MOURN­ING A COM­MU­NITY SER­VANT

Cops did not rest in man­hunt af­ter Singh shoot­ing

The Modesto Bee (Sunday) - - Front Page - BY DEKE FAR­ROW jfar­[email protected]­bee.com

Be­fore deputies on the Kern County sher­iff’s SWAT team descended upon a house in La­mont on Fri­day morn­ing, seek­ing the sus­pect in the slay­ing of a New­man po­lice cor­po­ral, they opened a live au­dio feed with their law en­force­ment col­leagues in Stanis­laus County.

Deputies, of­fi­cers and oth­ers here gath­ered around a speaker phone, breath­lessly lis­ten­ing as the op­er­a­tion un­folded that cul­mi­nated with Gus­tavo Perez Ar­riaga, 32, emerg­ing from the home with his hands raised.

Joy and re­lief flooded the room when they learned the tar­get was in cus­tody, Stanis­laus County Sher­iff’s De­part­ment Sgt. Tom Le­tras said in a phone in­ter­view Satur­day morn­ing in which he gave a be­hind-thescenes look at the roughly 55hour man­hunt fol­low­ing Cpl. Ronil Singh’s shoot­ing death early Wed­nes­day.

With Ar­riaga’s sur­ren­der, worry that find­ing him could lead to an­other gun­bat­tle, that an­other law en­force­ment of­fi­cer could be hurt or killed, evap­o­rated, Le­tras said. “It was such a huge re­lease that we not only had him, but had him peace­fully,” the sergeant said. And it was so good to be able to tell Singh’s fam­ily and his law en­force­ment brothers and sis­ters in New­man that the sus­pect was cap­tured.

The pe­riod that be­gan shortly be­fore 1 a.m. Wed­nes­day was phys­i­cally, men­tally and emo­tion­ally ex­haust­ing for those work­ing to find Singh’s killer. Some per­son­nel had to be or-

dered to go home and get some rest be­cause they’d pushed them­selves be­yond any rea­son­able ex­pec­ta­tion, Le­tras said. Deputies such as those with the Crimes Against Per­sons Unit and the Street Team In­ves­ti­ga­tion Nar­cotics and Gangs (STING) Unit worked nearly 40 hours straight, he said, not want­ing to ease up lest the sus­pect elude cap­ture.

Singh, 33, was fa­tally shot min­utes af­ter he was flagged down by a New­man res­i­dent who re­ported see­ing a man come out of a liquor store and get be­hind the wheel of a pickup truck, pretty clearly in­tox­i­cated.

The res­i­dent even saw Singh pull his pa­trol ve­hi­cle be­hind the pickup to make the traf­fic stop. Mo­ments later, no longer in view of the cor­po­ral and pickup driver, the res­i­dent heard the gun­fight that took Singh’s life.

That per­son’s re­port to au­thor­i­ties is how sur­veil­lance cam­era images of the shoot­ing sus­pect were so quickly ob­tained and shared out to the pub­lic within about five hours.

Law en­force­ment from through­out Stanis­laus County and even Merced County re­sponded as word went out that the cor­po­ral was shot. There were early re­ports that he could not be lo­cated at the scene and may have been taken by the gun­man, but in a mat­ter of min­utes, the dy­ing cor­po­ral was found in the dark, some dis­tance away from his pa­trol ve­hi­cle.

Singh’s fel­low New­man po­lice of­fi­cer work­ing that night, Pat­ter­son Po­lice Ser­vices deputies and CHP of­fi­cers were among the first on scene, and one of the re­spon­ders be­gan CPR. The cor­po­ral was taken by am­bu­lance to a hos­pi­tal, where he was pro­nounced dead.

EV­ERY SEC­OND COUNTED

With pho­tos of the sus­pect and his Dodge Ram pickup cir­cu­lat­ing on so­cial me­dia and news sites, law en­force­ment felt sure that when res­i­dents be­gan ris­ing that morn­ing af­ter Christ­mas, tips would start com­ing in, Le­tras said. “This was some­thing where time was of the essence be­cause of the head start Ar­riaga had in get­ting away from the scene.”

