When the ATF comes to town, things just seem to have a way of getting out of hand. Consider the shootout that occurred in the exclusive Stevenson Ranch neighborhood in Santa Clarita, California (a northern suburb of Los Angeles) on August 31, 2001.
According to the official story, agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the U.S. Marshal’s Service, along with officers from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s office, arrived that morning at the home of James Allen Beck, allegedly to serve a search warrant in conjunction with an investigation into charges that Beck had been impersonating an officer and was in possession of illegal firearms.
As the team of roughly a dozen officers approached the house, Beck reportedly opened fire on them with an automatic weapon, thus beginning a shootout/standoff with the authorities that lasted for several hours, ending when Beck’s home burned to the ground after being blasted full of tear gas. By that time, officers from the California Highway Patrol and the Los Angeles Police Department had joined in the siege.
One of the officers involved, Sheriff’s Deputy Hagop “Jake” Kuredjian, was killed with a shot purportedly fired by the suspect, who died as well in the fire that consumed his home. No one else was injured in the raid and the various agencies involved patted themselves on the back for another job well done. Unfortunately, there are many unanswered questions.
That very same report though has Woolsey telling a different story: “After Beck fired one round, Woolsey said, the officers backed off and Beck yelled, ‘My girlfriend is coming out through the garage, don’t hurt her.’ An unidentified woman emerged from the home, and sheriff’s officials said Friday night that she was being questioned … With his girlfriend gone, Beck resumed shooting after yelling at the officers not to hurt his dog.” (1)
Firing a single round hardly qualifies as “automatic weapon fire,’ and it hardly seems likely that the officers wouldn’t have sought cover and returned fire immediately had a shot been fired. A report in the Los Angeles Daily News painted a much different picture of the initial confrontation: “agents tried to knock down the door, then gunfire erupted as officers tried to go through a window.” (5)
That was largely the story being told by CNN as well: “When agents tried to enter the house through a window, authorities said, Beck opened fire on them with an automatic weapon.” (11) The CNN report also claimed that Beck “came to the door a couple of times and refused to come out.” (11)
A slightly different version of events appeared in an Associated Press report: “Authorities said Beck answered his door about 8:30 a.m. Friday but stormed back inside after a few words from officers. Witnesses said he began shooting when they shouted for him to come out and tried to break down the door.” (17) The Daily News had the gunfight beginning somewhat earlier, at 8:15. (5)
The Associated Press carried a report that stated that: “The man fired hundreds of shots at the start of the standoff, when agents tried to arrest him for allegedly impersonating an officer,” (16) though an AP report just a few days later claimed that: “The total number of rounds fired was unclear and authorities would not give an estimate.” (18)
What then really transpired in the initial encounter between the officers and the suspect? Did Beck come to the door or didn’t he? Were there words exchanged before shots were fired or weren’t there? Did Beck fire a single shot or a volley of automatic weapon fire? Were the officers attempting to gain forced entry into the home or were they still approaching the house? Officials have offered nothing in the way of clarification.
The Daily News claimed that: “Kuredjian, 40, died in the first moments of the confrontation when he assisted about a dozen U.S. marshals and agents of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms in trying to arrest James Allen Beck on charges of impersonating an officer and of being a felon in possession of weapons.” (5)
A separate report in the very same edition of the Daily News had a much smaller force approaching the house: “Beck shot and killed Los Angeles County sheriff’s Deputy Hagop “Jake” Kuredjian on Friday while he and five other officers attempted to search Beck’s Stevenson Ranch home, believing Beck had been stockpiling weapons and impersonating an officer.” (7)
The version of events presented by CNN.com was that: “Deputy Hagop “Jake” Kuredjian was killed Friday morning as a man suspected of federal weapons violations opened fire on agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and local authorities.” (13) ABC said that: “Deputy Jake Kuredjian was shot as he tried to serve Martin (sic) Beck a warrant for his arrest at his Santa Clarita, Calif. home at 8:30 a.m. on Friday.” (12)
In fact though, Kuredjian was not on the scene when the first shots rang out, but arrived there, according to the L.A. Times, “after responding to a call of shots fired.” (1) The same Times report explained that: “Kuredjian, on patrol in the area, was shot as he was getting off his motorcycle, which was parked behind a large red sport utility vehicle several houses away from Beck’s home, authorities said.” (1)
Sheriff’s spokesman Lt. Carl H. Deeley echoed that account: “He stopped four doors east of the suspect’s house. He took cover behind vehicles and was shot almost immediately after getting here.” (1) A follow-up report by the Times verified the earlier report: “The deputy arrived a few minutes after the shooting started and was hit almost immediately, as he crouched behind an SUV four houses down from the Beck home, officials said.” (9)
What we are to believe then, apparently, is that the suspect opened fire on a group of twelve or more agents from close range and yet failed to hit any of them [the Times reported that there were “no other injuries,” (1) while the Daily Newsnoted that “One ATF agent suffered an injury to his wrist in the battle” (5)], and then proceeded to pick off officer Kuredjian with a single shot to the head from some 150-200 feet away while the officer was behind an SUV and, according to the Times, “wearing a motorcycle helmet.” (10)
Sounds perfectly reasonable to me. A comment made by Kuredjian’s superior provided further indication that the deputy was not initially a part of the operation. The Daily News reported that: “[Santa Clarita Sheriff’s station chief Don] Rodriguez said he was unclear how or why Kuredjian was selected to accompany two U.S. marshals and two agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms in the attempted search of Beck’s Brooks Circle home.” (4)
Rodriguez was clearly baffled by the disinformational reports claiming that Kuredjian had joined in the initial assault upon the home. What appears to have happened was that the deputy had the grave misfortune of being on patrol in the immediate vicinity of the siege and responded too quickly to the reports of shots fired, or possibly was even close enough to have heard the shots himself. Arriving at the perimeter of the operation “within minutes,” (10) he was killed almost immediately.
