All weekend long I've been following the story of four Oakland Police officers who were shot and killed in the line of duty Saturday in what started as a routine traffic stop.
I have a personal connection to the case -- more on that in a minute -- but I kept hearing about this other shooting to which people were comparing it. This weekend's police shooting has people in law enforcement reflecting back to April 6, 1970 on the Newhall Pass, when another four officers -- CHP officers -- were shot and killed in what, at the time, was the worst killing of uniformed officers in US history, and one in which a passerby hero tried in vain to save an officer's life by scrambling into the shootout through a hail of bullets.
The first two officers were approaching a car at a diner late one night, right there where a Marie Callendars sits now at The Old Road and Magic Mountain Parkway. A passenger, Jack Twinning, started shooting and killed officer Walt Frago instantly -- hitting him in the chest. The driver, Bobby Davis, then fired at officer Roger Gore and killed him as a backup unit rolled up. The two officers in THAT car were under fire as they arrived, and the shootout that followed was witnessed by about 30 people.
An account in the Santa Clarita Signal picks it up from there:
At the height of the gun battle, a delivery driver on his way to work - later identified as U.S. Marine Gary Kness, 31, of Newhall - stopped his car 200 feet behind the two patrolcars.
Alleyn was shot with a total of 10 shotgun pellets in the face and chest. When Kness saw him get shot and then fall, he ran to the officer's aid, trying to pull him to the back of the patrolcar. Twinning dropped his shotgun and grabbed Frago's revolver from the officer's holster and began firing at Alleyn's lifeless body. Kness tried to drag Alleyn out of the line of fire but couldn't. Instead, he picked up the officer's shotgun and tried to shoot Twinning. The shotgun was empty.
At that moment, Davis began walking directly at Kness. The Marine dropped the empty shotgun and grabbed Alleyn's revolver, lying on the ground at his feet. Kness gripped the revolver with both hands and fired a single shot. The bullet struck the Pontiac, splintered, then struck Davis in the chest. Two copper-jacketed bullet fragments were later found embedded in his chest. Kness fired a second shot but the gun was empty. He spun around when he heard a sound behind him.
He turned to see Twinning stand over Pence, yelling: "I got you now." Twinning fired a single .45 caliber shot close range, execution-style, into the back of the officer's head. Officer James E. Pence, Jr. died instantly. When Kness saw Pence go down, he took cover in a ditch on the east side of the road.
That man was honored as a hero.
There's a very detailed account of how this thing started and unfolded minute by minute, including the reason behind the traffic stop in the first place (would you believe, road rage, before such a thing was even popular?) in this link, and a followup story from last year when a freeway sign honoring the 4 fallen officers went up on The Old Road:
Just before the unveiling, a representative of each officer’s family spoke to the gathering, thanking them for remembering and keeping their loved one’s legacy alive. Perhaps the most poignant was Elyse Janine Taylor, daughter of Roger Gore. ”When I see his picture, it never hangs alone,” she said, tearfully. “I didn’t have just one father, I had four. Because of this, we are forever bound together. I’m thankful to the CHP family for everything they have done for me and my mom, and for letting me know I’m not alone.”
The law enforcement community is a huge family, and the hero Marine who stepped up was part of it. But after this weekend's shooting in Oakland, you have to wonder if this kind of heroism even exists anymore -- and if someone WERE to step in and grab a gun to partake in the gunfight where officers are under fire, just whose side they'd be on. It's one particularly disturbing line in the reports from the Oakland shooting that got me thinking this way:
"People lingered at the scene of the first shooting Saturday. About 20 bystanders taunted police. Tension between police and the community has risen steadily since the fatal shooting of unarmed 22-year-old Oscar Grant by a transit police officer at an Oakland train station on Jan. 1. "
Now, back to my personal connection. I grew up in the east bay, and one of the officers from that first shooting was a classmate of mine at Piedmont High School. His face flashed in my head the minute I read his name on the newswires, and I had to hope it wasn't the John Hege I intuitively recollected as a sweet kid and a Varsity football player from my hometown. Sadly, it was him, although I don't know that I would have recognized him if he'd pulled me over.
If he HAD pulled me over, he would have just been some stranger cop with a vaguely familiar last name, ruining my day with a traffic ticket. My high school friends who have kept in touch with him say he just started motor patrol a few weeks ago. And they also tell me he's not done serving his community -- he's still on life support, as I write this, even though he's gone. He's being kept alive to fulfill his final wish -- to be an organ donor.