It had been a busy shift for Officer Philip Bozarth and Officer Juan Sanchez of the San Diego Police Department. They had spent the chilly early morning hours of Jan. 17, 1998, answering an unusually high number of domestic violence incidents, complaints of narcotics trafficking, reports of gunfire of ill-defined origins, and traffic violations.
By the waning hours of their shift, Bozarth and Sanchez were slowly navigating their way toward a Denny’s for breakfast. That’s when one more standard early morning call went out: a prowler in an apartment complex.
The handling unit had a 10-minute response time, while a mere six blocks separated Bozarth and Sanchez from the location. Bozarth wasn’t one to jump calls or assume handles, but he did believe in helping out. He keyed the radio and took the assist.
The location was in a section of San Diego that locals call “Shell Town.” Decades before, the lower income housing area within the Southeast Division’s jurisdiction had been dotted with a series of Quonset huts, hence the nickname. The domed domiciles had long since disappeared, but the name “Shell Town” and the poverty of the residents remained.
As they neared the location, Bozarth and Sanchez were advised by the dispatcher that the caller had hung up and callbacks to the location had gone unanswered.
Pulling onto the 1100 block of South 36th Street, Bozarth recognized the dead-end apartment complex, but couldn’t recall why he’d been there. A domestic? A burg? Yet another prowler call? Nothing stood out. But he remembered the place and while the area had its share of law-abiding citizens, it also had more than its fair share of the kind of people that kept officers like Bozarth and Sanchez employed.
The apartment complex was really more of a series of self-contained buildings lined up like dominos, none much bigger than the innumerable cardboard shacks that dotted the Mexico border to the south. At a mere 400 square feet, these apartment units were home to San Diego’s poorest residents.
Scoping Out the Scene
Bozarth blacked out the patrol car and pulled up short of the location. He and Sanchez covered the remaining ground on foot.
Bozarth didn’t anticipate that this prowler call would be much different than any other. He thought it would be just that some jittery resident had heard a noise and called the cops.
All the same, if there was a problem to be found, it would probably be to the rear of the location. A veteran field training officer, Bozarth elected to have Sanchez, who had only recently gotten out of field training, take up containment of the front while he went to the back.
The small backyard was unfenced, offering easy access to anyone so inclined to venture onto it. Bozarth illuminated the property with his flashlight. He saw pretty much what he expected to see. Nothing.
Bozarth was sure that this call would involve little more than a quick clearing of the backyard and a reassuring contact of the complainant. Afterward, he and Sanchez would sit down to a well-deserved breakfast.
An Open Door
Such thoughts became moot when Bozarth saw the back door to the apartment was ajar, and a light was on in the kitchen beyond. Sidling to the back wall of the apartment building, Bozarth noticed fresh damage to the door jam. The door had been kicked in.
Using the door frame for cover, Bozarth peeked inside. That’s when he saw two males running away from him through the kitchen area toward the front door of the apartment.
Bozarth keyed his radio mic, simultaneously alerting his partner and other officers, “We’ve got rabbits!”
Not wanting the two to get the drop on his partner and knowing the shortest distance was a straight line, Bozarth entered the kitchen and went in foot pursuit of the two. Immediately, he heard Sanchez yell, “Get your hands in the air!” As Bozarth neared the doorway leading to the living room, he thought that the two had gotten as far as the front door and Sanchez had intercepted them.
What Bozarth didn’t realize was that the suspects had found their escape route blocked thanks to a deadbolted front door. While one suspect tore desperately at the blinds of the living room window, the other had decided to double back to the kitchen. It was this suspect, Martin Castro, a 17-year-old gang member, who confronted Bozarth.
Castro had been a busy lad in the weeks preceding the burglary. Known as “Mugsy” to his fellow bangers, Castro was a frequent customer of the juvenile justice system. He had in recent weeks committed a series of violent assaults, including an attempted carjacking in which the victim was gut-shot twice. The gun that was used in that shooting had also been used in a murder.
Bozarth and Castro had one thing in common when they nearly collided in the apartment’s hallway. They both knew Shell Town and the police activity that took place therein.
Castro used his knowledge of the neighborhood to pick his target. The recent arrest of a man from an apartment in the 1100 block of South 36th Street meant that the only thing standing between him and the man’s drugs and money was a lone female resident. Donning a heavy, dark starter’s jacket, a beanie, and blue jeans, he headed for the apartment with an accomplice.
Opportunity knocks for some. Others make their own luck. And when Castro showed up at the apartment on 36th Street, he booted the door.
Bozarth entered the hallway at a dead-run, intent on helping his partner. Six feet away and closing fast was Martin Castro.
Castro was determined to get through the only thing standing between himself and freedom. He thrust a military-style .45 directly in front of him, chest level, a round chambered, the hammer locked back, the gaping muzzle pointed at Bozarth.
Three feet separated Bozarth and the goateed gang banger with the .45.
Bozarth raised his sidearm, a Beretta 92FS, and fired four rounds in rapid succession.
The first round struck Castro in the chest and penetrated his heart. The second entered the right side of the gang member’s face before stopping in his brain. Rounds three and four hit Castro in the back as his body spun and fell.
Bozarth held his aim as he watched Castro’s dead weight hit the floor. He felt the encroachment of shock trying to get a toe-hold on his body and mind, but he also recognized the situation was still hot. Using the door frame for position cover, he took a visual inventory of Castro’s body. The burglar was face down, probably lying atop his gun, and almost certainly dead.
Bozarth turned his aim on the second suspect, who immediately surrendered.
It wasn’t Bozarth’s first shooting. He would also be in more in the years to come. But this one resonated with him in a unique manner for several reasons. First, never before or since had he been so close to a suspect, so close to dying.
Also, the other shootings had some hint of anticipated danger. They evolved around calls or surveillance activities where the threat of violence was readily apparent.