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The Fresno Bee
By Marc Benjamin
Tuesday, Nov. 08, 2011 | 08:55 PM Modified Wed, Nov 09, 2011 10:58 AM
Two law enforcement officers died in Minkler nearly two years ago because a Fresno County sheriff’s deputy was complacent in preparing to search the home of a man suspected in a string of shootings and fires, an independent review has concluded.
Deputy Joel Wahlenmaier, who was one of two officers killed on Feb. 25, 2010, did not believe a risk assessment was needed before a team of deputies and Cal Fire investigators served a search warrant at the home of Rick Liles, 51.
Wahlenmaier’s “complacency,” combined with the belief that Liles would not be home or be armed, were among the most significant of 87 findings and conclusions made by reviewers from the Peace Officers’ Safety Institute.
Their report was released by Sheriff Margaret Mims on Tuesday. Fresno County Sheriff’s officials have scheduled an 11:30 a.m. press conference today in sheriff’s headquarters to address findings in the 110-page report. The report was released “unedited and unaltered,” a sheriff’s notice said Tuesday.
Killed that day were Wahlenmaier, 49, and Reedley police officer Javier Bejar, 28, who was standing watch 24 feet from Liles’ house about an hour after the standoff began. Deputy Mark Harris was injured from flying debris during the initial effort to get Liles out of the house.
Following a seven-hour standoff, Liles was found dead inside the home from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. His wife, Diane, was pulled out unhurt.
It was a Cal Fire warrant, but Wahlenmaier was the sheriff’s lead detective in the case.
The study’s authors, retired Los Angeles police Capt. Rich Wemmer and retired Huntington Beach police Lt. Ron Deuel, said Wahlenmaier should have considered using SWAT officers to serve the warrant and should have completed a risk assessment to address all possibilities if Liles was armed, in the home and offered resistance.
“Although we will never know or fully understand why detective Wahlenmaier did not use these suggestions or recognize other pre-incident indicators, it is logically inferred that these actions reflect complacency,” the report’s authors wrote.
No “pre-warrant check” for firearms was done by investigators for Cal Fire or the sheriff’s office, the report said. If it had been, investigators would have found that 11 weapons were registered to Liles, the report said.
The report also criticized Wahlenmaier’s superiors. It said they should have required a risk assessment before the warrant was served because Cal Fire’s plan for serving the warrant was not as thorough as what the sheriff’s office requires.
Three days before the shootings outside Liles’ mobile home, firefighters reported to the home of a neighbor who had been shot in the hip. The 69-year-old woman had been in a dispute with Liles.
Her injuries were minor, but they led one of Wahlenmaier’s supervisors to raise concerns that Liles “was going to hurt someone badly.”
In addition to shooting his neighbor, Liles was believed to be responsible for shooting five times into the Minkler Cash Store across the street from his home, shooting twice at another neighbor’s home and causing up to 11 arson fires over the previous six months.
Investigators did not know that Liles used many prescription drugs, experienced hallucinations, was always armed and had told relatives that he was willing to die, and would “take some cops out, and then kill himself.”
After the shootout with Liles, officers found police scanners, hundreds of rounds of ammunition, four rifles, two with scopes, six semi-automatic pistols and two revolvers inside his home.
In addition, 86 bullet casings were found in the Liles home. Twenty-five law enforcement officers fired 607 rounds during the standoff.
“It is truly a miracle more people were not wounded or killed,” the study’s authors said.
The report did not take issue with the number of rounds fired by officers.
“These actions were taken to prevent Liles from wounding and killing others,” the report said.
Toxicology tests found that Liles had Vicodin, Prozac, Valium and the sleep medicine Temazepam at the time of his death.
An unnamed sheriff’s official quoted in the report summed up the events of that day by saying “experience is a cruel teacher.”
The study team’s report said that “such acknowledgment is a major step in paving the way towards improving the future performance of Fresno County’s law enforcement leaders.”
The authors of the study offered an array of recommendations for how the sheriff’s office can improve how it responds to similar incidents. Among the suggestions are to look into forming a specialized search warrant team, improve on-scene supervision of major crime incidents, acquire a reconnaissance robot, and improved training and coordination in multi-agency responses.
The report singled out Mims for her willingness to initiate an outside review, which “is rare in law enforcement circles.”
The reporter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (559) SSRI EditorSSRI Editor1-6166.