Sometimes the attire a man wears attracts an officer's attentions. Sometimes it's his actions. Occasionally, it's a combination of the two.
When it came to the man at the gas station at the corner of Van Buren Boulevard and Wells Avenue the night of Sept. 11, 2008, Officer Evan Wright of the Riverside (Calif.) Police Department says it wasn't just the gangbanging garb and head-to-toe tattoo fiesta that made him notice the Arlanza gang member.
What really fixated Wright's attention was the cigarette the man was dragging on while pumping gas. To make sure that the Darwin Award aspirant didn't blow himself and every other patron of the gas station up, Wright pulled his patrol unit close enough to ensure contact but hopefully avoid any forthcoming conflagration.
"Mind putting out the cigarette?" Wright asked, exiting his patrol unit.
With an "Oh, yeah" epiphany, the man toed the cancer stick as Wright began the usual formalities associated with cop-detainee interactions—request for identification and cursory patdown search—then had the man take a seat near the right rear wheel of his ride. With the cigarette extinguished, the ride was now Wright's primary concern. A Ford Taurus was a curious make and model for a man he recognized as a local gang member.
Looking at the car, he saw two girls in the backseat and a vacant front passenger seat.
"Somebody else with you?"
"Yeah, my buddy," the driver said. "He's inside the store."
Wright asked about the passenger's status and had just been told that the man was probably on parole when the subject of his curiosity exited the gas station mini-mart and made his way toward them. Like the man at the pump, the look of the man approaching was textbook gangbanger: white T-shirt, knee-length jean shorts, and a developing beard that wouldn't cover up the jailhouse tats adorning his face and neck anytime soon. Even his earlobes had not escaped the artist's needle.
As the first male was somewhat safely seated, this new arrival—later identified as Fernando Sanchez—now commanded Wright's attention. Engaging Sanchez in conversation, Evans simultaneously began a patdown search of his person. As he did, he noticed that Sanchez's eyes seemed to be multitasking as well, sizing the officer up and surveying the immediate vicinity.
Still, the man was proving to be a model of compliance, facing away from Wright as directed and interlacing his fingers in the small of his back. But midway through Wright's litany of questions—"Are you on parole? Have you got any guns or knives on you?"—he felt Sanchez's fingers start to twitch, and as his own hands descended on the man's torso, Sanchez glanced back nervously toward him.
With each red flag, Wright shifted his attentions and adjusted his tactics accordingly. But just as he'd decided to effect a tighter clamp on the man's hands, Sanchez broke free. Taking off in a full sprint, the man darted through vehicle traffic to the north side of the street.
Playing dodge-car with nighttime commuters wasn't Wright's idea of fun, but the thought that this guy might get the better of him didn't turn him on, either. And so the officer took off hot on the man's heels.
As they ran, Sanchez's hand repeatedly gravitated toward his pants pocket. His efforts appeared to be a half-assed concession at trying to maintain his stride while retrieving some object from inside the pocket. That Wright could not see that object did not mean that he didn't have a pretty good idea what it was.
"I know you've got a gun!" he yelled. "Don't go for it or I'll shoot!"
If Wright's admonition registered with the man, Sanchez betrayed no acknowledgment of the fact. The half-gallop-grabbing bit continued, accomplishing little more than heightening the officer's fear for his safety while allowing him to gain ground on the man.
With the gap narrowing, Wright saw an opportunity. He pitched himself at Sanchez's back. The flying tackle sent the two men into the middle of a residential driveway where some 20 guests were observing a quinceanera party in the front yard.
Each man had run two blocks.
Neither was fatigued.
The fight was on.
Wright grappled with Sanchez, his legs straddling the man so that his right inner thigh pressed against the man's left front pants pocket. The feel of the firearm inside was unmistakable.
"Don't go for it!" Wright yelled again.
But Sanchez did reach for the hidden weapon, and this time without the distraction of attempted flight. As the man's hands pressed against Wright's inner thigh, Wright asked, "You have a gun, don't you?" Some part of Wright had hoped he was wrong and that the object in Sanchez's pocket was something belying its weight and shape. Then Wright heard Sanchez utter a one-word answer to his question.
With that, Sanchez spun his body alligator-like around on the ground in a desperate attempt to release Wright's leghold on his pants pocket.
Wright pulled his .40 caliber Glock from its holster. He pointed the gun at Sanchez and gave him one last warning.
"Stop! Don't go for that gun!"
But Wright felt Sanchez's hands wedge in on his thigh. The officer double-tapped the Glock. Two rounds pierced Sanchez's chest. But any hopes Wright had that his shots would succeed as a deterrent where his words had failed were dashed as the man continued to struggle for his weapon with a surprising tenacity. Wright's next five shots came in quick succession.
