in the modest San Fernando Valley home, leading to the first line-of-duty death in the 41 years of the Los Angeles Police Department's elite SWAT team.

The unidentified gunman was killed about 11 hours after barricading himself in the house and telling police in a 911 call he had killed three relatives, police said. Those victims' identities were not immediately known.

The shooting occurred at the home of a man, his wife and their three sons, said Armando Rivera, who identified himself as a cousin.

The slain officer was Randal Simmons, 51, who left a wife and two children. His colleague James Veenstra, 51, was in stable condition after surgery, said Assistant Chief Jim McDonnell. Veenstra's wife is a police captain.

"Today's a sad and tragic day here in the city of Los Angeles," said an emotional Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who revealed that both officers, 20-year members of SWAT, were assigned to protect his children last year.

Veenstra had three hours of surgery at Northridge Medical Center to remove fragments of the bullet that went through his lip and shattered his jaw, said Dr. Gabriel Aslanian.

Veenstra's prognosis "should be very good," Aslanian said.

Bratton said entering the home was a proper SWAT tactic.

"If there's a belief that a hostage is in danger, they will seek to make entry. ... SWAT did what we would have expected them to do," the chief said.

Bratton said preliminary information from the 911 call indicated as many as six people were in the house.

Preliminary information gave no hint of problems with police actions, but a complete review will be done, consistent with policy, said Police Commission Inspector General Andre Birotte, whose panel functions as the civilian overseer of the Police Department.

A SWAT team surrounded the house minutes after the 911 call about 9 p.m. Wednesday. About three hours later, officers entered the one-story home and were met with a barrage of gunfire, authorities said.

Inside, they found two males dead and another who might have been alive, Assistant Chief Michael Moore said.

After the two officers were shot, police retreated with their wounded colleagues and the other person, who was pronounced dead outside. Moore said the three men might have been related to one another or to the family that lived in the house.

Authorities then located family members of the gunman, who asked him to surrender.

"Unfortunately the suspect had absolutely no contact with us, made no effort to surrender," Moore said.

A woman who ran from the rear of the home during the siege was rescued. Police believe she had been hiding inside during the entire ordeal.

Police said the suspect used mattresses to hide as they shot tear gas inside the home. He made "every effort in our mind to further attack officers and ambush us," Moore said.

The blaze could have started when a stun grenade was thrown inside, police said.

The gunman died in another exchange of gunfire.

"When you look at the amount of shots fired and the threat to this community, we're very thankful SWAT intervened," McDonnell said. "It could have been much worse."

Associated Press writer Michael R. Blood contributed to this report.