On Sunday evening, September 2, NBC News reported that: “The Associated Press reports that an L.A. County Sheriff’s official said that it’s not determined who fired the deadly shot.” (8) The AP report in question had begun: “The investigation into a deadly California standoff has raised questions about whether the suspect fired the bullet that killed a deputy or whether the officer was mistakenly hit by a fellow lawman.” (18) Included was the following statement by Sheriff’s Sgt. Paul Patterson: “I am quite sure that is something we’re going to look into, because it’s not clear he was shot by Beck.” (18)
This report was quickly met with a flurry of official denials. A statement issued by the Sheriff’s Department referred to it as: “an unfortunate piece of prevarication that smacks of tabloid journalism.” (13) Deeley stated flatly that “There isn’t even a remote chance that friendly fire was the cause of death of Deputy Kuredjian,” (13) and “Without a doubt, it was Beck who shot him.” (10)
On the NBC News’ broadcast, a stammering Lt. Deeley asserted that: “There is absolutely no doubt that the fatal shot fired at Deputy Jake Kuredjian came from suspect James Beck, and I’ll give you two of the reasons right now. The angle of the shot and where Deputy Kuredjian was hit came from above and the angle proves that the shot did come from suspect Beck and that second story of his house. And also during negotiations … he apologized for shooting the deputy.” (8)
The media was quick to fall in line with the position of the various police agencies. The Los Angeles Times reported that: “Preliminary autopsy and ballistics findings confirm that a Santa Clarita Valley gunman who held officers at bay Friday fired the shot that killed a deputy, Los Angeles County sheriff’s officials said Monday.” (10)
The Daily News joined in with: “The Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office found Saturday that based on the trajectory of the bullet, there was no doubt that Kuredjian had been shot from above. That rules out the possibility that surfaced this weekend that the deputy was shot by another law enforcement officer by mistake.” (14)
CNN featured the following quote from Deeley: “The homicide bureau has stated that the trajectory of the bullet and the wound, where it was, proved that the bullet came from the second floor of the house, fired by suspect Beck,” and also repeated the claim that Beck had acknowledged and apologized for the shooting of Kuredjian. (13)
Both of these claims though are transparently fraudulent, though they went unchallenged by the various media representatives. The very same Lt. Deeley had been quoted just the day before as saying that “No one saw Beck shoot Jake. People right next to him just saw him go down. There were so many shots going off; it’s hard to tell where they [we]re coming from.” (9)
Hard to tell where they were coming from? How many possibilities are there? Considering that there was only one suspect, and he was said to have been in the house throughout the siege, that sort of limits the possibilities. All the other shots, one would assume, would be directed toward the house.
As for the claim that the angle of the shot proved that it was fired from the house, there would be no way of determining that fact since, as Deeley had already acknowledged, no one had seen the officer get shot. Therefore, there was no way of knowing how the officer’s head was oriented when the fatal bullet struck him. The path that the bullet traveled through his head was a function of both the angle of the shot and the orientation of the target. Without knowing which direction he was looking, and whether he had his head tilted either up or down or left or right, it is simply not possible to determine where the shot originated from.