There was a gasp and Sanchez's body went limp beneath him. Rolling off the man, Wright stood up then keyed the mic of his radio and requested additional units and paramedics. He then broadcast a description of the Taurus he'd last seen at the gas station.
Perhaps 10 seconds passed before Officer Nick Vasquez and Officer Christian Franco showed up. Handcuffing Sanchez where he lay, they recovered a loaded .38 revolver from his pants pocket.
Paramedics from the Riverside Fire Department arrived shortly thereafter and pronounced the 30-year-old Sanchez dead at the scene.
Person of Interest
That Sanchez willingly exited the store of his own volition remains inexplicable to Officer Wright, particularly given the man's subsequent flight and fight. Had their situations been reversed, Wright would have bided his time and laid low inside the station, waiting for the cop outside to leave. He believes most men in Sanchez's camp would be similarly inclined, particularly as he'd pulled up some time after Sanchez had entered the store. For whatever reason, Sanchez chose to make his presence known.
Less surprising is the number of times Wright has revisited the shooting in his mind. But in performing his own Monday morning quarterbacking and examining the many variables that came into play both before and during the shooting, Wright regrets nothing save for not putting his location out sooner (he only keyed up when Sanchez took flight). The only other thing that occasionally gives him pause is the number of warnings that he gave Sanchez.
"The fact is, I could have shot him the second he went for the gun," Wright acknowledges. "Today, I probably wouldn't even warn him. I would just shoot him."
Wright's decision to shoot might well have been expedited had he known one additional piece of information before the incident: Sanchez was wanted as a "person of interest" in a murder that had occurred at another gas station.
But even if Wright's commands didn't get the desired compliance from Sanchez, they left an impression elsewhere. "The witnesses—the people at the party—heard me telling him not to go for the gun," Wright says. "And every one of them was cooperative and turned out to be a dynamite witness on my behalf. And when all is said and done, I came out fine. That's what counts."
Though working alone the night of the shooting, Wright didn't feel alone. He feels that his partner at the time, Officer Daniel Floyd, was there with him in spirit.
"I felt like Floyd was, in effect, there. He's just an outstanding street cop and gang expert and had often told me, 'Don't mess around with these guys—they're dangerous and won't hesitate to kill you.' If I hadn't been riding with him all that time I probably would have reacted differently. He's the one that got my mind straight and ready for what happened that night."
In fact, more might have happened. At one point an officer on the perimeter was contacted by a male who began asking questions about the shooting. Seeing the man's heavily tattooed face and recalling Wright's earlier broadcast of the outstanding second male and vehicle, the officer went to detain the man. A second fight ensued, with multiple suspects taken into custody.
"It turned out that the man who first contacted the officer was Sanchez's nephew, the driver of the Taurus. He'd parked the car elsewhere in the neighborhood and walked to the crime scene. When arrested, he had several shotgun shells on his person and a sawed-off shotgun was recovered from the ground near where he and his buddies had been standing. As far as what they were up to…" Wright's words trail off, letting the listener speculate as to the man's intentions.
Today, Wright continues to work the same streets and encounter the same gang members he always has, including Sanchez's nephew who is back in circulation. So far, boundaries between the two men have been respected. Nor has there been any grumbling from Sanchez's other associates.
"They all know what happened," Wright says. "And I know what happened. It doesn't bother me. It didn't then, and it doesn't now. I trusted my first instincts, did what I had to do to survive, and would do it all again."
As far as Fernando "Nano" Sanchez, it has not been determined whether he was culpable for the murder for which he was sought for questioning and no one has been prosecuted in connection with it.
While Wright hopes that all officers embrace a strong survival mindset, the Riverside PD Medal of Valor recipient and Rookie of the Year pauses to speak directly to our profession's youngest members.
"Take the threat of violence seriously and remember that your first instincts are usually right," he advises. "Don't hesitate to put hands on people if you have to. This is your life we're talking about."
WHAT WOULD YOU DO?
Put yourself in the shoes of Officer Evan Wright of the Riverside (Calif.) Police Department. You have just made contact with a gang member who has fled and reached for his pocket while running. Both of you are now on the ground, and he is still reaching for his pocket, which you are almost certain contains a gun. Now consider the following questions:
- Faced with the same circumstances as Officer Wright, at what point would you have deployed deadly force? What other tactical or strategic options might you have considered?
- At what point do you advise dispatch and fellow units of your location? Do you do so over the radio or MDT? By what criteria do you decide to request backup?
- Do the veterans at your station do a good job of mentoring the younger generation, both formally and informally?
- To what degree do you practice close quarters combat shooting? Do you find such training is of your own initiative, or your agency's?