It had been a busy shift for Officer Philip Bozarth and Officer Juan Sanchez of the San Diego Police Department. They had spent the chilly early morning hours of Jan. 17, 1998, answering an unusually high number of domestic violence incidents, complaints of narcotics trafficking, reports of gunfire of ill-defined origins, and traffic violations.
By the waning hours of their shift, Bozarth and Sanchez were slowly navigating their way toward a Denny’s for breakfast. That’s when one more standard early morning call went out: a prowler in an apartment complex.
The handling unit had a 10-minute response time, while a mere six blocks separated Bozarth and Sanchez from the location. Bozarth wasn’t one to jump calls or assume handles, but he did believe in helping out. He keyed the radio and took the assist.
The location was in a section of San Diego that locals call “Shell Town.” Decades before, the lower income housing area within the Southeast Division’s jurisdiction had been dotted with a series of Quonset huts, hence the nickname. The domed domiciles had long since disappeared, but the name “Shell Town” and the poverty of the residents remained.
As they neared the location, Bozarth and Sanchez were advised by the dispatcher that the caller had hung up and callbacks to the location had gone unanswered.
Pulling onto the 1100 block of South 36th Street, Bozarth recognized the dead-end apartment complex, but couldn’t recall why he’d been there. A domestic? A burg? Yet another prowler call? Nothing stood out. But he remembered the place and while the area had its share of law-abiding citizens, it also had more than its fair share of the kind of people that kept officers like Bozarth and Sanchez employed.
The apartment complex was really more of a series of self-contained buildings lined up like dominos, none much bigger than the innumerable cardboard shacks that dotted the Mexico border to the south. At a mere 400 square feet, these apartment units were home to San Diego’s poorest residents.
Scoping Out the Scene
Bozarth blacked out the patrol car and pulled up short of the location. He and Sanchez covered the remaining ground on foot.
Bozarth didn’t anticipate that this prowler call would be much different than any other. He thought it would be just that some jittery resident had heard a noise and called the cops.
All the same, if there was a problem to be found, it would probably be to the rear of the location. A veteran field training officer, Bozarth elected to have Sanchez, who had only recently gotten out of field training, take up containment of the front while he went to the back.
The small backyard was unfenced, offering easy access to anyone so inclined to venture onto it. Bozarth illuminated the property with his flashlight. He saw pretty much what he expected to see. Nothing.
Bozarth was sure that this call would involve little more than a quick clearing of the backyard and a reassuring contact of the complainant. Afterward, he and Sanchez would sit down to a well-deserved breakfast.
An Open Door
Such thoughts became moot when Bozarth saw the back door to the apartment was ajar, and a light was on in the kitchen beyond. Sidling to the back wall of the apartment building, Bozarth noticed fresh damage to the door jam. The door had been kicked in.
Using the door frame for cover, Bozarth peeked inside. That’s when he saw two males running away from him through the kitchen area toward the front door of the apartment.
Bozarth keyed his radio mic, simultaneously alerting his partner and other officers, “We’ve got rabbits!”
Not wanting the two to get the drop on his partner and knowing the shortest distance was a straight line, Bozarth entered the kitchen and went in foot pursuit of the two. Immediately, he heard Sanchez yell, “Get your hands in the air!” As Bozarth neared the doorway leading to the living room, he thought that the two had gotten as far as the front door and Sanchez had intercepted them.
What Bozarth didn’t realize was that the suspects had found their escape route blocked thanks to a deadbolted front door. While one suspect tore desperately at the blinds of the living room window, the other had decided to double back to the kitchen. It was this suspect, Martin Castro, a 17-year-old gang member, who confronted Bozarth.
Castro had been a busy lad in the weeks preceding the burglary. Known as “Mugsy” to his fellow bangers, Castro was a frequent customer of the juvenile justice system. He had in recent weeks committed a series of violent assaults, including an attempted carjacking in which the victim was gut-shot twice. The gun that was used in that shooting had also been used in a murder.
Bozarth and Castro had one thing in common when they nearly collided in the apartment’s hallway. They both knew Shell Town and the police activity that took place therein.
Castro used his knowledge of the neighborhood to pick his target. The recent arrest of a man from an apartment in the 1100 block of South 36th Street meant that the only thing standing between him and the man’s drugs and money was a lone female resident. Donning a heavy, dark starter’s jacket, a beanie, and blue jeans, he headed for the apartment with an accomplice.
Opportunity knocks for some. Others make their own luck. And when Castro showed up at the apartment on 36th Street, he booted the door.
Bozarth entered the hallway at a dead-run, intent on helping his partner. Six feet away and closing fast was Martin Castro.
Castro was determined to get through the only thing standing between himself and freedom. He thrust a military-style .45 directly in front of him, chest level, a round chambered, the hammer locked back, the gaping muzzle pointed at Bozarth.