That didn’t stop the L.A. Times from claiming that “A sheriff’s investigation found that the bullet that struck Kuredjian in the head traveled in a ‘steep downward arc’ from the second floor of Beck’s home,” (10) again according to Lt. Deeley. Lt. Raymond Peavy, of the Sheriff’s Homicide Division, added that “No other officers [other than Beck?] were at that high of a level.” (10)
This was, it should be noted, a rather odd choice of words considering that Beck was not, according to official reports, an officer. It should also be noted that even if the shot had been fired from the second-story window of the home, it would have only placed the shooter perhaps 15 feet above the target at a distance of 150 feet or more.
The angle of such a shot would hardly be a “steep downward arc,” but would in fact be so slight that it would be negated by even a slight tilt of the head. If, however, Kuredjian had been crouching as some reports maintain, and he had been shot by someone standing nearby, then the bullet would indeed have followed a steep path downward.
As for the claims that the suspect took responsibility before being incinerated, no evidence was produced to support that contention. The suspect, of course, was dead, and so in no position to confirm or deny the claims. As these statements attributed to Beck were made over the phone though, they would undoubtedly have been taped if they had in fact been made. There is little doubt that if the Sheriff’s office had such statements on tape, they would have been quickly released to the news media.
The L.A. Times attempted to introduce yet one more piece of alleged evidence to support the stance of the authorities: “About the time Kuredjian was shot, authorities also reported hearing a boom louder than any of the previous rounds of gunfire and seeing a puff of smoke coming from the second-floor window.” (10) Perhaps that is supposed to explain how the bullet got through a large vehicle and a helmet before ripping into Kuredjian’s brain.
As the evidence now stands, all indications are of a death by ‘friendly fire’ that wasn’t all that friendly. All that can be said for sure though at this point is that “Autopsy results Saturday showed that Kuredjian died of a single gunshot wound to the head,” and that “Kuredjian arrived a few minutes after the shooting started and was hit almost immediately.” (15)
This report is, we should note here, very deceptive. In truth, the barrage didn’t come until several hours after Kuredjian was shot and killed, as the Daily News acknowledged: “After a four-hour standoff, the man’s house burst into flames – either from tear gas fired by officers or because he set fire to it.” (5) Of course, the various department spokesmen denied there was any connection between the firing of the canisters and the fire.
The Times noted that “Although the use of tear gas has controversial associations with fires, a sheriff’s spokesman said investigators did not think the canisters had ignited the fire.” (1) Sheriff’s Deputy Harry Drucker added that “They believe that the fire was started by the suspect and wasn’t started by tear gas.” (1) CNN stated flatly that: “James Beck died in the fire he set Friday.” (11)
Indeed, the speed and ferocity with which the fire engulfed the home hinted that perhaps neither the tear gas nor the suspect were to blame – some of the canisters fired at the home could well have been incendiary charges (we are talking about the ATF here). According to the Daily News, “The blaze erupted on the second floor of the home at 11:51 a.m. Friday.” (6) Less than an hour later, “By 12:40 p.m., the entire second floor was gutted.” (1)
By 3:00 p.m., the fire was declared to be out, and Beck’s home had been reduced to “a blackened foundation.” (5) The complete destruction of the home was hastened by the fact that “As [the home] burned with an armed man barricaded inside Friday, police and firefighters stood by and just watched.” (6) An Associated Press report agreed that “Firefighters stood by as the fire engulfed the house in the upscale neighborhood.” (16)
Firefighters did though, “working from a distance, [protect] the houses on either side while Beck’s house burned to the ground.” (5) The Fire Department didn’t take action, according to the Times, until “about 12:30 p.m.,” at which time “sheriff’s and fire officials decided to direct a water-spraying aerial ladder and a hose on Beck’s house.” (9) Prior to that time, Sheriff’s deputies purportedly “would not allow firefighters to come near the house to douse the flames because of safety concerns.” (11)
Strangely though, the department had arrived on the scene in force nearly four hours before that, just after the shooting began and more than three hours before there was any indication that their services would be needed: “County fire officials responded to the incident with four engine companies, a truck company and two paramedic squads at about 8:37 a.m., [Los Angeles County Fire Department spokesman Mike] Brown said.” (9)
It was claimed that the search warrant arose out of tips from neighbors who had grown suspicious of Beck and reported those suspicions. He had allegedly bragged to them of working for the U.S. Marshal’s Service or for the FBI and also claimed to be stockpiling weapons. When the L.A. Times talked to those in the area, they found that “most neighbors said they found nothing sinister about Beck.” (1) An AP reporter found that “Some neighbors described him as social and generally nice,” and that “Several residents of the upscale neighborhood said Beck often socialized with them.” (17)
Who then were these neighbors whose fears prompted the search? The answer may well lie in the demographic make-up of the Stevenson Ranch development, and of Santa Clarita in general – it is loaded with cops. As the Times reported, “Fully 10% of Los Angeles police officers live in Santa Clarita, more than live in the city they patrol.” (2)
To illustrate the density of the police population, the Times told the story of a Beverly Hills publicist who, when he “moved his young family to Stevenson Ranch two years ago, the real estate agent assured them ‘You couldn’t go more than three houses without running into a police officer.’ Sure enough, his neighbors include a sheriff’s deputy and an LAPD officer.” (2)
Was it local law enforcement personnel who had ‘reported’ the alleged claims being made by Beck? And if not, then why were they not the ones to whom their fellow neighbors reported their suspicions, rather than improbably phoning them in to the U.S. Marshal’s office and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms? If you live in a police ‘ghetto,’ do you really need to place calls to these agencies to report a suspected crime?
