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Departments : Shots Fired

Shots Fired: Corona, California 11-07-2002

Chasing after an escaping suspect, Officer Dan Dunnigan had to fight for his life and the life of his trainee.

November 01, 2008  |  by - Also by this author


If you or your trainee happen to be bilingual, it's a safe bet that you eventually will be imposed upon to translate for another patrol unit. And if you work in Southern California—a region where the population includes people who speak hundreds of the world's 370 different dialects and languages—odds are that your language skills are going to be needed by other officers sooner rather than later.

That's what happened to Corona police officer Dan Dunnigan and his trainee of three days, Marilyn Alvarado. They were called to assist on a domestic violence case where the complainant did not speak English.

A seven-year law enforcement veteran at the time, Dunnigan was accustomed to transporting bilingual trainees to calls. Most days, it was simply a matter of getting victims to feel comfortable enough to open up and tell their story.

But on Nov. 7, 2002, their assistance was needed for something else entirely.

Verbal Abuse

The events of that day unfolded with the usual acquisition of sordid information: A woman alleged that verbal abuse escalated into gunfire by her boyfriend, 24-year-old Daniel Barton, a parolee at large.

After a time-consuming check for Barton at one location proved fruitless, Dunnigan and Alvarado returned to the station. Hours passed, and the two were advised that new intel placed the suspect inside an apartment complex off the 1500 block of West Sixth Street. Later they were asked to roll back out to help while other officers effected a containment of the apartment. And Dunnigan was game.

It was dark by the time Dunnigan's blacked out patrol car pulled into an alley behind a shopping center on the west side of town. The shopping center backed up to the rear of an apartment complex where Barton was believed to be hiding out in an upstairs apartment that overlooked the alley.

Dunnigan surveyed the lay of the land. Separating the two properties was a 15-foot-tall brick wall. Scaling this barrier from the shopping center alley would be impossible for him or Alvarado, but—owing to the undulant terrain of the apartment complex—not for someone on its opposite side.

Unsure as to which sections of the wall could be exploited, Dunnigan parked his unit far enough down the alley to ensure that all points of possible escape were visually covered while allowing him to watch the upstairs apartment.

Where is He?

While Dunnigan and Alvarado situated themselves in the alley, other officers transported an informant to the location to confirm the apartment in question. As they did so, a vehicle pulled in behind their unmarked car. The informant told the undercover officers that he recognized the vehicle as one that he'd seen the suspect in on prior occasions.

The undercover officers advised over the radio that they intended to conduct a traffic stop on that vehicle. Dunnigan knew that with the number of undercover officers saturating the area, the traffic stop should go off without a hitch.

At least he thought it would, until he saw something that the other officers couldn't: A man resembling Barton exiting the front door of the upstairs apartment.

Be Ready

The man was visibly agitated. He lingered on the landing for a moment. A hundred feet away, Dunnigan grabbed a pair of binoculars.

The clarity the binocs afforded was enough for Dunnigan to confirm his suspicions and advise his fellow officers that Barton was coming down the stairs. He broadcast a description of Barton as the man hurriedly descended beyond the wall and below his visual plane.

Ten seconds passed. It was quiet. Suddenly Dunnigan saw Barton scaling the top of the brick wall. He quickly transmitted this update over the radio as he exited the patrol car.

"Be ready," Dunnigan told Alvarado.

As Dunnigan advised over the radio that he and his partner were going in foot pursuit, he grabbed his baton just as Barton dropped from the wall and hit the ground running. The suspect was apparently unaware that he was actually heading directly toward Alvarado and Dunnigan.

Dunnigan announced their presence and ordered Barton to stop, but Barton darted to his left and fled. Dunnigan and Alvarado chased.

Dark Alley

Despite the alley's darkness, Dunnigan saw Barton looking back to get a bearing on him. Realizing that he was actually gaining on the suspect, Dunnigan realized that something wasn't right. Dunnigan was not the fastest guy around—especially after seven years on the job—and something told him that Barton wasn't slowing down because of fatigue.

As though to confirm Dunnigan's fears, Barton turned his upper torso toward the officers as his right hand went for his waistband.

Dunnigan's mind was in hyperdrive, his cerebral and visual cortexes operated as one. He realized that he was seeing nothing less than Barton's attempt to fulfill a promise to not go back to prison and that a shooting was imminent.

Dunnigan dropped his baton and reached for his sidearm. Barton's gun swung toward him, and its barrel spit fire. Flashes of amber split the night as Barton's Ruger blazed at Dunnigan a mere 10 feet away.

Dunnigan's world slowed down as he brought up his Beretta 92 and zeroed in on Barton. Inexplicably, Dunnigan fell to the ground.

There was no accounting for it, but suddenly his footing and hearing abandoned him. Dunnigan's face smashed against the pavement, gravel imbedding itself into his forehead. Still, he continued to fire.

Barton side stepped and fired spasmodically back at Dunnigan as he continued to make his escape.

