Shots Fired: Mission Viejo, California 03/09/2008

Two Orange County deputies stood between a mall robber and his desperate bid for freedom.

Author Dean Scoville Headshot

On a Sunday afternoon in March 2008, Kirk Knight donned a cheap looking silver gray suit, plopped a cheap silver wig atop his scalp, and headed out to the Mission Viejo Mall. Knight, 27, was dressed to kill, replete with a chrome semi-autoloader in tow and robbery in mind.

His game plan could hardly have been considered a novel one. During the preceding weeks, the unemployed man had conducted a series of successful robberies up and down Orange and San Diego counties. Knight's prior criminal history — one conviction in 2005 for DUI, another two years later for possession of burglary tools — had been sufficiently spotty to allow him to operate below law enforcement's radar.

This day, all that would change.

Lights and Sirens

Dep. Richard Olszynski of the Orange County Sheriffs Department was wrapping up a fender bender in the parking lot of the Kaleidoscope Entertainment Center across the street from the Mission Viejo Mall when he heard the call go out: "A robbery in progress."

At first, Olszynski wasn't sure he'd heard correctly-the address given was located directly across the street from his current location. But Olszynski was also familiar enough with the mall's businesses to know even before he double-checked his mobile digital that the location given was correct. The Fredric H. Rubel Jewelry Store was located on the upstairs level next to a Nordstrom store.

Minutes before, Dep. Gary Lewellyn had rolled by to assist Olszynski on a collision investigation. Olszynski now called to him through their open car windows.

"Did you hear that call?" Olszynski asked. "Let's go!"

Lights and sirens on their cars activated, the two deputies responded in tandem.

Inside the mall, a group of people had congregated outside the jewelry store to watch a drama unfold before them. Two female employees had been ushered to the back and Knight was turning his attentions to the jewelry display cases. Moving quickly, Knight smashed row after row of display glass before snatching up watches and gems and stuffing them into a briefcase.

Silver Shoes

Subtlety was not one of Knight's strong suits, and numerous calls were made to OCSD dispatch to report the robbery in progress. If Knight had gambled that any prospective witnesses would surely have enough wits about them to give him a wide berth as he went about his business inside the store, he'd bet wrong.

Knight looked up from his smash and grab to see a throng gathered beyond the store's windows. He angrily flashed his semi-automatic at them. It had the desired effect-shoppers and employees scattered and screamed.

Meanwhile, updates were being relayed to responding units as quickly as possible. Olszynski and Lewellyn copied that a single suspect was involved and that possible hostages had been taken. Then came another report: A mall security guard had taken gunfire from the suspect. Things were rapidly escalating.

Parking on the lower level within feet of one another, the two deputies took positions facing a stairwell that accessed the upper level of the parking structure just outside of Nordstrom. As they did, a female motorist pulled abreast of Dep. Olszynski.

"Do you have a description of the suspect?" Olszynski asked the women.

"He's a white male with what looks to be a bad wig and silver shoes."

No sooner had the woman spoken than the deputies heard screaming coming from the catwalk just above them. Looking up, they saw a man whose description matched that given by the woman. The man was sprinting full bore across the catwalk. Olszynski grabbed his Remington 870 pump-action shotgun from its rooftop mount and darted for the stairway in the middle of the parking structure, with Lewellyn hot on his heels.[PAGEBREAK]

This is for Real

The two deputies sprinted up the stairs as still more screams of terrified mall patrons echoed throughout the parking structure. Olszynski couldn't tell whether or not the suspect was trying to drag off one of the possible hostages, but he was determined to keep these people from coming to harm.

Cresting the top of the stairs, the two lawmen found a couple pointing in the direction of the suspect. But just as their heads popped over the stairwell's railing for a look, the suspect cranked off a round in their direction. Olszynski peered in the direction of the gunfire in time to see the suspect disappear behind a row of cars.

This is for real, Olszynski thought. Today was no role play, with no patrol school monitors to announce, "OK, scenario's over." In the seconds that followed, people could get killed-his partner and himself among them.

Olszynski and Lewellyn quickly entered the upstairs level of the parking structure in a bid to get a bearing on the suspect.

Locking the stock of his Remington 870 shotgun against his shoulder, Olszynski stepped into the parking structure. He started to clear row by row of parked cars, advancing as quickly as his twin desires of officer safety and corralling the gunman would allow. He hoped to prevent the suspect from running out of the parking structure and onto the road below where a whole nest of new of problems would present themselves.

Dep. Lewellyn was paralleling Olszynski on the adjacent aisle. They'd advanced a few cars when Olszynski heard Lewellyn's voice.

