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By Casey Christie / The Californian
BY CHRISTINE BEDELL Californian city editor firstname.lastname@example.org
Kenneth West said he just wanted to make life even easier for his family and funeral director Kent Smith when he walked into Smith's office at Basham Funeral Care Tuesday afternoon and announced he was there to kill himself.
Visibly distraught, the 83-year-old battling terminal illness -- who had bonded with Smith a week earlier when making funeral arrangements for himself in advance so others wouldn't have to -- showed Smith the butt of a gun and said, "I'm gonna take my life with this."
West figured his body would end up at Basham anyway, so why not end things there?
"Kent, I came here because you folks are compassionate and I want to make this the least problematic as possible," West told him.
Smith wanted to catch the attention of one of his co-workers and get them to call 911. So he stalled West by telling him that if he committed suicide, he'd have to be taken to the county coroner's office, so he might as well just kill himself there.
Smith escorted West toward the front of the building and the scheme worked -- he got another employee to call for help. He then took the elderly gentleman, who was dressed in a short-sleeve, button-up shirt and khaki pants, into an arrangement office to further delay things until the authorities arrived.
They talked a bit about life, his military service.
Then the Kern County Sheriff's Office called and asked Smith to escort West outside. West complied.
"He was doing everything I asked him to, except give me the gun," Smith would later say.
But when West "saw a bunch of deputies with guns pointed" -- Smith wasn't sure how many -- he walked back inside and sat on a couch. The elderly man pulled the pistol out of his briefcase, tried to cock it and the magazine fell out.
Smith, knowing the weapon wasn't loaded, grabbed it. The old man was startled, but didn't put up much of a fight.
"He's an 83-year-old man," Smith said. "It wasn't difficult to remove it from his hands."
Smith turned toward the front glass doors with the gun, startling the deputies. He then threw the gun and the authorities came into the building, cuffed West and took him into custody.
"They were very professional," Smith said.
Smith, 43, and Basham Funeral Care's John Basham wanted the story told Wednesday because they didn't like what the media had been reporting based on a Sheriff's Office news release.
That news release, saying West brandished a gun and employees had to seek refuge in other parts of the building, made West look like a criminal, Basham said.
"I don't want the gentleman to be known as someone who attempted to murder people," he said. "He is not. This is sad."
Nonetheless, West was arrested and booked into jail on charges of false imprisonment, obstructing or delaying a peace officer and weapons violations.
Basham praised Smith, who said he was in the Army special forces and did reconnaissance work in Operation Desert Storm, for how he handled the situation Tuesday.
"Part of working here is having compassion," Basham said. "We treat everyone as if they're a loved one, a parent.
"Kent could have left (West) in a room and left," he continued. "But the compassion was there."