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'All Hell Broke Loose' As Police Chased the San Bernardino Shooters.
How the hunt for the pair who killed 14 people in a terrorist attack ended with 455 bullets fired on a suburban street.
Los Angeles Times – Dec. 13, 2015
By Joel Rubin,
Brittny Mejia and
Redlands police Sgt. Andy Capps is seen at a news conference.
(Credit: Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times)
The light turned green, and the black Ford Expedition pulled away. Not too fast, not too slow. Redlands police Sgt. Andy Capps was behind the SUV with his emergency lights and siren on, but the driver didn't stop.
It was six minutes after 3 on Wednesday afternoon. Hours earlier, a masked man and woman, clad in black and armed with military-style rifles, had stormed into a holiday party a few miles away in neighboring San Bernardino. Fourteen people were dead. Others were fighting for their lives.
A black SUV had been seen fleeing the scene. Capps had told his officers to stay alert, but privately he wasn't worried. Never in a million years will we encounter these people, he thought. Now he thought otherwise. Following the Expedition from a few car lengths behind, he could make out two people inside. They seemed to be changing clothes and handing objects back and forth. Capps grabbed his radio. He warned officers in the cars behind him that the pair were probably arming themselves and putting on bulletproof vests.
The Expedition turned right onto San Bernardino Avenue. Seconds later, its back window exploded. Gun muzzle flashes erupted from the back seat of the SUV. A volley of bullets flew toward Capps. A short lull, then another eruption. I hope it doesn't hurt too much when I get shot, Capps thought as he drove into the gunfire.
The assailants at the Inland Regional Center had targeted a gathering of county health workers. In the chaos that followed, an employee mentioned a hunch to a cop.
"A male subject who was in the meeting left out of the blue," the officer reported over the radio to a dispatcher. "Um, and 20 minutes later the shooting occurred. The subject's name is Farbook — Frank Adam Roger Ocean Ocean King. First of Syed — Sam Yellow Edward David." A search of law enforcement databases turned up a few addresses in the area linked to Farook. San Bernardino police scrambled to dispatch officers to each of the residences. First on the list was a townhouse on Center Street in Redlands, about six miles away.
Sometime in the afternoon, a pair of detectives pulled up in front of the brown, two-story property. But, dressed in suits and driving a type of sedan typically used by police, they stood out as obvious cops. A team of undercover narcotics officers who specialized in surveillance was sent out to replace them.
Just as the undercover team was arriving in the area, a black Expedition approached. Police would later learn that the vehicle had been rented by Syed Rizwan Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik. Detectives watched as the SUV slowed in front of the townhouse but kept moving down the street — "a soft drive by," one of the officers reported over the radio. The vehicle disappeared down the block, and for a few nervous minutes its whereabouts were unknown.
"It left, ahh, on Redlands at State Street," one of the officers radioed. "We're trying to catch up." Hearing the exchange, several more officers announced they were heading to the area. Police managed to quickly find the SUV and officers in unmarked cars trailed it surreptitiously as it wound its way through the streets of Redlands.
Capps came on duty at 11 that morning, just as the shooting rampage was unfolding. Instead of the quiet day he expected to spend supervising a handful of patrol officers, the 48-year-old watched as nervous residents flooded emergency lines at three times the typical volume of calls.
Some of his officers responded to a false alarm report of a shooter laying siege at the local Amazon distribution warehouse. Capps listened on the radio as others went in pursuit of a stolen vehicle. Knowing a supervisor would be needed there, he headed in the direction of the chase.
As he crossed an overpass to get on the San Bernardino Freeway, Capps noticed the driver of a silver Dodge van ahead of him frantically flailing his arm out the window. Capps pulled up alongside the van. A young bearded man met his eyes. "Can I help you?" Capps asked. "San Bernardino PD," the man said. "We're following a suspect's vehicle, we don't have any marked units and we need your help." Capps wouldn't learn until later that the driver was Nicholas Koahou, one of the undercover officers who had been tailing the black SUV.
Capps fell in behind Koahou as he tore west down the freeway at about 100 mph. He broadcast his whereabouts to a Redlands dispatcher, asking her to get any information she could from San Bernardino police about the unfolding situation.
Capps and his officers had checked out more than one bogus call of a suspicious black SUV that day. As he drove, he thought this could just be another one. But the urgency in Koahou's voice told him this time might be different. Minutes later, they exited the freeway onto Tippecanoe Avenue and immediately got caught in heavy traffic at a red light. Capps saw another arm waving at him from a pickup truck. He maneuvered alongside. "What are we looking for?" he asked. The undercover officer pointed ahead. Several cars up, a black Expedition was idling at the traffic light.
Capps pulled into the opposite lane as the light turned green and slipped in behind the SUV as it drove away from the light. Looking in his rearview window, he was relieved to see a motorcycle cop and several cars from his department and others not far behind. "This is too crazy," he thought to himself. "How could this really be them?'"