"Drop the gun!" Lewellyn yelled. "Drop the gun!"

The suspect popped out from behind a pillar at the end of the parking row. The man was aiming a handgun in the direction of Lewellyn's voice.

Backing from the front end of a parked car, the suspect rounded a windshield and came within full view of Olszynski. Glancing over, the suspect became aware of Olszynski and turned to face him. Only 15 feet separated the two men.

The man swung his gun in Olszynski's direction.

Olszynski opened fire with the pump-action shotgun, discharging multiple Federal 00 buck shells, each of which contained nine pellets.

The deputy had expected such firepower would have dropped the man where he stood. But the man didn't flinch, and despite their proximity, an improbable and scary thought occurred to Olszynski: Am I missing him?

With each blast, Olszynski rechambered and squeezed off another. With the fourth shot he saw a red plume come off the suspect's body and realized that his rounds had found their target. Yet the man still advanced, half-circling toward him. By the time Olszynski's Remington ran dry, the suspect had closed the gap between them to about seven feet.

Dropping the shotgun, Olszynski transitioned to his sidearm. As he did, the man dropped to his knees before him.

"I give up."

With those words, Kirk Knight fell to the ground and rolled onto his back. Olszynski moved his gun away and told him not to move. Maintaining his sidearm on him, Olszynski watched as Lewellyn flipped the man over and handcuffed him. After conducting a quick but thorough search of Knight for any additional weapons, Lewellyn tried to radio for medics.

But radio traffic of responding units was tying up the radio, delaying the request for about a minute. Seeing some movement by a minivan a few rows away and near where the suspect had been trying to run, Olszynski walked over to investigate. On the ground huddled a mom, dad, and their child, crying.

Radio traffic or not, Knight's fate had been sealed by 36 shotgun pellets. He was transported to the hospital where he was subsequently pronounced dead.[PAGEBREAK]

Operational Mindset

Olszynski recognizes that a variety of factors played to his favor, perhaps none more important than his operational mindset in confronting suspects.

"My attitude is to try to one-up the bad guys," the deputy explains. "If somebody's got a knife, I'll bring my sidearm; if somebody's got a gun, I'll bring the shotgun. In fact, I prefer the Remington-I'm comfortable with it and it's always been my favorite weapon as far as shooting. One is always with me when I do recreational shooting."

The conditioned mindset he'd acquired during a six-year stint in the Marine Corps hadn't hurt, either. But Olszynski notes that it could have.

"We were taught to close the distance and engage the enemy. In one sense, it helped me to be quick. But looking back, once I got between the cars, I should have slowed down; still doing a fairly good pace, but slowing down a bit."

Is there anything else he would have done differently?

"I'd been on patrol (off training) for only a few months," notes Olszynski. "I'd worked with Gary in the jails, but not in a coordinated situation. I didn't know he'd gone off in the opposite direction. I thought he was behind me because he ran up the stairs right behind me. I didn't realize Gary wasn't behind me until I heard him yelling. Looking back, I definitely would have told him to come down the same row of cars with me. Personally, I would have slowed down, too. I was moving pretty quickly because when I saw Knight running, I thought I would see him running out the back of the parking structure. That's why when he suddenly popped out, I found myself caught off guard in the middle of two parking spaces. I didn't have any cover to hide behind if he started shooting right away.

"If I'd slowed down a little bit, it would have still probably ended up the same," Olszynski adds. "But it would have been safer for me, because if I had Gary behind me to keep an eye out for the suspect down range, I probably would have knelt down and looked beneath the cars for the suspect's feet."

Another thing that Olszynski learned during this incident is to make sure your gun is ready to fire during this kind of situation. "I left the shotgun's safety on," reflects Olszynski. "At least I recognized it within a split-second. Had it been off, the whole thing would have been over a lot faster. As it was, nothing happened with the first round I tried to squeeze off because of the safety. How I forgot, I don't know. But I had-and that marred my chance to take him out with a headshot."

The lessons didn't stop there.

"The second thing I definitely should have done is backfill the magazine," Olszynski says. "The way we carry the shotgun in the patrol car is with four in the magazine, chamber empty, safety on-and six more rounds in the side saddle. Once out of the car, I racked a round in, so I had one in the chamber ready to go. But I didn't take advantage of the side saddle shells and was mad at myself because of it. That would have given me one more round to dump. If he had a little more motivation to kill me at that time, it would have taken that motivation out."

Olszynski hopes that other cops might learn from his incident should they find themselves involved in similar confrontations. He and Lewellyn were awarded the Orange County Sheriff's Department's Medal of Valor, and both continue to serve the citizens of Orange County.

About the Author
Author Dean Scoville Headshot
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