When Brian Etheridge received the larceny report last September, the Sedgwick County (Kan.) Sheriff's deputy probably didn't give it a second thought.
After all, Etheridge had handled plenty of calls just like this one, crime reports filed long after the incident had occurred and the suspects were long gone. Vehicle burgs-such as this one-often turned out to be little more than paperwork filed in the hopes of placating some insurance claims adjuster.
Still, Etheridge may have thought it unusual when his knock at the informant's door failed to elicit a response.
Etheridge wasn't about to just get back in his patrol unit and leave, not without having made a good faith effort to find the victim.
As the conscientious deputy walked around the back of the house, a shot rang out.
Etheridge fell, a rifle round in his torso.
The deputy's unseen assailant had somehow double-fed his lever-action 30-30. It was now jammed but he still wanted to finish off his prey. Emerging from where he'd been lying in wait, the gunman approached Etheridge, removed the severely wounded lawman's sidearm, and shot him again at point-blank range.
Etheridge died of his wounds. The man who ambushed him would later die in a shootout with other responding officers.
Killing a Badge
Ambush murders are perhaps the cruelest and most inexplicable of law enforcement deaths. Often, they are not a means to an end, but an end in and of itself, an event consciously orchestrated with no purpose other than the killing of an officer.
Rarely is the victim officer known to the offender. It is enough that he wears the uniform and serves as an embodiment of his profession. As interim Seattle police Chief John Diaz said in the aftermath of the recent ambush killing of one of his department's officers, "This was a hit on law enforcement, a hit on government, not this particular officer."
Calls that end in ambush often give no hint of danger to the responding officer until shots are fired. Indeed, some suspects go out of their way to draw officers into a kill zone by creating a sense of false assurance.
Perhaps most tragic is that the officers have done nothing wrong. They were as tactically sound as they would be expected to be given the circumstances. Many were simply caught off guard. As Dep. Etheridge's boss Sedgwick County Sheriff Bob Hinshaw notes, "There is nothing to indicate that Dep. Etheridge did anything wrong. In fact, he did everything right."
But then few things are as untenable as trying to compensate for the unanticipated suspect who has a mission, a place to hide, the element of surprise, and the added advantage of a long gun-or the man who in silent approach opens fire. As such, ambushes of police officers are among the hardest tragedies to prevent.
From walk-ups to drive-bys, from front door blind-sides to sniping an officer in a parked car, suspects have ambushed cops from coast to coast using a variety of methods.
Can you anticipate such an insidious threat and adjust for it? Probably not.
Of recent officer-involved shootings where more than one law enforcement official was killed, most were ambushes. Often they were perpetrated through the use of a long gun, frequently an assault rifle. Rare is the instance where an ambushed officer put himself in a position that objectively would have been recognized as unduly "vulnerable."
And even when the possibility of an ambush is known and anticipated, officers still may fall victim.
When LAPD officers responded to a "shots fired" call on Feb. 22, 1994, there was little ambiguity about the situation's inherent danger: The informant was the suspect himself, a teen who'd shot and killed his father.
Despite their precautions, they unwittingly parked their patrol unit in front of a location where the suspect had set himself up for an ambush shot. He opened fire, and a round passed through the patrol car's window, striking LAPD Officer Christy Lynn Hamilton in the armhole of her vest. Hamilton died from her wounds.
Five years ago in the Central California town of Ceres, Calif., an Iraq War veteran armed with an AK-47 strode into a convenience market, prompting a call from a concerned employee. Police response was prompt.
"The first unit on scene was a unit with a trainee in it," recalls Ceres Dep. Chief Michael Borges. "They tried to use what little cover and concealment they had; it was more concealment than it was cover because it was a mostly glass building."
The suspect, a reputed gang member, was waiting in front of the store and keeping vigil for the officers' approach; immediately he turned and opened up with his AK-47 from beneath his poncho and started firing at the two-man unit. In the next few minutes, he killed Sgt. Howard Stevenson, a 20-year veteran who also happened to be the SWAT team leader, and wounded another officer.