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Departments : Shots Fired

Shots Fired: Santa Ana, California 12•27•2006

In the parking lot of a strip mall, three tactical officers were forced to engage a violent fugitive in a fierce firefight.

February 12, 2009  |  by - Also by this author

When Officers Roy Wade and Abe Yap of the Long Beach (Calif.) Police Department saw a white Nissan Pathfinder fail to stop for a red light, they pulled behind the vehicle to stop it. Neither officer knew the man seated behind the wheel of the Pathfinder, Oscar Gallegos. Not that Gallegos knew who they were, either. According to investigators, it was enough that they were cops.

Cops had long been a thorn in the side of Oscar Gallegos. He reportedly held them responsible for the incarceration of his older brother, a man that Gallegos idolized.

No, Gallegos didn't like cops, and he'd vowed to his fellow bangers that one day he would kill one.

To hedge his bet, the 31-year-old veterano (veteran gang member) became a frequent patron of gun ranges, acquiring a shooting ability that would be the envy of many whose faces he superimposed over the targets down range. Oscar Gallegos trained for that inevitable day when he would be able to confront those he held in such contempt.

On Dec. 22, 2006, his opportunity came.

As soon as the Long Beach officers activated their lights, Gallegos suddenly stopped the Pathfinder in the middle of traffic. Before either officer could react, Gallegos jumped from the Pathfinder and opened fire on the two, shooting through the windshield as they sat in their patrol car. Yap's face was shattered by a .40 caliber bullet. Four more rounds struck his trainee, Wade, in the upper torso and neck just above his ballistic vest.

Gallegos then jumped back into the Pathfinder and fled the scene, exchanging gunfire with yet another Long Beach unit before abandoning his vehicle at a nearby apartment complex.

And with that, Oscar "Chubbs" Gallegos became the most wanted fugitive in the state of California.

Strike Force

Five days after Gallegos' unprovoked attack on the Long Beach officers, Det. John Rodriguez was walking down the hallway of the Santa Ana (Calif.) Police Department when he was flagged down by his watch commander.

Rodriguez, a member of the department's Strikeforce tactical detail, was told that Gallegos was believed to be hiding out in Santa Ana, about 20 miles southeast of Long Beach. Rodriguez was asked to liaison with Long Beach detectives and assist as needed.

Rodriguez and fellow strike team members Gil Hernandez and Jason Viramontes had heard quite a bit about the shooting and its perpetrator. They knew that the suspect's accuracy had nearly proven lethal for their Long Beach brethren; photographs of tight bullet hole patterns in the ambushed patrol car's windshield left little ambiguity about the suspect's taste for violence and his ability to act on it.

Rodriguez shared what information he had with Hernandez and Viramontes. As their remaining team members were off for the Christmas holidays, the trio decided to forego their regular black-and-white to ride three-deep in an unmarked Crown Victoria. It would prove to be a fateful decision.

For the rest of the day they handled their own details, periodically keeping abreast of the progress of the Gallegos investigation. Around 5 p.m. toward their shift's end, they received a cellular call from a Long Beach sergeant: Gallegos was believed to be a passenger in a Toyota Camry currently being driven through the streets of Santa Ana.

Stop the Car!

As Viramontes drove, Hernandez relayed the information he was monitoring through his cellular connection with the LBPD sergeant: The Camry was last seen entering a parking lot off East Warner where it'd parked. It appeared that Gallegos had exited the vehicle and walked to a nearby taco shop. The whereabouts of the Camry's driver were unknown.

At the direction of Long Beach officers, Viramontes cautiously pulled into the lot. As Hernandez propped open the rear passenger door with his foot, Viramontes slowly coasted the Crown Vic through the lot. Hernandez, still monitoring the radio coordination through his cell phone, heard an officer advise that the suspect was walking through the strip mall directly under a sign that said "WATER."

This information immediately resonated with Hernandez, who recognized that the only thing standing between the unmarked car and the water store was a van that was parked head in to the curb. If the officers coasted any further beyond the rear of the van, they would be caught like sitting ducks for Gallegos.

"Stop the car!" Hernandez yelled. "He's right there!"

Viramontes hit the brakes. The officers spotted the Pendleton-clad Gallegos, looking much like his photo save for the baseball cap, which was pulled down low on his forehead.

Gallegos glanced up at the car. The team was wearing black SWAT uniforms—modified patrol uniforms—that clearly identified them as police officers. But given Gallegos' vantage point and the darkness of evening setting in, the officers shared the unspoken opinion that the only thing that might tip off Gallegos were the push bars mounted on their otherwise unmarked unit.

It was enough.

10 Seconds of Hell

Without hesitation, Gallegos opened fire with his .40 caliber Glock; his first round struck Rodriguez' passenger door as the officer jumped out of the car. Gallegos, crouched in a Weaver stance, continued to fire, tracking Rodriguez with his laser sight as the officer threw himself to the ground next to the van.

Simultaneously, Hernandez kicked open the rear passenger door of the Crown Vic and darted for the cover of the van. As glass from the van's windows exploded toward him from Gallegos' onslaught, Hernandez saw Gallegos firing at him from a familiar isosceles stance on the opposite side of the van; the red dot of the suspect's laser sights pinballed back and forth between the Crown Vic and himself.

