Valley Shootout: SWAT Hero's Final Minutes
AS FAMILY AND FRIENDS TRY to make sense of the San Fernando Valley bloodbath that took the lives of SWAT Officer Randal Simmons and three members of the gunman's family, and badly wounded Officer James Veenstra, word is emerging that Simmons probably stepped into the bullet's path to save the badly injured Veenstra seconds after he went down.
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In his element: Randy Simmons, in an undated photo, talks with SWAT colleague Dan Skinner.
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"We believe Jim was hit first, and Randy did his training and moved up to cover Jim, and he was subsequently shot," SWAT Sergeant Chuck Buttitta, one of the supervisors that deadly February 6 night, tells L.A. Weekly. "He acted instinctively, and his instincts come out of his [Christian] beliefs. He is obviously that kind of person and would do anything for others and not hesitate."
The series of events that led to Simmons' fateful decision began at 9 p.m. with a 911 call made by 20-year-old Edgar Rivera, who told operators that he had shot to death his two older brothers and father at their home in the Valley neighborhood of Winnetka.
Rivera, a high school dropout with mental-health issues, held off patrol officers for 90 minutes, until officials determined that SWAT should be called in. Buttitta says 18 SWAT officers got the "Code Three" call reporting a hostage incident at 11 p.m.
Simmons and Veenstra were on the SWAT rotation that week, putting them on "standby" for just such an incident. Although 18 SWAT officers were initially called to the scene, Veenstra was one of the first senior officers to arrive. When Buttitta arrived, Veenstra was already scouting out the Rivera property to determine potentially crucial tactical information, such as how many windows and exits were in the house. Simmons showed up a few minutes later.
The scene was incredibly tense, with police almost certain that some survivors remained imperiled inside the Rivera home. Within 15 minutes of the arrival of the full SWAT team, they decided upon an action that SWAT team members seldom face — entering a house at great risk to themselves because the suspect was openly threatening to kill others inside.
It was Veenstra's job — as the assistant team leader — to oversee the entry and manage the team once inside the house. They used a "rapid deployment" strategy that had been devised and later taught by both Simmons and Veenstra following the 1999 Columbine school shooting in Colorado, during which local police came under severe scrutiny for holding off on a quick assault against two highly armed high school students who were shooting and killing classmates.
Around 12:30 a.m., seven SWAT officers — a team assembled based on who had arrived at the scene first, including Simmons and Veenstra — rushed into the house after tossing in a "flash bang" grenade, a loud and bright diversionary device designed to disorient the suspect.
Buttitta says that fate, traffic on the way to the Valley location, and timing led to Simmons being among the first inside the house. As veteran SWAT officers, Simmons and Veenstra had handled hundreds of hostage negotiations and high-risk home entries and barricade situations. But, says Buttitta, "We never know who will show up at a specific time. Randy could have hit traffic at the time. In this situation, it was [Jim and Randy] who showed up [at the Rivera home] first."
The team hoped to stun the shooter with the flash-bang explosion long enough to gain a tactical advantage. It didn't work as hoped, police suspect, because the shooter was down a hallway and well away from where the device landed.
Simmons was the fourth man through the door. In front of him was Veenstra. About 15 feet inside, the men were forced along an unexpected wall and had to creep down a hallway — at the end of which was gunman Edwin Rivera. Council Member Dennis Zine told the Weekly that the shooter was "lying in wait" for them.
Veenstra almost immediately got shot, in the face and jaw. Police believe Simmons was slightly behind or to the side of Veenstra, and stepped instantly in front of his injured colleague while probably still shooting down the hall. During the exchange of gunfire, Simmons went down, struck in the neck despite heavy protection from a helmet and bulletproof vest. Four other SWAT officers quickly dragged the injured men out of the bloody hallway.
Simmons' relatives told KABC Channel 7 that they had learned from officers who visited with Veenstra in the hospital that he was crediting Simmons with saving his life by stepping into harm's way the moment Veenstra was shot.
Both officers were taken to Northridge Hospital Medical Center, where Simmons died shortly after 1 a.m. Veenstra is improving and is expected to survive.
Simmons became the first fatality in the history of the elite Special Weapons and Tactics team, which was created in 1967.
Lieutenant Pete Durham, a veteran Metro officer who works the Foothill Division gang-impact team, says of his friend's heroic deed: "I think that the training spurred him to action, but I think it is a conscious decision to put yourself at a higher risk than you are already."
Durham, who had known Simmons 17 years, says, "I would have expected someone like Randy to put himself in between gunfire to protect his partner."
Although some media questioned how crack SWAT members could have been so quickly felled by the troubled Rivera, Police Chief Bill Bratton says that in fact, given the risky decision to enter the house to save the lives of others, the squad had done exactly what "they were supposed to do."
Simmons, the father of two teenagers, was described as a "rock," a tenured member of the crisis-negotiation team, and a mentor for kids. "His work trying to save young children was exemplary," says Bratton.
Simmons founded the mobile Glory Kids Ministries 11 years ago, spending Saturdays at various low-income housing projects, including Imperial Courts in Watts and Scottsdale Housing Community in Carson.
He appeared in a colorful truck that offered a sidewalk church program for kids involving puppet shows, skits, games, songs and dances — all aimed at teaching kids self-esteem and keeping them away from gangs and drugs. Twice a year, Simmons organized big church events and transformed the parking lot of the Glory Christian Fellowship International Church in Carson into a carnival for the kids.
None of his colleagues or friends was surprised to learn that Simmons would protect someone selflessly.
Melissa Franklin, director of communications for his church, says, "It is in line with his character. That was the type of man he was. When one man lays his life down for another, that is true love, and he was someone who exemplified that."
One Simmons colleague tells the Weekly that a respected SWAT officer has already e-mailed Bratton, asking that the chief consider naming the new, multimillion-dollar Parker Center police headquarters under construction downtown after Randal Simmons.
But Franklin, who knew him for six years, says he would never want anyone to make a fuss over him. In reaction to all the press coverage about him, she says, "And even now, thinking about it, I hear Randy saying, 'It is not about me. Stop that!' ... I think he would say, 'You have to help the kids. Are you taking care of the kids?'"
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