Calls of someone threatening suicide come in often — two or three a week, at least — but none in the deputies’ experience have ended up like the one April 27.
Three Orange County Sheriff’s Department deputies at about 6:30 p.m. were dispatched to a call involving a suicidal man with a gun in the garage of his home on Paseo Castile in San Juan Capistrano.
On most days, a call like this would summon all five deputies assigned to that shift at the San Juan Capistrano OCSD substation to the scene, but on that Wednesday evening two deputies were out of pocket because their vehicles had been recalled.
Deputies Leith Chacon, Juan Lopez and Anthony Franco responded to the call.
As they pulled onto the street lined with well-manicured front lawns and pristinely maintained homes, they parked two houses away.
Chacon, driving the lead car, could see the garage door was open.
“We were just taking precautions as we tried to get the man on the phone,” he said.
In cases like these, deputies usually try and contact family to reach the distraught person in the hopes of talking them down.
This man, however, didn’t want to talk.
Chacon and Franco opened the doors to the patrol car and posted up behind them, while Lopez flanked left and tried to approach the home from another angle — textbook tactics, their superiors said.
Then Chacon heard the rack of a gun.
“It’s a very distinct sound,” he said. “It’s the sound a gun makes when you put a round in the chamber.”
The suspect emerged from the garage, barefoot and slightly staggering, firing an illegal automatic rifle and spraying dozens of rounds at the deputies.
“It was not at all what I expected,” Chacon said. “I never expected a fully automatic weapon.”
Windshields and windows of the patrol cars burst, sending glass shards spiraling to the ground.
The brattle of metal pierced by .223-caliber bullets reverberated through the usually quiet housing tract.
“It was the loudest sound I have ever heard,” Chacon said.
A neighbor who lived in the home behind where the deputies’ parked their patrol cars dropped to the floor as his bathroom walls exploded in splinters of wood and drywall.
Deputies later would retrieve dozens of bullets from that neighbor’s home.
Chacon got on the radio and put out the call: “Deputies involved in a firefight.”
“That and a baby not breathing are the worst calls that can come over the radio,” said Investigator Anton Pereyra, who worked on the case. “Nothing will make us drive faster or harder.”
More than 30 units charged to the neighborhood deputies described as usually having very little police activity.
Time seemed to crawl as they waited for the firing to stop and backup to arrive, but there was no time for fear or anxiety.
“I could hear the magazine drop, then a reload; it seemed to go so slowly,” said Chacon, who is married with a newborn baby. “We just did what we had to do to survive. Training just kicked in.”
That training told the deputies to take cover and duck back because they immediately knew two things: They were outgunned and opening fire at a suspect who was taking cover in a garage was much too risky.
“We’re not here to charge a handgun versus a rifle,” said OCSD Lt. Scott Spalding. “One of those (rounds) is deadly. Their vest does not stop those.
“Their movements saved their lives.”
Then there was the environment to account for — a row of homes, possibly with neighbors home from work, and the house of the suicidal man, which deputies knew had people inside, possibly children.
“We are not trained to fire blindly,” Spalding said. “We have to consider background.”
Added Chacon: “We can’t just open fire in a residential neighborhood like that.”
As the suspect continued to shoot, Deputy Tobin Anderson, assigned to Dana Point, arrived on scene.
Something about that call made him head in that direction before fire erupted.
“When you get enough experience out here there are just those calls that something doesn’t feel right,” he said. “This was one of those. One of those where the hair on the back of your neck stands up.”
After about 30 seconds of intense gunfire, Paseo Castile returned to its previous quiet state.
The suspect walked out of his garage with his hands over his head and tossed the rifle onto the driveway.
The deputies quickly took him into custody, then later found boxes of more ammunition and several other guns in the man’s garage.
Nobody was injured in the incident.
“This call showed us two things: one, that we got amazingly lucky; and two, how training and experience can push a good outcome,” said Pereyra, who worked 27 straight hours getting the suspect booked and evidence collected.
The man is currently being held on $3 million bail and is facing three felony counts of attempted murder on a peace officer and three counts of discharging a firearm in commission of a felony.
This incident won’t change the way OCSD responds to suicidal subject calls because department leaders say protocols are solid and they handled it right.
It does, however, serve as a reminder — too close to home for some — to always stay alert.
“Complacency kills in incidents like this,” Chacon said.
Added Spalding: “We’d like people to realize what kinds of things first responders are going into every day. These deputies have to make split-second decisions and the parameters they have to work in are very narrow.
“They have to be ready for everything.”