A report in the Sunday Times noted that: “The specific reasons for the search are laid out in an affidavit by a federal agent that was shown to a federal prosecutor and a federal judge, both of whom approved the search.” The same report though added that: “[Southern California head of the ATF Donald] Kincaid said the affidavit was sealed and he would not discuss its specifics.” (9)
There is also doubt about whether law enforcement officials really believed that such a cache existed. One report held that after the second floor of the house gave way to the fire at 1:15 p.m., “Some of the SWAT team members began taking off their helmets, apparently convinced that Beck could no longer be a threat.” (1)
While it may well be true that Beck was no longer a threat at that time, a large cache of ammunition on the ground floor would still have posed a considerable threat, not only to the officers, but to anyone else in the general vicinity of the siege. And the fact that law enforcement personnel had adopted a strategy of igniting the house in the first place strongly suggests that they didn’t seriously consider the possibility that the residence was stockpiled with ammunition.
Officials did ultimately claim to have found a number of firearms in the smoldering embers of Beck’s home. Included on that list were “three assault rifles … including an AK-47 and AR-15, as well as a shotgun, a .380-caliber semiautomatic pistol and other handguns.” (9) Notably absent from that list was the “automatic weapon” with which Beck had allegedly opened fire to begin the shootout.
Approximately two years after leaving the Arcadia force, Beck “begun racking up a long string of arrests and convictions.” (3) According to the L.A. Times, he was “first convicted in 1990 for receiving stolen property—a Remington 870 shotgun and a .25 caliber Baretta. He was also convicted of grand theft, firearms violations and fraudulent use of someone else’s credit card, on which he charged more than $1,300. He was sentenced to two years in state prison.“ (3)
“In the years that followed, Beck was arrested numerous other times: on suspicion of possession of firearms, receiving stolen property, carrying firearms in public, impersonating a police officer and being a felon in possession of an assault weapon. He was again sentenced to prison, this time for four years, law enforcement and court records show.” (3)
The rather obvious question begged here is: how was it possible for him to again be arrested, convicted and sentenced to prison when he should have already been in prison, serving the sentence that he had already received? As the story continues, we find that “In late 1992, Beck was convicted again, of first degree residential burglary with the intent to commit larceny. Court documents say he broke into a trailer. That time, he was sentenced to six years in state prison.” (3)
By this time Beck had apparently racked up prison sentences totaling twelve years, and yet had by all appearances not yet served any of that time. He was either a very lucky man, or he had some people in high places looking out for him. Following the 1992 conviction, “It is not known what became of Beck … or how he was able to afford to move into Stevenson Ranch in November.” (3)
As it turns out though, law enforcement officials were well aware of Beck’s whereabouts at least a year before the siege on his home. As ATF chief Kincaid revealed, his “bureau had conducted a similar search a year ago at a different address, which Kincaid could not specify.” (9) This revelation came about as authorities scrambled to explain how the serving of a search warrant had veered so wildly out of control.
Kincaid explained that because of that earlier encounter with the suspect, “the ATF had reason to believe that Beck would be cooperative Friday morning.” (9) Because of this, spokesmen claimed, “The violence that claimed the life of a Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy in the Santa Clarita Valley caught authorities off guard.” (9)
What this report failed to note was that the initial officers on the scene had “arrived about 5 a.m.” (5) What the officers were doing at the location for over three hours before allegedly first approaching the house was not explained. You would think though that that would have provided them with ample opportunity to assess the situation and be prepared for a confrontation with the suspect.
