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LOIS HENRY: Many questions remain after Sheraton shootout

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    Californian columnist Lois Henry

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By LOIS HENRY, Californian columnist lhenry@bakersfield.com

Normally, I'm a big fan of more openness by the cops.

But in the case of the deadly Sept. 16 Sheraton shooting, what information Bakersfield Police Chief Greg Williamson has released has only served to muddy the waters.

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Williamson declined to talk to me because the investigations are still ongoing.

OK, that's fair.

I'm not saying the cops should blab every snippet they get before understanding the full context of what happened that night. They need to sift through the details and get it right.

Still, at some point, the public will deserve a full accounting of what the heck took place.

Not some starchy overview (much as we got this past spring when seven Sheriff's deputies and two CHP officers were involved in the death of David Sal Silva who had been passed out on the side of a street.).

The details of the Sheraton shooting case will be especially important because not only was a wanted bad guy killed, so was the informant who was trying to bring him in.

And worst of all, Officer Daniel Brewer nearly lost his life after being shot in the head during the melee.

Clearly, something went wrong.

Initial information

On Sept. 18, police explained they learned that Justin Bryan Harger was wanted by the U.S. Marshals Service, was in an SUV or Jeep and that he would be going to the Four Points Sheraton Hotel on California Avenue the night of Sept. 16.

Officers got to the parking lot first and waited for Harger, who pulled up just after 12:30 a.m. with Jorge Joel Ramirez in the passenger seat.

Harger and Ramirez "immediately" got out of the car and Harger shot at officers Brewer and Rick Wimbish who returned fire, police said.

Three other officers, Ryan Vaughan, Jess Beagley and Chad Garrett, arrived and all were involved in the shooting, which left Harger and Ramirez dead, according to the initial explanation.

Informant revealed

On Oct. 7, Williamson came out with more information after Ramirez' family told the media they believed Jorge Ramirez had been an informant for the cops.

Williamson confirmed Ramirez had been an informant and that he was trying to deliver Harger to the cops.

I don't blame him. Williamson had to say something at that point.

But he included a lot more information, much of which was confusing at best.

He said Ramirez was an untested informant, but that he had been used once before though no arrests resulted.

He also said Ramirez didn't tell cops Harger was armed.

I would assume officers would assume Harger was armed. He was wanted by the U.S. Marshals for involvement in a shooting, after all. And he was deemed a "very dangerous individual" by the cops themselves, according to Williamson.

Williamson's implication, of course, was that Ramirez was unreliable.

You have to wonder, then, if Ramirez was so unreliable, why were they using him on such a dangerous case?

The tested/untested distinction is also interesting because if Ramirez was an "untested" informant as Chief Williamson said, then his information was to be used for "intelligence purposes only," according to the department's policies on use of informants.

Instead, it appears the cops were using not just Ramirez' information, but Ramirez himself in an operation to apprehend Harger.

Tactical errors?

The chief said on Oct. 7 that police had been looking for Harger for three weeks and that Ramirez had called his "handler" that night saying he knew where Harger was.

So if Harger was that dangerous, and this was an actual operation, not an unplanned roll up, why not alert the U.S. Marshals and have them involved?

My cadre of retired cops said that's not always doable. First, it's the cops' job to nab fugitives. Second, some situations are too fluid to involve another agency with so little lead time.

This situation was extremely fluid, as it turns out.

Williamson said officers drove to three locations that night trying to meet up with Harger and Ramirez before the Sheraton showdown.

Which brings up the issue of planning.

Was there a tactical plan done beforehand? If so, wouldn't two or three missed chances suggest the plan had gone awry? Rushing around, remaking plans on the fly when dealing with a "very dangerous individual" seems like it's asking for trouble.

The BPD has a three-page operational planning form for just such apprehensions. It includes all the pertinent information officers have at hand, such as car descriptions, criminal records and photographs of the suspects.

Given that Williamson said the officers had studied photographs of Harger and Ramirez prior to the shooting, it seems some kind of operational planning had been done ahead of time.

The shootout

Once Harger was in the Sheraton parking lot, Williamson said Oct. 7, waiting police pulled in behind him and shined a light into the SUV.

Contrary to the initial information -- that both men had immediately jumped out of the car and Harger started shooting -- Williamson said on Oct. 7 that after Harger stopped, only Ramirez got out.

Officers Brewer and Wimbish ordered him back into the car but he didn't comply. Instead Ramirez stood there and moved his hands to the front of his pants.

That's when Brewer was shot in the face. But he's cognizant enough to realize the shot didn't come from Ramirez, Williamson said.

"In the resulting confusion, the officers lost track of the suspects and each other. Wimbish took shelter behind the police cruiser while Brewer fired as he backed up 20 to 30 feet behind and to the right of Wimbish," according to what police told us.

Wait a minute.

This was a dangerous person, who was or should have been presumed armed. Why then were Brewer and Wimbish outside their vehicle in the line of fire instead of behind the doors of their patrol car barking orders at Ramirez and Harger?

Moving forward

As I said, Williamson opened up a lot more questions than he was able to answer Oct. 7.

I'm hoping we get those answers sometime in the near future.

Meanwhile, Ramirez' family has an attorney prowling around and I'm sure it won't escape his notice that the BPD's informant policy dictates officers "shall maintain strict supervision of their informant's activities during police operations."

Speaking of that policy, it also directs officers to have informants complete an "informant sign-up packet."

Part of that packet includes a waiver of liability and release of all claims.

I asked if Ramirez had signed such a document, but didn't receive an answer in time for this story.

Opinions expressed in this column are those of Lois Henry, not The Bakersfield Californian. Her column appears Wednesdays and Sundays. Comment at http://www.bakersfield.com, call her at 395-7373 or e-mail lhenry@bakersfield.com

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