Reality-check at the movie theater

Okay, for those of you who saw a few cryptic twitter posts late last night, here’s the full story. My friend Buckley and I went to catch the 8:15pm showing of the movie Street Kings at a theater in El Segundo. (For those of you who don’t know the area, it’s generally very quiet, safe, upscale… But continue down the street several more miles and you do end up driving straight into Compton.) The movie, by the way, which featured Keanu Reeves in a surprisingly decent performance, was competently made but ultimately a bit unmemorable I guess. Violent, set in LA, lots of (mostly crooked) cops shooting each other. How ironic…

We’d sat through most of the credits (something that those of us who occasionally work in the film business generally feel compelled to do) and wandered out into the main lobby. It was reasonably full of people and I did notice that there were two police officers hanging around at the concession stand. I’ve been to this theater many many times and while I wouldn’t say it’s common to see police there, it’s also not totally out of the ordinary. And it was a Friday night.

I popped into the bathroom, took care of business, and was coming back out and talking to my girlfriend on my mobile phone – laughing at the fact that she’d called me while I was standing at the urinal. And then it turned into one of those moments that would seem almost cliche’d in the way the mood immediately went from lighthearted and silly to something much different.

Gunshots in real life don’t sound anything like they do in a Keanu Reeves movie – there’s none of that deep rich subwoofer-enhanced fullness to them. Rather it’s more like a firecracker going off – pop, pop, pop. It takes a fraction of a second to actually register what I’m hearing and I look up and across the lobby as I hear people starting to scream. All I can see is one of the police officers grappling with some heavy-set gang-banger type. This is probably 20-30 feet in front of me. And shots are still being fired. At this point I wasn’t at all sure how many guns or people were involved but clearly the sensible thing was to get the hell out of any potential line-of-fire. There was a little alcove just outside the bathrooms – an area where they have 4 or 5 arcade videogames set up – and I stepped back into that area, taking a quick look around to see if there was any additional exit from there (nope – a dead end). My memory is that several more shots in very rapid succession continued for a second longer and, as I came back to where I could see more of what was going on, there were people screaming and scrambling for cover. The shooting seemed to have stopped and looking back out towards where the action was taking place I could see one police officer down on his knee, gun drawn and looking out the glass door to the sidewalk in front of the theater. There was a body on the ground there – the guy who had been grappling with the officer. He wasn’t moving.

Talking to various witnesses and officers after the fact (as we were waiting around to be interviewed) it seems what happened was this: The ‘suspect’ (you find yourself starting to talk like a cop after listening to them chat amongst themselves for a few hours) had been in the lobby and angry about something – wanting a refund for a movie ticket? Someone said they thought he was drunk as well. The manager of the theater (a middle-aged asian woman who was still way freaked out when I talked to her later) asked him to leave and when he didn’t one of the officers went over to make it happen. Apparently the officer at some point started to (or at least tried to) do a pat-down on the guy and he pulled a gun (or grabbed the cop’s?) and started shooting. I’m assuming that’s the point where I heard the shots and looked over – the cop and the suspect grappling for the gun? Somehow the suspect made a break for the exit – only few yards away from where things started – as shots continued to be exchanged. Part of this is what my friend Buckley saw then – the 2nd cop was shooting as well, firing out of the glass exit doors and ultimately following the suspect outside and continuing to shoot until he was certain that the other guy wasn’t going to be firing back. Ever.

Backup police officers showed up relatively quickly, as did the EMT’s. I don’t even remember seeing the 2nd officer after that – I’m assuming he was standing outside near the body. The first cop was just inside the entrance on one knee and then eventually being worked on by the paramedics when they arrived. Best information I have is that the first officer was shot in the leg and the face and the 2nd was shot in the shoulder. According to news reports, none of the injuries were life-threatening.