Three feet separated Bozarth and the goateed gang banger with the .45.
Bozarth raised his sidearm, a Beretta 92FS, and fired four rounds in rapid succession.
The first round struck Castro in the chest and penetrated his heart. The second entered the right side of the gang member’s face before stopping in his brain. Rounds three and four hit Castro in the back as his body spun and fell.
Bozarth held his aim as he watched Castro’s dead weight hit the floor. He felt the encroachment of shock trying to get a toe-hold on his body and mind, but he also recognized the situation was still hot. Using the door frame for position cover, he took a visual inventory of Castro’s body. The burglar was face down, probably lying atop his gun, and almost certainly dead.
Bozarth turned his aim on the second suspect, who immediately surrendered.
It wasn’t Bozarth’s first shooting. He would also be in more in the years to come. But this one resonated with him in a unique manner for several reasons. First, never before or since had he been so close to a suspect, so close to dying.
Also, the other shootings had some hint of anticipated danger. They evolved around calls or surveillance activities where the threat of violence was readily apparent.
According to Bozarth, many things factored into his survival, not the least of which was Castro’s fateful decision to rely on an unreliable girlfriend. While Castro and his homie parked their vehicle around the corner from the location and approached it on foot, Castro had his girlfriend stay outside the location as a lookout. When the officers showed up, she left the scene without alerting Castro.
Bozarth also believes his involvement in a prior shooting helped change his tactics and led to him winning the confrontation with Castro. In that earlier incident, Bozarth and a fellow officer had fired eight shots at a knife-wielding suspect who was still able to advance on them despite having sustained multiple fatal hits. That episode caused Bozarth to re-evaluate the range training he received. Knowing that the way one trains is the way one responds, Bozarth conscientiously retrained himself away from double-tapping, to firing three and four shots at a time.
Finally, Bozarth cites his mindset as the reason why he has survived so many deadly encounters. He has been involved in multiple shootings and has been forced to kill five suspects.
At the time Bozarth attended the San Diego Police Academy, the San Diego PD had the highest mortality rate of police agencies in the nation. The concept of officer survival, driven home by academy instructors, resonated with him. So even though at the time Bozarth would have said the odds would be against his getting involved in a shooting, he was not going to assume that would be the case. As such, he went beyond the department’s quarterly firearms qualification testing, firing a hundred rounds down range every month. He also worked out regularly and attended officer survival seminars.
Today, Bozarth continues to work as a police officer. He is also one of 20 Peer Support members for the San Diego PD, responding to critical incidents such as officer-involved shootings. Bozarth has an undesired empathy with these officers.
He never wanted to have to take a human life, but he knows that failure to do so can result in the loss of innocent lives. Even so, intellectualizing the realities of the job did not keep the nightmares at bay, especially in the aftermath of the Castro shooting.
For a year after the event, he was plagued with some of the worst dreams that he’d ever experienced, nightmares that still have an occasional recurrence. To this day, the image of Castro’s face is easy for Bozarth to recall.
“His eyes stuck with me,” Bozarth explains. “They were dead, long before I shot him. He just didn’t care. I am sure that he thought I was still at that back door and that his game plan was to double-back and kill me. There was no reason for him to have his gun in his hand. He knew he was going to get caught.
“Most suspects when they know the cops are on top of them, the first thing they’re going to do is dump their guns. Castro obviously had different intentions. He just didn’t expect me to be at the threshold of the living room.”
While he owes a debt to family, peers, and friends, Bozarth cites his faith and a pilgrimage that he made to Israel during the year following the shooting as the biggest factor in his ability to cope with this incident.
As a Peer Support member, Bozarth recognizes full well that there are those whose grounded beliefs run from the secular to the religious, and he is sensitive to the personality of each officer. But for those who are Christian, he shares one of the biggest coping mechanisms his faith has offered him.
“There have been some officers who felt extremely bad at having taken a life. They felt as though they themselves had sinned—that they had violated the Word of God. But often their beliefs are colored by the King James version of the bible that was released in 1611. It says, ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ The most recent and most widely accepted translations say, ‘Thou shall not murder.’
“For Christians in doubt, I would point to Romans 13, verses one, three, and four, which reads, ‘Everyone must submit himself to governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established….For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong….But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.’”
Bozarth says these words of scripture give great comfort to many of the officers that he has counseled. He says they leave no ambiguity about the Christian officer’s need to occasionally use deadly force.
Dean Scoville is a patrol supervisor with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and a contributing editor to Police.
What Would You Do?
Put yourself in the shoes of San Diego Police Officer Philip Bozarth and ask yourself the following questions:
• Would you enter the apartment by yourself? How do you feel about splitting partners? What is your agency's policy regarding foot pursuits?
• How would you handle containing the crime scene, detaining the second suspect, and clearing the rest of the location?
• Do you train to "double-tap" in close quarters situations? What alternative courses of fire do you practice?