As suddenly as it had begun, the shooting ended. Dunnigan had fired until lockback; his mag of 16 9mm rounds was spent.

Meanwhile, Barton retreated to another section of the wall, jumped onto it, and attempted to pull himself up. His grip failed him and he slumped to the ground.

Dunnigan stared at the man, transfixed. He quickly reloaded his Beretta then, covering Barton with the sidearm, and called out for Alvarado to ask if she was OK. From the cover of a nearby wall, Dunnigan's trainee advised him that she was uninjured.

He's Right There!

Relieved, Dunnigan keyed the emergency button of his handheld.

As other officers converged into the alley, they asked Dunnigan where the suspect was. Dunnigan pointed at the suspect, telling the officers, "He's right there!" For Dunnigan, the suspect seemed bathed in the glow of a spotlamp created by a kind of night vision that he'd never experienced before.

The other officers couldn't see the suspect in the darkness of the alley. Officer Ryan Brett asked Dunnigan again what happened and where the suspect was. Again, the frustrated Dunnigan pointed to the end of the alley.

"He's right there," Dunnigan told Brett. "He's at the end of the alley. He's lying down on the ground. We've just been in a shooting, and I think I've been shot."

Dunnigan's suspicion that he was wounded strengthened when he realized that he couldn't move his legs.

Meanwhile, four of his fellow officers advanced down the alley, MP5s at the ready. Seconds later the suspect was in custody.

Wounds and Recovery

Barton was transported to a hospital where he was treated for internal organ damage before being booked at Riverside General in Moreno Valley.

Meanwhile, Dunnigan began his own battle for recovery.

"I was hit twice," Dunnigan says. "Once in the left arm, a through and through. It didn't hit any bones, never had any problems with that, they didn't even stitch it up. It was just two small holes that they let heal."

It was Dunnigan's second wound that would prove problematic.

"It entered my lower stomach area just below the vest, traveled around on the inside, and nicked the femoral nerve for the quad before stopping just short of my stomach. It was the injury to my quad that caused me to fall.

"When they cut my clothes off, I was already on my stomach. They could see the bullet in my back just under the skin. My doctor later said it was really easy. They just cut the skin right at the bullet where they could see it bulging and it popped right out.

"When I woke up from surgery, my whole left leg was numb, like it was asleep," Dunnigan reflects.

"You know how you get that tingly feeling? My whole leg was like that. It started going away, but the function never returned. I lost quad function on my left leg. I couldn't sit at a 90-degree angle and lift my left leg up straight at all. I lost total feeling and motor function for my quad. I had no problem walking. At first I used a walker, then crutches, and then a cane for a while for support. But I was compensating with my right.

"Finally, I had a nurse case manager who found a doctor in Santa Monica who took my case on and did the nerve transplant surgery. He'd done it before but he said the diagnosis was not good. But he said you might get 10 percent back, you might get more, you just don't know until you do it.

"So we did it and a few months later, function slowly started coming back to where I could sit with my legs at a 90-degree angle and lift my foot and make my leg straight. It gave me 80 to 85 percent function in my quad back."

As bad as Dunnigan's injuries were, he could have fared worse—one of the suspect's rounds had stovepiped in his pistol, possibly preventing a fatal shot.

Dunnigan wants to minimize having to rely on such luck in the future. To this end, he has incorporated a new workout regimen into his schedule.

"At the time I was a little overweight, 5-feet, 10-inches and 230 pounds," Dunnigan reflects. "So a little bit of a gut. I wasn't a runner, never have been, and wasn't where I would work out all the time. I've since lost weight, partly as a direct result of this incident. Now I'm down to 215 pounds. I work out more these days."

Officer Dan Dunnigan was awarded his department's Medal of Valor and was recognized as Riverside County's Peace Officer of the Year.

Bail Jumper

Barton didn't fare nearly as well. Despite his numerous charges, including attempted murder of a police officer, a judge issued bail for Barton a year later. His family put up the money for bail. Court proceedings started in February 2004. With each court proceeding, Barton started showing up later and later until eventually he didn't show up at all.

A week-long manhunt found Barton hiding out with the same girlfriend who had made the allegations that precipitated the shooting. SWAT made entry into a house the two had allegedly broken into. The girlfriend later related that their plan had been for Barton to pretend to hold her hostage.

Police say their plan was foiled when SWAT sent in a K-9, which attached to her and dragged her away from Barton. Lacking a hostage, he pointed a replica firearm at SWAT officers and was shot. Declared brain dead, Barton was taken off life support a few days later.

Tags: Officer Involved Shootings, Shots Fired, Riverside County (Calif.) Sheriff


Comments (1)

Displaying 1 - 1 of 1

GI Joe @ 11/23/2013 8:47 PM

Glad they deleted that suspect but that judge should have posted a no bail or such a high bail he coukd never bail out. Especially for attempt murder on a cop and he's a parolee, come on. This loser was a danger to all. The girlfriend is a loser to probably with this low life's kids. She needs to go to prison for as long as possible.

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