Nevertheless, the scene reportedly quickly degenerated into “such chaos that officers fired not only at the suspect but into homes on both sides of his, officials said Saturday.” (9) According to Sheriff’s Captain Ray Leyva: “We did hit the houses on either side. I don’t know exactly what was happening at the time, I don’t know how well [the deputies’] aim was, but they were returning fire and trying to rescue someone, so I’m sure they were hitting things during the battle.” (9)
Excuse me? He didn’t know how well his officers’ aim was? You would think that – being that these are man who are trained, authorized and have been qualified to carry and use firearms – they would at the very least be able to, quite literally, hit the broad side of a fucking barn. I would venture to guess that most people, even those who have never fired a gun, could hit a large two-story house from across the street.
Nevertheless, “The two houses next door to Beck’s … [were found to be] pocked with numerous bullet marks.” (9) There are three possible explanations for this. The first was already mentioned – that the officers aim was, shall we say, a little off. That hardly seems likely.
The second is that the various departments involved were so thoroughly incompetent and reckless that they just opened fire without having any idea of what they were supposed to be firing at. If so, that is a most disturbing scenario, especially given that one of the homes being riddled with gunfire was at the time occupied by “a couple and their 30-hour-old newborn.” (15) The baby’s father told reporters that “The shots came through our [front] window and into our house.” (9)
The third possibility is perhaps the most disturbing of all – that these homes were deliberately targeted to create the impression that a two-way gun battle was raging, when in fact the only shots being fired were those fired by the officers. Such a strategy would serve to insure that any potential witnesses were forced to take cover or evacuate, and would therefore be unable to observe what was happening around the Beck home.
Authorities in fact made a concerted effort to evacuate the neighborhood, ostensibly for safety reasons, though the only bullets that appear to have entered any of the neighbors’ homes were those fired by the officers on the scene. ABC reported that “Law enforcement officials urged several Santa Clarita residents to leave their homes when the standoff began,” (12) and the AP added that “Authorities evacuated about 100 people from the neighborhood.” (17)
Perhaps there is a similar explanation of claims made by the Times that Beck had been “allegedly firing not only at police on the ground, but at police and news media helicopters.” (1) It is not beyond the realm of possibility that the shots were fired to keep the media at bay during the early stages of the operation, and fired by someone other than Beck.
What we have here then, or so it would appear, is a case of a search warrant that could have been peacefully served but wasn’t, thereby leading to a gunfight in which it was unclear how the first shots were fired, and during which an officer was killed by ‘friendly fire,’ with the standoff ending when the building under siege was completely destroyed by a fire of uncertain origin. Now, where have I heard this story before ….
1. Kristina Sauerwein, Richard Fausset, and Mitchell Landsberg “Deputy Slain as Gunman Sparks Siege,” Los Angeles Times, September 1, 2001
2. Massie Ritsch and Richard Fausset “Stevenson Ranch Suburban Dream Is Transformed Into a Nightmare,” Los Angeles Times, September 1, 2001
3. Josh Meyer and Jean Guccione “Fired as a Cop, Suspect Ran Up Long Rap Sheet,” Los Angeles Times, September 1, 2001
4. Heather MacDonald “Slain deputy ‘always smiling, always upbeat,’” Los Angeles Daily News, September 1, 2001
5. Bhavna Mistry and Amy Raisin “Terror in suburbia: Shots, death, fire!,” Los Angeles Daily News, September 1, 2001
6. Orith Goldberg “Officials let armed suspect’s home burn to keep others safe,” Los Angeles Daily News, September 1, 2001
7. Heather MacDonald “Neighbors say Beck told them he was a U.S. marshal,” Los Angeles Daily News, September 1, 2001
8. NBC Evening News, September 2, 2001
9. Carol Chambers, Josh Meyer and Mitchell Landsberg “Gunfire Hit Houses Next to Suspects,” Los Angeles Times, September 2, 2001
10. Kristina Sauerwein and Martha Groves “Gunman Killed Deputy, Officials Say,” Los Angeles Times, September 4, 2001
11. “Body Could Be Suspected L.A. Sniper,” CNN.com, September 3, 2001] 12. “Sheriff’s Deputy Shot, Suspect Believed Killed in Fiery Standoff,” ABCNEWS.com, September 1, 2001
13. “’Friendly Fire’ Death Denied in L.A. Standoff,” CNN.com, September 4, 2001
14. “Youth Give Family Funds,” Los Angeles Daily News, September 4, 2001
15. “Aftermath of Deadly Shootout Raises Questions,” Channel2000.com (CBS News), September 3, 2001
16. Cadonna M. Peyton “Standoff in Los Angeles After Officer Shot,” Associated Press, August 31, 2001
17. “Man Involved in California Shootout had Worried Neighbors,” Associated Press, September 1, 2001
18. “Standoff Investigation Raises Questions About Who Fired Bullet That Killed Deputy,” Associated Press, September 3, 2001