Mass Murder in Winnetka takes life of popular SWAT officer, a former

Villaraigosa bodyguard

An LAPD SWAT officer was shot to death and another was wounded last night in a horrific 11-hour standoff gone bad involving a 20-year-old unemployed furniture mover with a history of mental issues and suspected gang ties. The suspected killer – who has been identified by the Los Angeles Daily News as Edwin Rivera – was shot in the head by an LAPD sniper around 7:30 a.m. this morning. The LAPD says they are still investigating the shootings and won't officially release the suspect’s name.

Officer Randy Simmons, 51, nicknamed “The Deacon” because he was an ordained minister, was mortally wounded when he was shot in the neck around 1 a.m., a few minutes after he entered the shooter's suburban Winnetka home. Simmons became the first fatality in the history of the elite Special Weapons and Tactics team, which was created in 1967. His partner, James Veenstra, 51, was shot in the face and the jaw. Veenstra, who is the husband of an LAPD captain, was taken to Northridge Hospital Medical Center in critical condition but is expected to survive.

Injured SWAT officer James Veenstra

Police Thursday were unable to explain how two crack SWAT officers were felled by the suspect, a man who, according to friends, was not particularly familiar with guns.

Fallen SWAT officer Randy Simmons

According to police sources, the carnage began with a 911 call around 9 p.m. February 6. The shooter allegedly told a 911 operator that he was holding six family members hostage at his dad’s home on Welby Way in the San Fernando Valley, and that three were already dead, including his two brothers and his father Gerardo Rivera. He told the operator to “come and get him,” Deputy Chief Michel Moore of the LAPD Valley Bureau told a throng of reporters at a crowded media circus a quarter mile from the crime scene.

Thirty-five-year-old Marcy Spencer says she was watching “Ghost Hunters” about 9:30 pm Wednesday when she heard the police helicopters flying over her sober-living house, located across the street from the Rivera home. Some 200 police officers, including SWAT team members, and dozens of police cruisers descended on the scene. She says she heard officers using a bullhorn to try to convince the shooter to give up.

“I heard the negotiations,” says Spencer – a tad disheveled from being up all night. “It was kind of trippy.” She heard cops beseeching Edwin Rivera through their bullhorn: 'Edwin you need to answer the phone. I hear your phone ring. Let's talk. We aren't going to hurt you.'” Spencer says the shooter never responded. About an hour later she heard shots ring out.

Police later said the shooter was armed with a shotgun and a handgun.

Spencer says the shooter’s home was frequented by a lot of visitors, and tells the Weekly, “I might say they were doing drugs.” By 1:30 a.m. Spencer and the 10 other inhabitants of the sober living home were evacuated to a local 7-Eleven. “They told us we were in the line of fire.”

Neighbor Marcy Spencer

SWAT officers entered the Rivera’s one-story home around 12:30 a.m., and that’s when things went sideways for the LAPD. A furious exchange of gunfire broke out, and Simmons and Veenstra were felled. Police Chief William Bratton, who was at an international conference of police chiefs in Vancouver, made an emergency return to the Southland, and told reporters that once the SWAT team arrived at the tense scene, within 15 minutes they decided to enter the house because they believed people inside were still alive. People in the house made multiple calls to the police, including the shooter, according to police sources.

“The squad did what they were supposed to do,” said Bratton.

Council Member Dennis Zine told the Weekly that the shooter was “lying in wait” for the officers. Reports indicate that the shooter was hiding behind mattresses.

Inside the house, police found two men dead. The two officers along with a third man were dragged outside, but one of the victims – possibly the brother – died on the front lawn. Roughly five hours later, near dawn, the shooter was barricaded inside and refusing to speak to police. Shortly afterwards, police threw tear gas into the house.

A woman, possibly the shooter's grandmother or step-mother, escaped out of the back, then a fire broke out – apparently sparked by a “flash bang'' diversionary device fired into the home by SWAT officers. Soon, the increasingly crazy scene drew fire engines from the Los Angeles Fire Department who fought the house blaze, saving the surrounding homes but not the Rivera house, which was heavily gutted.