While the shoot­ing hap­pened when the Sher­iff’s De­part­ment had a higher-than-usual num­ber of deputies on va­ca­tion be­cause of Christ­mas, it also hap­pened at a time of day when all deputies on the grave­yard shift and swing shift were work­ing. And at around 4 a.m., a sergeant be­gan call­ing in all day-shift deputies.

“Our de­part­ment went to con­di­tion red,” Le­tras said, “which means no proac­tive ac­tiv­ity, deputies were not to stop peo­ple for traf­fic vi­o­la­tions or any­thing that could keep them tied up. It also means we will re­spond to only the high­est-pri­or­ity calls for ser­vice” — ba­si­cally crimes in progress. No im­me­di­ate re­sponse to, say, noise com­plaints or a per­son find­ing that his car has been bro­ken into.”

Speak­ing from the ex­pe­ri­ence of work­ing at the time his fel­low deputy Den­nis Wal­lace was am­bushed and killed at Fox Grove Fish­ing Ac­cess near Hugh­son in Novem­ber 2016, Le­tras said, “I can’t de­scribe the dif­fi­culty of keep­ing your emo­tions in check and do­ing the job you have to do right now.”

And it’s not just the emo­tion of grief, the sergeant said. There’s fear, too, be­cause you know some­one just mur­dered a cop and is still armed. “There’s a fear that when we find the guy, and we all wanted to find him, we may be forced into a shootout,” he said, point­ing out that from the getgo, Sher­iff Adam Chris­tian­son pub­licly ap­pealed to the sus­pect to turn him­self in. “Don’t think for a sec­ond that law en­force­ment of­fi­cers don’t have fear. Fear is healthy, it keeps you alive, but you have to over­come it and fo­cus on what you need to get done. To know I may be shot and killed, or I may be forced to shoot some­one is a heavy, heavy feel­ing.”

FLOODED BY TIPS

Tips did in­deed start pour­ing in Wed­nes­day morn­ing about the sus­pect’s pos­si­ble iden­tity and lo­ca­tion. Some led to the dis­cov­ery of the Dodge pickup, which was left at a mo­bile home park in the 26000 block of River Road, about 4.5 miles north­east of the shoot­ing scene.

The serv­ing of a search war­rant turned up ev­i­dence in­side a mo­bile home that the sus­pect had been there, Le­tras said. That pro­duced more leads, more names, more peo­ple to con­tact.

“So those ef­forts are ramp­ing up, and we quickly re­al­ized that with all the tips rolling in, it was dif­fi­cult to sort that many all at once,” he said. So many calls were com­ing in to De­tec­tive Michael Fisher’s line, which had been pub­li­cized, that his phone had to be handed off to an­other de­tec­tive so Fisher could fo­cus on in­ves­ti­gat­ing.

A ded­i­cated tip line was set up, and com­mu­nity ser­vice of­fi­cers and de­tec­tives sat an­swer­ing phones and pass­ing along the most rel­e­vant tips. By late af­ter­noon Wed­nes­day, a con­fer­ence room had been con­verted to an in­tel­li­gence cen­ter of sorts, where crime an­a­lysts at com­put­ers con­ducted in-depth searches, in­clud­ing of so­cial me­dia, work­ing to de­ter­mine the true iden­tity of the sus­pect, who was known by sev­eral names.

The ef­fort was made ex­po­nen­tially harder by the fact that the sus­pect turned out to be an un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grant from Mex­ico, Le­tras said. No driver’s li­cense for him has been found, so there are no DMV records of ad­dresses. There was no known birth date. It’s hard to run a crim­i­nal his­tory when you don’t have a def­i­nite name, the sergeant said.

But in­ves­ti­gat­ing and in­ter­view­ing ul­ti­mately led to the name Gus­tavo Perez Ar­riaga, and to the ar­rests of seven peo­ple in Modesto, La­mont, Han­ford, Tur­lock and Liver­more. Those peo­ple are Ar­riaga’s girl­friend, Ana Leyde Cer­vantes, 30; his brothers Con­rado Vir­gen Men­doza, 34, and Adrian Vir­gen, 25; a co-worker, Erik Razo Quiroz, 35; and three peo­ple at the La­mont home: Bern­abe Madri­gal Cas­taneda, 59, Er­masmo Vil­le­gas, 36, and Maria Luisa Moreno, 57. All are ex­pected to be charged with ac­ces­sory af­ter the fact, or aid­ing and abet­ting.

