L.A. Sheriff's Deputies Mistakenly Gunned Down John Winkler, but the Story Begins in Seattle

Lisa Ostegren with her son, John Winkler
Lisa Ostegren with her son, John Winkler
Courtesy of the Winkler family

UPDATE: The L.A. County Board of Supervisors has agreed to pay John Winkler's family $5 million for his allegedly wrongful killing by L.A. Sheriff's deputies who mistook Winkler, a terrified fleeing victim, for a mentally disturbed gunman who took Winkler and his friends hostage in West Hollywood. See details below. 

Once the gunsmoke cleared that night nearly one year ago, an innocent young man named John Winkler, who'd moved to L.A. in search of his dream career, lay dead, and his friend Liam Mulligan lay nearby in the hall of his West Hollywood condo, bleeding from two wounds.

One was a knife wound to Mulligan's neck inflicted by his roommate, graphics designer Alexander McDonald, 28, who had gone a bit nuts that night, wielding his big knife to hold the horrified Mulligan and Winkler hostage.

Mulligan's other bone-shattering and ragged wound — much more disturbing in its way — was from a bullet shot into his leg by the very Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department deputies who'd been summoned via 911 to rescue Mulligan and Winkler from the crazed McDonald.

Mulligan, 28, was lucky, it turned out. The deputies who shot Mulligan slew his innocent 30-year-old friend, Winkler — a disastrous split-second decision by cops who sent a volley of fire at the two friends as they ran from the condo and from McDonald, who was not hurt.

Just how the deputies managed to shoot two men fleeing for their lives led the news in Los Angeles for some days.

And it made for memorable reading in a damage claim that Mulligan, a 20th Century Fox associate director, lodged against Los Angeles County. When the county rejected Mulligan's claim, he filed a federal civil rights lawsuit for $25 million — which this month will be hashed out in court-ordered private arbitration.

As Mulligan's claim recounts:

"Immediately upon exiting the apartment while trying to stem the tide of his profusely bleeding neck, Mr. Mulligan, a step or two out the door, was immediately shot, without warning, by the LASD. The Sheriffs' bullet tore through the inside of Mr. Mulligan's right leg, shattering his right femur, dropping Mr. Mulligan to the ground. While lying helplessly on the ground, trying to stop the bleeding from his neck and now leg [emphasis added], Mr. Mulligan heard further gunfire and watched his equally innocent friend, John Winkler, gunned down by the LASD."

The Sheriff's Department admitted to a tragic mistake. But in recent court filings the department also claims the shootings were legal and justified. Meanwhile, the hostage-taking roommate who'd gone nuts now stands charged with murder, attempted murder and torture.

It's the kind of twisted murder story that befits Los Angeles. But there's another twist.

The three main players came to L.A. seeking their share of fame and fortune, Mulligan from Australia; Winkler, a production assistant for Tosh.0, from Seattle. And as if to prove that tragic irony lives on, Winkler's accused killer, McDonald, is from Seattle. The two had become friends — and fellow Seahawks fans — in L.A., 1,000 miles from home.

"John did not know Alex here in Seattle," Winkler's mother, Lisa Ostegren, says. They didn't meet until late 2013, when Winkler moved into the modern, five-story condo on Palm Avenue in West Hollywood, where Mulligan and McDonald lived and Winkler died.

Purely by chance, says McDonald's sister, Patricia McDonald of Seattle, the two young men ended up sharing an address — and common interests.

"One of my [other] brothers," she says, "went to visit Alex a month prior to the event" — her words for the night of April 7, 2014 — "and got the impression that Alex and John often hung out together."

District Attorney spokesman Ricardo Santiago last week said that a judge has decided McDonald can be prosecuted for the murder of his fellow Seattlelite, Winkler, even if he was killed by deputies. A pretrial hearing is set for April 9.

Under state law, McDonald's felonious actions are to blame for the fatal shots by police even though he never touched a gun that night. Patricia McDonald and other family members in Seattle, conceding that McDonald bears responsibility for his actions, question the fairness of charging him with murder.

"You wouldn't think they'd shoot the first people out the door," Patricia says, adding, "Alex is heartbroken about what happened to John Winkler and Liam Mulligan."

Heartbroken doesn't quite describe how John Winkler's mother feels. "There are days I cry all day," says Ostegren, who has not met with McDonald's Seattle family but may in the future. "It's like my heart has been torn in two."

Like Mulligan, the Winkler/Ostegren family is suing Los Angeles County for $25 million.

This month, that lawsuit also is set to enter into private arbitration to reach a possible settlement. Ostegren's Seattle attorney, Sim Osborn, says, "We've been working with the county to try and avoid putting the family through the emotional pain of a trial, but I have to say it has been an uphill battle. I anticipate that a jury will be the final arbiter in this horrid case."

Osborn has serious — and rather reasonable-sounding — doubts about the Sheriff's explanation of the shootings.