More gunfire ensued and finally, the shooter – presumably overcome by the smoke and flames – was shot in the head by a sniper as he came out of the house. A cousin of the suspect apparently was found alive by officers hiding in a closet.

Bratton and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa held a press conference at noon today about three blocks from the scene. Also on hand were Council members Eric Garcetti, Zine and Jan Perry and police commissioner John Mack, most wearing black attire in the hot afternoon sun in acknowledgment of Officer Simmons’ death. They faced a literal mob of television and print journalists.

Villaraigosa, who looked teary-eyed, told reporters that both officers were assigned to watch his children last year. Simmons watched his daughter as part of the mayor’s security detail. “We are reminded just what a dangerous job it is to be an officer,” he said. Bratton said it was still unclear how many people died in the house. Bratton also said two other officers suffered minor injuries as they charged into the house, possibly

from bullet fragments.

“The caliber of these officers are the best,” he said. “They are the best of the best.” Both Veenstra and Simmons were veterans, having worked SWAT duty for over 20 years. 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,” said Bratton.

About Veenstra, council member Jan Perry told the Weekly: “Everyone always really adored him and looked up to him.” Perry says that she went to see the officer in the hospital and it “was shocking to see someone who went through that trauma looking so good.”

Deputy Chief Moore of the Valley Bureau told reporters that he had no idea what “brought the event about.” At the time of the press conference, the shooter’s body was still at the scene, and several victims were very badly burned in the gutted house.

Moore told reporters that the street was known to be peaceful and the house was not under the radar of the police for previous criminal activity. However, the Los Angeles Daily News reported that the location was known to the police – and so was the shooter.

Watching the press conference from the sidelines was 21-year-old Jose Ortiz who told reporters – who pounced on him quicker than a paparazzi sighting of Britney Spears – that he was a friend of Edwin's, even though he didn't remember his last name.

At one point, Ortiz was steered away by Channel 4 news reporter Laurel Erickson who successfully herded Ortiz away from reporters into a waiting van for an “exclusive interview,” insisting to the young man that she was on a tight deadline. Ortiz later told the Weekly that he was in bed early that morning when he got a call from a friend that Edwin – his childhood friend – had shot his family. Ortiz got out of bed and went to the

“the block” – the areas where Edwin lived – to check it out. Instead he was met by yellow crime scene tape and a throng of reporters who wanted to pick him dry.

“I was just surprised when I saw this,” says Ortiz, a worried-looking man who was wearing a brown t-shirt and jeans. “He was my friend. I never expected him to do it. He was kind of weird but not like this…. He would say strange things out of the blue.”

Ortiz says his friend was a Salvadoran immigrant who was a high school drop-out. He was into video games and TV, didn't have any girlfriends, and had a hard time in school. He described his friend as about 5 foot 11 inches tall, and close to 250 pounds. The chums attended elementary, middle and high school together. He says that Rivera attended both Reseda and Taft high schools but dropped out around 2002 because he had problems with English. He says that Rivera lived in the house with his father, who worked for a trucking company, two brothers and grandmother.

Jose Ortiz, childhood chum of shooter

Ortiz says he last saw his friend two days ago. They sat around in Rivera's backyard for about three hours and drank a six pack of beer. “We were reminiscing about how we don't do stuff anymore. He told me to come to his house (on Thursday – the day of the shooting) and 'you can burn some CD's…. We were supposed to burn some music and buy some meat.”

Ortiz says Edwin worked with one of his brothers moving heavy appliances until six months ago when he was laid off by his own brother – probably because he was always late to work, he says. “He said we had to get jobs.” Ortiz says that Rivera was not a gang member but used to be a member of a tagger crew when he was in high school.

Ortiz also claimed that there were two drive-by shootings incidents in the last year in front of Rivera's house – one involving a friend who got shot in the arm. Police could not confirm the drive-by shootings last year.

“It didn't seem like he would do that,” said Ortiz as he walked away toward a group of friends, one of whom turned, flashed an apparent gang sign, and told this reporter, “Fuck off!”

All photos by Christine Pelisek

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