Le­tras said in­ves­ti­ga­tors also re­cov­ered what they be­lieve to be the sus­pect’s hand­gun used in the shoot­ing.

Searches by lo­cal, state and fed­eral law en­force­ment agen­cies be­gan head­ing south, in­clud­ing one in El Nido, about 12 miles south of Merced, late Thurs­day af­ter­noon. That be­came a ma­jor place of in­ter­est, Le­tras said, and in­ves­ti­ga­tors started to gather some good, re­al­time in­for­ma­tion that in­di­cated they were clos­ing in on Ar­riaga.

“That’s where we started pick­ing peo­ple off who had as­sisted him, to build our time line of where he was picked up, where he was taken — all parts of a man­hunt and track­ing some­body. Even if that per­son has left a spe­cific area, you can glean who brought him there and w ho took him away.” The state and fed­eral agen­cies pro­vided tech­nol­ogy and man­power that was much more far-reach­ing than lo­cal law en­force­ment’s ca­pa­bil­i­ties, Le­tras said. “We had ex­cel­lent as­sis­tance from out­side agen­cies in get­ting a cop killer off the streets.”

At a news con­fer­ence, Chris­tian­son said in­ves­ti­ga­tors never were more than “a step be­hind” the sus­pect, and Le­tras added Satur­day, “I don’t think he ever re­al­ized how close we were to him, and that prob­a­bly helped in get­ting a peace­ful sur­ren­der.”

Would Stanis­laus au­thor­i­ties have liked to be there for the take­down of the sus­pect? “One hun­dred per­cent,” Le­tras said. But the mem­bers of Kern County Sher­iff Donny Young­blood’s SWAT team didn’t hes­i­tate to get the job done, he said.

They “showed up pre­pared for a fight, but not look­ing for one, and there’s a big dis­tinc­tion there,” Le­tras said. If Ar­riaga ever had any in­ten­tion of putting up a fight, it must have been very ap­par­ent to him that day how fu­tile it would have been.

NIGHT AND DAY

It was a far dif­fer­ent sit­u­a­tion than when he al­legedly am­bushed Cpl. Ronil Singh in the dark­ness two morn­ings ear­lier. Ar­riaga knew he was go­ing to shoot, but Singh had no rea­son to see it com­ing, Le­tras said.

To the cor­po­ral, it was a traf­fic stop for a pos­si­ble DUI. For the sus­pect, it was that plus be­ing an il­le­gal im­mi­grant with a gun, Le­tras said.

Law en­force­ment of­fi­cers in­clud­ing the cor­po­ral are trained in con­duct­ing traf­fic stops. They po­si­tion their ve­hi­cles a spe­cific way, shine their spot­lights just so, ap­proach in a stan­dard man­ner. They know that with any stop, there’s the pos­si­bil­ity of a vi­o­lent re­ac­tion, Le­tras said, but they can’t just ap­proach with guns drawn as a mat­ter of rou­tine.

“We’re at a tac­ti­cal dis­ad­van­tage in that mo­ment,” the sergeant said. “... Once you see a gun, there’s a split sec­ond to re­act.”

Singh was able to draw his weapon and ex­change gun­fire, but he did not wound his al­leged killer.

It’s easy and painful to imag­ine him­self in the cor­po­ral’s po­si­tion that morn­ing, Le­tras said. ”Ev­ery day be­fore my shift, I get in the shower and that’s my quiet time, and I pray for pro­tec­tion for me, for my part­ners, and I pray that if I’m ever forced into a sit­u­a­tion like that, I will re­spond and bat­tle with my last breath, and that’s what Cpl. Singh did.”

ANDY AL­FARO aal­[email protected]­bee.com

Wife of po­lice Cpl. Ronil Singh, Anamika Singh, mid­dle left, holds their baby son as she and hun­dreds of oth­ers re­mem­bered the slain of­fi­cer dur­ing a can­dle­light vigil Fri­day in down­town New­man.

DEKE FAR­ROW jfar­[email protected]­bee.com

New­man Po­lice Chief Randy Richard­son, cen­ter, had to be com­forted by Stanis­laus County Sher­iff Adam Chris­tian­son, left, dur­ing a press con­fer­ence Thurs­day.

Gus­tavo Perez Ar­riaga

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