As we were all standing there a few people who clearly knew the guy laying out on the sidewalk walked by me, and a couple of them went outside to see. I just remember one guy in particularly coming back in, distraught, saying in near-tears ‘oh God they shot him’. A woman with him also saw the body and she came back in and fell to the ground, sobbing. Strange mixed feelings at this point – I felt bad for these people and the obvious trauma they were experiencing. But at the same time I recognized that there was clearly a very real possibility that they, too, were carrying weapons and were in a state where their next actions could easily be to pull a gun as well. Don’t really remember where they went after that – I think I took a step back so that I was a little bit out of their line of sight even though they were only a couple of feet away.

But fortunately the ‘excitement’ was over, and the rest of the night turned into mostly a lot of waiting around. Massive numbers of police showed up over the course of the next half-hour – I’d have to guess that the total was several hundred by the end of it all. Local city cops from the various surrounding towns, LAX airport police (Los Angeles Airport is 10 minutes away from here) Sheriff’s deputies, and eventually a large number of fully-equipped SWAT officers. This might sound like a rather overzealous show of force – that’s what I was thinking at first – but the point of it was that they had a building full of people – there are 12 screens in this complex – and no idea if any of the shooter’s associates were still around, what they were doing, etc., and the fact is that some of them had probably slipped into the darkened rooms where movies were still being shown.

So we were effectively locked-down as the various different forces tried to coordinate their efforts and figure out a way to keep track of witnesses and check everything else. Three of us (Buckley and I and one of the security guys from the theater) could identify some of the group mentioned above and eventually as they started evacuating the individual theaters one-by-one (and searching everybody for weapons as they exited) we had to stand there and see if we saw anybody that had been associated with the shooter. Lines of people filing out, some scared, some annoyed, all of them walking past us and probably wondering why the hell we were looking at them.

Didn’t see anybody I recognized, although (in what I believe was an unrelated incident) there was one guy who left the theater and then apparently took off running once he made it outside. Turns out he’d been carrying a gun and had dumped it in the theater and tried to get away before someone connected it to him. Fail.

Once all the theater had been evacuated we still had to wait around to give recorded statements to the sheriff’s investigators… and we clearly weren’t at the top of their priority list. But sometime around 4am-ish they came and got us from one of the theaters where they’d stashed us and took us outside to this mobile command center they’d brought over. Big trailer that had desks and chairs and 5 or so detectives. At this point, about 5.5 hours after the actual shooting, the forensic investigation was well underway and they had the body partially stripped of clothing and now laying face-down on the sidewalk as we walked past. We gave our statements and we were finally let go.

Chatted for a second more with one of the sheriff’s officers – she’d been tasked with babysitting us for part of this. And there was this really fucked-up juxtaposition of a table full of little sandwiches and fruit-bowls set up for the investigative team… all within a few yards of this now completely nude, face-up, bullet-riddled body.

Walked back to the car, home, sleep by 5am.

Actual news coverage of the event is fairly thin. Mostly just stuff like this.


6 thoughts on “Reality-check at the movie theater

  1. Wow, I’d say they have a sort of overzealous police response where you live.

    Even in the case of Esteban Carpio who shot and killed Det. Sgt. Jimmy Allen in the interrogation room of the Providence Police Department HQ didn’t get killed. Sure he got beat to a pulp but that was the extent, they didn’t kill him.

  2. Actually @truthspew I don’t agree. I’m hardly an apologist for a lot of police behavior but this one was totally justified. I mean the guy pulled a gun and started shooting in the midst of a crowded lobby. BOTH cops were hit, so clearly the guy was going to continue to shoot until he could no longer do so. I wouldn’t want the police to stop shooting at him until it was 100% clear that he wasn’t going to be able to pull that trigger again. And that’s what they did. There was no simple way to disarm him that wouldn’t have put far more people (including me!) at greater risk.

  3. Pingback: Stuff I enjoyed in 2008 « Digital Composting

  4. Crazy. I’ve seen wrecks happen a couple of times, and its a really freaky thing to see in real life one of these things that you typically just hear about on tv.

    Not that you would really take pictures of this particular incident, but it reminds one of how you never know what’s going to happen, so it’s a good idea to always have the camera.

    • Took a few snaps w/ iPhone, but only after it was all done. Because holding up a shiny metal object in front of me while people with guns are full of adrenaline seemed like a bad idea at the time…

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