According to witnesses, law enforcement and court records, here's how events unfolded that night:

Around 9 p.m., John Winkler went to visit Liam Mulligan, who was with two other people in apartment 201, where Mulligan and McDonald lived. Unknown to them, McDonald had pushed his way into an apartment down the hall, seized a large kitchen knife and threatened two female residents.

One woman barricaded herself in the bathroom and called 911; the other woman ran outside. She showed the first Sheriff's deputy to arrive on scene a cell-phone photo of McDonald and explained what was happening.

But attorneys for Winkler's family say that her unusually detailed information was never passed from that deputy to the other deputies.

McDonald, still with his knife, tried to enter another apartment, then climbed out on a balcony to enter his own apartment through the sliding doors. He sat on a couch next to a guest, Chris Potter, talking nonsensically, and stabbed Potter in the thigh.

Deputies responding to the earlier 911 call were outside the apartment unit in a common hallway interviewing witnesses and discussing strategy. One condo resident showed a deputy cellphone pictures of both McDonald and Winkler. The deputy showed McDonald's picture to another deputy and said, "Alex is our guy," according to the Winkler family.

Several deputies allegedly also were given a description of McDonald: "Tall, black hair, black shirt, black backpack, khaki shorts." (Winkler, a balding blond, was wearing a white shirt.)

The deputies prepared to break into the besieged apartment. Inside, Mulligan and Winkler rushed at McDonald but were driven back by his knife; Mulligan was stabbed. The gutsy Winkler grabbed Mulligan, applying pressure to his bloody neck wound, and pushed him to the condo door. When they opened the door, both were shot by startled deputies arrayed outside.

According to court papers, "Mr. Mulligan fell to the ground and Mr. Winkler jumped over him with his hands above his head. When Mr. Winkler jumped over the wounded Mr. Mulligan, he was shot" four times by deputies.

Winkler died immediately.

Deputies were confused, LASD chief Bill McSweeney said, because they saw Winkler "lunging at the back of the fleeing victim." L.A. County District Attorney spokesman Ricardo Santiago also says the deputies believed that Winkler was the attacker.

But attorney Osborn, who represents both Ostegren and Winkler's father, Mark Winkler, asks: "If they thought John was attacking Mulligan, why did they shoot Mulligan, too?"

Recently, the county responded by denying liability and claiming the deputies acted reasonably "under the circumstances." In lawyer-speak, county attorneys claimed Winkler caused his own death by failing "to care for himself." Apparently he was overly heroic. The real culprit, of course, the county added, was the knife-wielding McDonald, who "acted wrongly."

Winkler's suit says the rate of unarmed suspects shot by LASD officers started to increase sharply around 2010. (See L.A. Weekly's cover story, "Lucky to Be Alive," April 11, 2013.) The civil action also alleges the department doesn't meet its own standards for firearms training.

Those are among the reasons the county government is frequently sued for killing people, such as Antoine Hunter, 24, shot in Compton last June, and Oscar Alberto Ramirez, 28, shot by deputies in the back of the head near Paramount High School last October.

Last month, the county paid $1.5 million to the family of Arturo Cabrales, 22, of Watts, wrongly killed by police in 2012.

McDonald's sister, Patricia, says Alex had "never been in trouble, doesn't get into fights and is not violent in any way." He was raised in Edmonds, an attractive suburb of Seattle set on the saltwater of Puget Sound, then moved to L.A. around 2010 and studied design art at UCLA.

"Alex never had any mental illness," Patricia says, "but there is some history of it within our family." They're hoping for some answers from an expert who is conducting a psychiatric evaluation, she says; a toxicology report from the fatal night showed no drugs in McDonald's system that would explain his behavior.

"At his arraignment, witnesses who knew Alex said they did not recognize my brother that night," the sister says. "They didn't know who he was."

Winkler, who graduated from the Seattle Film Institute in 2010, "dreamed of being a writer or producer of a TV show," his mother says. "He had a true love for that. So he finally packed up and went for it, and in a short period of time got his foot in the door. That was not very likely to happen, but he did it."

That foot in the door was just a backstage job with Tosh.0, but he couldn't have been more excited, Ostegren says.

Now, she says of L.A. County, whose attorneys scheduled three different meetings to discuss a settlement with Winkler's family, then canceled each one: "For me, that's a kind of slap in the face. My son was helping a wounded friend escape a dangerous situation, but the greater threat was just outside the door in LASD uniforms."

UPDATED Aug. 6, 2015, at 11:18 a.m.: 

In her statement on Tuesday, released after the settlement was agreed upon, Lisa Ostegren, the young man's mother, said that she has not gotten over the deep grief of Winkler's killing: 

"It's a tragedy when any parent loses a child, but learning that John was killed by those sworn to protect him is almost too much to comprehend." 

In its federal lawsuit, the family alleged wrongful death, excessive use of force and civil rights violations. The deputies, backed up by LASD brass, claimed their actions were reasonable. The settlement ends the lawsuit.


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