His own Glock in hand, Hernandez edged closer to the van. By closing the distance and shooting rapid fire, he hoped to drop Gallegos before one of the suspect's rounds struck him or his fellow officers. Lacking the luxury of time to line up his sights for a head shot, Hernandez opted to go for center mass. And at 5 foot 9 inches and 250 pounds, Gallegos provided a lot of mass. Hernandez fired at Gallegos, round after round cycling through the Glock.

And still Gallegos stood, seemingly unfazed by Hernandez' fire. Hernandez expected the suspect to show some sign of being hit: for Gallegos' body to recoil or at least flinch. Instead, the gang member continued to squeeze off his own rounds, concentrating his fire toward Hernandez, who crouched momentarily below Gallegos' visual plane to make himself a smaller target.

At the first sound of gunfire, Jason Viramontes rolled out of the driver's door and ducked down. I know he knows where I'm at: the car's moving, there's got to be a driver there. I'm outta this car, he thought.

Viramontes popped up over the left rear tire of the vehicle and saw that Rodriguez and Hernandez were already in the thick of it. Rodriguez proned himself out on the asphalt and fired beneath the van at Gallegos' lower extremities while Hernandez engaged Gallegos with a volley from the passenger side of the van. Viramontes fired five or six rounds at Gallegos. In response, Gallegos turned his attention on him and began firing. Viramontes ducked, then moved to the front driver's side of the patrol car where its engine compartment provided additional cover.

Hernandez took a quick glance to his left to verify that Rodriguez was unharmed and still in the fight, then popped back up to re-engage the suspect. At the same time, Viramontes popped up from his position behind the patrol car.

Both officers saw that Gallegos was down on his knees, one hand planted against the asphalt for support while the other defiantly continued to squeeze off rounds into the van. Rodriguez continued to shoot at Gallegos, whose body was now visible from beneath the van.

Hernandez fired one or two more shots.

Badly wounded, Gallegos concentrated his rounds solely on the van.

Viramontes took the opportunity to line up his sights on Gallegos' flank and fired a volley of .40 caliber rounds. He saw the Winchester 115-grain hollow points strike Gallegos' body, the fight ebbing from the suspect with each impact.

Gallegos slumped to the ground.

Ten seconds and 50 rounds after it started, the firefight was over.

The officers inventoried themselves and one another. Satisfied that they were uninjured, they turned to the task of securing Gallegos.

Trauma to Gallegos' head and upper torso suggested that the man was dead. Still, the officers didn't take anything for granted. They cautiously approached him. Rodriguez kicked the Glock from his hand. Viramontes and Hernandez secured his limp hands in cuffs.

Their precautions were wise but unnecessary. Gallegos was pronounced dead by the medics at the scene.

Trained and Fit

Viramontes says that he is extremely satisfied with how he and his partners performed. Still, he recognizes things that could have been improved.

"For one, I would have taken the time to get the long guns," Viramontes reflects. "John mentioned to me that we should get the M4s that were in our trunk. I said, 'No, we don't have time.' In hindsight, I'd rather have superior fire power. He was right.

"I also would have gotten more intel," Viramontes elaborates. "Obviously a crowded shopping center isn't an ideal spot to take down a guy. However, things were what they were and they called us in, and we were ready to go in there. So I'd have taken a bit more time, gathered ourselves, gotten a vantage point, and come up with a strategic plan. This guy was a dangerous guy. We knew where he was. If there was any chance he would get away, we weren't going to let that happen."

Rodriguez isn't surprised by the fight that Gallegos put up, nor about how long it took for them to put him down. "Gallegos knew what he was doing. He had a will to survive as a criminal," he explains.

For the officers' part, they couldn't rely on chemically-induced strength. They had to rely on their own fitness and mental toughness.

"I was able to control myself," says Rodriguez. "When it hits the fan and it's time to get it on, you have to control yourself, thinking in your mind all your training and your experience how you're going to attack the situation. In my head, everything slowed down. Everything was going 100 miles an hour, but I wanted to slow down so I could control myself and think about what I was doing."

"We're all runners," says Viramontes. "Most of our team, including myself, are sub-40 10K runners. We run a lot and we hit the weights."

Sound tactics also played a huge part in their success.

Jason Viramontes had always regarded the driver's compartment area as something of a deathtrap, and even on normal traffic stops was in the habit of keeping the driver's door ajar as he coasted to a stop. With the knowledge of what happened to the Long Beach officers, he was even more determined to make a quick exit from the car within a split second of when it came to a stop.

"That was something that we did that day," says Viramontes. "I knew where I had to get. I knew that I needed to get to the front of the unmarked car to keep him contained—to make sure he didn't come around to the end because I didn't want to be caught at the back of the car where we're shooting in only one direction. I wanted to have that flanking movement and more of an L-formation. It was probably from training together so much and knowing what kind of configurations would give us a tactical edge."

The officers' excellent physical conditioning coupled with their training and experience more than compensated for Gallegos' laser-sighted ambush attack.

Thanks to the surgeons who saved Yap and Wade and the actions of three brave Santa Ana officers, Gallegos' vow to kill a cop became a promise unfulfilled.

Tags: Shots Fired, Long Beach (Calif.) PD, California


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