Just before 1 a.m. on June 12, 1999, Orange County Sheriff’s Deputy Bradley Riches was on routine patrol when he pulled up to a 7-Eleven in Lake Forest after spotting a man with a weapon walk into the convenience store.
The man turned out to be a local, Maurice Steskal, who was armed with an AK-47 assault rifle. Steskal had just gotten into an argument with his wife.
Steskal, 39, told the clerk he wasn’t there to rob the store, but planned to use the weapon on “pigs,” according to court testimony.
Riches had started his shift at midnight and had cleared a noise complaint call and had wolfed down a burrito from Del Taco when he pulled up to the 7-Eleven.
Steskal, described in court as a lifelong cop hater with a history of arrests for drunk driving, drugs and assaulting a police officer, walked out of the store and opened fire on Riches, blasting him with 30 rounds.
Riches, 34, had no chance.
Several of the bullets fired from Steskal’s assault rifle tore through Riches’ bulletproof vest.
Before he died, the deputy managed to begin an emergency radio transmission.
He wasn’t able to return fire.
Riches was murdered simply for wearing a badge — just like the five officers in Dallas were Thursday night, according to authorities, in a shocking spasm of violence that continued to reverberate Friday, particularly among members of the law enforcement community.
“It’s tragic that a fairly isolated event many years ago has now turned into this systematic targeting by some of any and all police officers,” said David Brent, a former O.C. prosecutor.
Steskal eventually was sentenced to death for the murder of Riches.
“I am heartbroken that a country built on law and order seems to be self-destructing to some degree,” said Brent, who retired as an assistant district attorney and now lives out of state. “There seems to be so much hate, bitterness and anger.
“I hope we can all reflect on how we got here, and each one of us can think about the steps we can take for positive change.”
ANOTHER O.C. COP EXECUTION
Two years before Riches was executed, another law enforcement officer was murdered in Orange County for wearing a badge.
Shayne York, 26, an off-duty Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputy, had stopped by a hair salon in Buena Park with his fiancée, a fellow deputy, before the couple’s planned trip to Las Vegas.
They encountered two L.A. gang members who were in the process of a takeover robbery.
After ordering York and his fiancée to lie on the floor, one of the suspects found York’s badge in his wallet.
He made a disparaging remark about cops and then shot York in the back of the head, killing him instantly.
The two killers spared York’s fiancée, Jennifer Parish, because of her gender, court testimony would reveal.
The July 7 killings in Dallas — a sniper attack that left four Dallas PD officers and a Dallas transit officer dead, and seven other officers and two civilians injured — understandably has sparked outrage and sadness.
Riches was the first O.C. sheriff’s deputy to be fatally shot while on patrol in more than four decades.
The first O.C. deputy to respond early that morning to the scene, at the 7-Eleven at Ridge Route Drive and Muirlands Boulevard, was Deputy Steve Torres, now a patrol sergeant who works out of the OCSD substation in Stanton.
Torres, now 53, was a patrol deputy in south Orange County with 13 years of experience at the OCSD the morning Riches was murdered.
He was near the end of a double shift — back then, deputies worked eight-hour shifts — working a suspicious vehicle call with two other deputies.
Suddenly, the three deputies heard gunfire erupt.
“It almost sounded like it was next to us,” Torres said. “There was no doubt it was high-powered gunfire.”
They heard Riches’ radio transmission, but had no idea where he was – less than a mile away.
All three thought: Brad’s in a gunfight. We need to go help him.
It took Torres four minutes to find Riches’ patrol car — a drive that would have taken 30 seconds if he had known where Riches was.
Torres walked up to Riches’ bullet-ridden patrol car.
“It almost seemed like a bad prank,” he said.
Riches was slumped in his seat, eyes open. He still was strapped into the driver seat.
“He had a couple of nicks on his body,” Torres said. “It wasn’t a gory, bloody scene.”
Riches bled out under his vest.
Torres recalled thinking he couldn’t do anything for Riches, so he focused on “catching the a—holes” who did this, he recalled in an interview Friday, July 8.
About 4 ½ hours after Riches was murdered, deputies arrested Steskal in his apartment.
Torres’ planned 16-hour shift stretched into 28 to 29 hours.
“Back then, as a profession, we were kind of in denial that something like this could happen to us,” Torres said.
For weeks, Torres said he was depressed and angry about the ambush killing of Riches.
Torres credits his wife of 29 years and three children for getting him through the trauma.
These days, he noted, are much different for law enforcement.
“What drives me nuts is that in the last few years, law enforcement has become to be perceived by many as being the enemy of the people,” Torres said.
When Torres heard about the killings in Dallas, he felt many emotions — and thought about his fallen comrade, Riches.
“I felt anger and sadness,” Torres said. “And I thought about the families of the victims.”
Thursday night, Torres got a text from his 25-year-old son after news of the Dallas shootings spread.
Are you working?
Torres said he rarely gets text from his son, Steve, a grocery store manager.
His son was relieved to hear he was OK.
Torres texted back:
Thank you, son.
Friday afternoon, before Torres left to report to his 6 p.m. shift in Stanton, his 15-year-old daughter, Savannah, walked up to him.
She gave him a big hug.
A MESSAGE TO DEPUTIES
At briefings for his patrol deputies, Torres often likes to drive home a message.
“This is the reality of the day and age in our line of work,” he tells them. “Expect these kinds of things (being shot at) to happen. If it never happens to you, great. But if you ever find yourself in a situation where your partner is down, and there’s nothing you can do, remember you still have a job to do. Remember you have a sacred duty to protect the community.”
“That’s what makes me so proud of our profession,” he said. “We run into (trouble), not away from it.”
The Rev. Mark E. Whitlock Jr., pastor of Christ Our Redeemer Church in Irvine, part of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, is one of Orange County’s leading religious figures.
Reached Friday in Philadelphia where he is attending a general conference for AME churches, Whitlock said he was saddened by the tragic events in Dallas.
“No one can justify shooting 12 innocent police officers who went to work to protect and serve and who instead ended up going home in a casket,” Whitlock said. “That is not acceptable. There’s nothing that took place in Dallas or any place in the world that would justify that type of treatment.”
Whitlock said the recent fatal shooting in Minnesota of motorist Philandro Castle by a police officer, as well as the fatal shooting of Alton Sterling in Louisiana by an officer — and other recent controversial officer-involved shootings — “must come to an end.”
Said Whitlock: “The police agencies that I am affiliated with know that some police officers — not all police officers — have an implicit bias against communities of color, and we must examine ourselves as Americans to deal with this desire to hurt or desire to use firearms and expect a peaceful resolve.”
Whitlock is an advocate of gun control.
“It’s easier to get a gun then to get into college,” he said.
In August 2015, Whitlock and the OC Human Relations Commission established the Interfaith Advisory Council, which now meets every two months and whose board members include Sheriff Sandra Hutchens.
The Orange County Sheriff’s Dept. and Irvine PD were instrumental in the IAC’s formation, and Hutchens is the only law enforcement official to sit on the commission, which aims to foster religious and ethnic tolerance.
Whitlock praised Hutchens for helping develop the commission to foster a dialogue between police officers and the community — especially communities of color.
“Not only was she open to the idea,” Whitlock said, “but she put the full weight of the OCSD behind it. I think that’s a great step — to get the clergy involved and to get community leaders involved.”
Added Whitlock: “We need to stop worrying about policing the police and begin to practice policing ourselves, whether we wear a uniform or not. We must begin to open up channels of communication to bring about a peaceful resolve.”