When David Espinoza arrived for his afternoon shift as a supervisor at a warehouse on San Bernardino Avenue, he was told to keep an eye on the front gate. The shooting that morning had everyone spooked. About an hour later, shortly after 3, Espinoza was chatting outside the gate with another worker when he caught the distant wail of police sirens. Looking down the street to the west he saw a black SUV followed by a cavalcade of police cars. Thinking it wasn't anything big, he nonetheless reached for his phone and started recording.
The SUV wasn't moving fast, maybe 40 mph. It passed by and Espinoza, 46, saw two people inside. A loud pop cracked the air. Espinoza was momentarily confused. But as the back window of the SUV shattered, he pieced together what was happening. "That's when it got to me. That's them," he said. The hazard lights on the SUV started flashing after that first shot. Several more rounds came from the SUV as it continued along the street.
Espinoza saw the driver: Two hands gripping the steering wheel, glancing back two or three times at the police cars giving chase. "He had that face of — scared," Espinoza said. Then, "all hell broke loose," he said. Bullets sounded as if they were slamming into the warehouse. "Close the gate! Close the gate!' he screamed.
Across the street, Billy Sirk was up on a ladder in the front yard of a rental property he owned, sawing branches off an overgrown tree. From his perch, Sirk saw the police cars coming. The SUV passed by and then came to a stop a short distance down the street. He watched as a woman opened one of the back doors and began shooting at police with a "long gun." Boom, boom, boom, boom," he recalled. Sirk dropped from the ladder and ran to the back of the house. He peered out at the gun battle on the street. He pushed on the back door. It was locked. "Open the door for me, please!" he shouted, pounding on it. A teenage boy opened the door. The child's mother was standing inside with her hands up, praying.
Capps slammed on his brakes and unlatched the AR-15 rifle he kept anchored between the two front seats. Throwing open the door, he got out and, crouching, made his way to the back of his vehicle. Positioned on one knee, he raised his rifle to his shoulder and took aim. Directly in front of him, about 30 yards away, he saw Farook standing just outside the driver's side door firing at officers. Capps let off several rounds and then turned his attention to the gunfire coming from the back seat of the SUV. Time collapsed in on itself. Seconds could have been hours.
A deafening gunshot erupted next to his ear. Another officer had rushed up behind him and was firing directly over his shoulder. When the officer ran out of ammunition, he fell back and another arrived to let off another barrage. Bullets smashed into homes and parked cars, shattering windows.
Overhead, two officers circled in a police helicopter. In the deluge of 911 calls, someone had mistakenly reported seeing a third person running from the SUV into a nearby alley. "Forty-King, you on this frequency?" a dispatcher asked over the radio, trying to summon the helicopter's pilot. "My partner is transitioned in the back seat with an M-4 rifle.... I'm going to be flying the helicopter and working the radios all at the same time," the pilot said.
Shaun Wallen, a deputy with the San Bernardino Sheriff's Department, had pulled his car past Capps to his left and taken a position closer to the SUV. Koahou, the undercover officer who had flagged Capps down, took the scene in from farther back. He worried that Wallen was too exposed. He decided to bring the deputy back to a safer position. After an exchange of gunfire with Farook, Koahou made his move. He ran toward Wallen. Farook was now face down in the street, blood pooling around his body. Malik was continuing to fire. As he ran, Koahou stumbled and fell. He felt like someone had punched him hard in the thigh. "I looked down at my leg and saw there was a bullet hole in it,' Koahou recalled.
Over the roar of the gunfire, Capps heard the shouts of "officer down!" Trying to block out the torrent of questions and fears that rose up in his mind — How bad are they hurt? Is it one of my guys? — he knew he had to keep his rifle trained on the SUV. "We need medical aid!" a San Bernardino officer radioed to a dispatcher. Hearing the frantic call for help, the pilot of a rescue helicopter circled nearby asking for an exact location so he could land.
A few officers quickly formed a plan and moved out from cover into the open street together to rescue Koahou, who was pinned down. The officers brought Koahou back behind the patrol cars. Not seriously hurt, Koahou refused to leave the scene. "It's Officer Koahou, he's code four," an officer reported to the pilot over the radio. "We do not need to extract him."
Capps reflected afterward on the rescue. "It made me feel very proud and it made me feel very safe, for lack of a better term, in the middle of all that," he said. "I knew we were all taking care of each other out there."
Officer Nicholas Koahou leaves the lectern after speaking to reporters. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
It is unclear how long the gunfight lasted. Capps' best guess is about five minutes. But at some point it became clear the gunfire coming from the SUV had stopped. Capps spotted SWAT teams in armored vehicles coming down the wide street. "Hold your fire!" officers yelled at others who were continuing to shoot. Malik's lifeless body lay in the back seat of the bullet-riddled SUV. Farook was dead across the street.
Investigators would tally 380 bullets fired by 23 officers or deputies. Farook and Malik, meanwhile, shot about 75 times.
Still on his knee, Capps rose to his feet. He stretched his body, marveling that his vehicle had been hit by only two bullets. He checked his phone. There was a text message his adult daughter had sent during the firefight. "Watching news. They just showed a graphic shot of one of the suspects down." "I was in that shootout," Capps texted back. "I'm OK."