Having been pulled from their usual gang assignment to work a Fourth of July detail, Fontana, Calif., officers Frank Tolerico and Brian McLane resigned themselves to the usual aggravations associated with the holiday shift: Citing people for possession of contraband fireworks, confiscating explosives, and generally preventing associated fires and mayhem.
But as their slick car neared the intersection of Holly and Juniper, various illegal combustibles illuminated the night sky and something caught their eye: a lone male BMX rider doing a serpentine weave on the sidewalk.
The cyclist's attire suggested "gang banger" and their spot lamp illumination of him confirmed it. The rider - Camilo Morales - leaned forward and pistoned his legs faster.
Heading Him Off
Officer McLane wasn't having it. He jumped out of the car and initiated a foot pursuit of Morales as Officer Tolerico exited the passenger side of their patrol car and ran around to its driver's side.
During the years they'd worked together, Tolerico and McLane had been down this road before, with one going in foot pursuit and the other driving ahead to cut off the suspect. Tonight, it was Tolerico's turn to do the corralling and he put the car in gear.
Driving past his partner, Tolerico angled his car in front of the cyclist in a bid to head him off. But as he did, Morales pulled up short, jumped off the bike, and ran in the opposite direction. Tolerico jumped out of the car and took chase after Morales.
Sprinting down the alley, Tolerico felt good about his prospects of catching the cyclist. A longstanding regimen of weight training and running had endowed the 43-year-old officer with the strength and stamina of a much younger man, and at 6-foot-1-inch, 215 pounds, a stride tWhat he didn't know was just how pivotal his conditioning would prove to be over the course of the next few minutes.
For he had no idea who he was chasing. Ironically, during the preceding weeks Tolerico and McLane had searched for Morales in a bid to stop the man's ongoing campaign of terror in the neighborhood. Morales, a member in good standing of gangs in the nearby cities of Ontario and Lynwood, had been responsible for generating numerous "man with a gun" calls during the preceding weeks. But thus far, they'd been unable to locate the man who was called "Sniper" by his homies.
Now, that same man was leading Tolerico full speed down an alley.
How far had he chased this guy? A hundred yards? Two? Tolerico didn't know. But he closed the distance and clothes-lined the suspect from behind. The blindsided gang member skidded across the pavement. Jumping atop Morales, Tolerico grappled for control.
Morales immediately began punching Tolerico with his fists. Tolerico punched back, and Morales' head banged hard off the bumper of a pickup parked in the alley. The blow was jarring enough to make Tolerico wince and give him cause to think he might've gained the upper hand.
But it was Tolerico who found himself doubling over, centerpunched by something that was followed a split-second later by a searing pain that tore into his neck.
There'd been no report, no flash. At least, nothing that registered within his sensory perception. Yet Tolerico recognized immediately that he'd been shot. And while he still didn't know who this man he was fighting was, he intuitively knew that he was on the same page as the suspect on one thing: The man's bid for independence would only come at the expense of Tolerico's life.
Tolerico seized the barrel of Morales' gun with his left hand and torqued it away from himself. Both men were now on their knees facing each other, each with one hand on Morales' gun, each slamming their free fist at the face of the other. Throughout, Tolerico's chest and neck screamed for relief from the fire-like pain. But he refused to allow his mind to focus on anything other than the challenge before him.
That he might be fighting for his life against some gang member in a dark alley with no cavalry in sight was not how Tolerico had envisioned this Fourth of July. The occasional blast of a skyrocket and its punctuating percussion only added to the surreal nature of the scene.
However nightmarish the situation, Tolerico's mind retained a perfectly clear appraisal of it: This lowlife was determined to retain his ill-deserved freedom by taking away from Tolerico everything that was dear to him. That determination fostered Tolerico's resolve to take the bastard out whatever it took.
Tolerico's mind was firing on all cylinders, too. And at one point between punches, Tolerico's hand ventured down toward the duty holster on his thigh. But the holster had twisted behind his leg during the struggle and he couldn't get to his gun.
Tolerico couldn't reach his gun so he focused on the greater priority: Retaining what control he had of Morales' 9mm Taurus. It wasn't easy.
Morales continued to violently jerk the Taurus back and forth in an effort to simultaneously free the barrel and angle it at Tolerico.
"Hey," Morales' fetid breath whispered in Tolerico's ear. "Just let me go."
"All right," Tolerico replied with an incredulous tone, sure that any such amnesty would only guarantee his own death.
As though to confirm his suspicions, Morales laughed at the officer's words and bit down hard on Tolerico's scalp.