Helping the Heroes

Posted on Tuesday, August 01, 2006 at 12:00PM
Posted by Rocky Lucia

The last thing Mary Sansen and I expected when we arrived at the retirement dinner for Sgt. Bob Canchola of the Pittsburg Police Department was that the evening would be interrupted by an officer-involved shooting and the aftermath of an officer being shot and killed in the line of duty. But, on Saturday, April 23, 2005, when Officer Larry Lasater of the Pittsburg Police Department passed away after being shot by a suspect, we were required to do just that.

I heard the news upon arrival at the retirement dinner, and immediately left for the police department to represent officers who were involved in the shooting. When Sansen and I arrived at the department, we were given a rundown of the shooting and met with the officers that were actively involved in the incident. Two suspects had robbed a Wells Fargo Bank inside of a Raley’s grocery store, then highjacked a vehicle, and as they were fleeing from the scene, they crashed the car. After crashing the stolen car, they then fled on foot. As the incident developed, there was quite a lot of radio traffic concerning the robbery and the various attempts to ascertain the whereabouts of the suspects. Eventually, a number of units responded to the scene.

Lasater’s and Officer Florence’s units were the first to arrive on the scene, and they parked their vehicles at the entrance of an access road between Los Medanos College and a county building. Lasater was the first to exit his vehicle and travel down the access road in pursuit of the suspects. Florence was, at times, 50-to-75 yards behind Lasater. Officer Phil Galer arrived immediately after Lasater and Florence, and chose to enter the county building parking lot and drove to the rear of the lot where he could access the area where he believed the suspects were located.

The access road eventually ended at the Delta De Anza Regional Trail. As Florence and Lasater arrived (on foot) at the De Anza Trail they looked in each direction, both right and left, not sure which direction the suspects had run. They observed to their left one of the suspects ducking into a thickly brushed area along the right side of the trail. The officers immediately began to walk in the direction of the suspect. Florence indicated that at times Lasater was again perhaps 50 yards or so ahead of him.

As they moved along the right northern edge of the trail towards the heavily overgrown area, they heard individuals climbing a fence. There was no doubt in the officers’ minds that the suspects were attempting to move off of the trail into someone’s backyard.

The officers moved along the northern edge (right side) of the trail with their guns drawn. Florence indicated that at one point he saw and heard Lasater move into an area that was overgrown with trees and brush with his gun pointed in a downward direction and yelled “show me your hands.” Immediately, four or five shots rang out. Florence’s view of Lasater was partially obstructed, yet he saw him move in a downward direction. At that point, Florence was not sure whether Lasater had fired his weapon or someone else had fired at Lasater. Florence immediately began yelling for Lasater, but there was no response.

After the shots were fired it was eerily quiet, with no sound emanating from the overgrown area or the location of Lasater. Although Florence was in an area where he was himself very vulnerable since he had no idea where the suspects were located, he nonetheless continued to move forward toward Lasater in an attempt to discern his location and his status. As he approached, he eventually could see that Lasater was lying on his back and had suffered a gun shot to the neck. At this time Officer Galer arrived.

Both Florence and Galer realized that they were without any cover and totally exposed. Further, there was absolutely no way they could determine the location or whereabouts of the suspects who had shot Lasater. Due to the nature of the wound to Lasater, they knew they needed to secure medical assistance for him immediately. Therefore, they decided that rather than retreat along the route that they had taken to arrive at this location, they needed to move forward toward Desrye Boulevard, which was directly in front of them and approximately 50 yards away.

The officers had no choice but to travel directly across the spot where the suspect had fired. To travel back along the route from where they had come would have taken too much time and they feared that Lasater would succumb to his wounds. Therefore, they immediately began to move forward and to their left in an arc towards Desrye Boulevard. As they did this, they had their weapons pointed at the area where they assumed the suspect was located.

When they arrived near Desrye Boulevard, Florence assumed a lying position behind a small concrete pad and kept his gun trained on the area where Lasater was lying and where he suspected the suspects were still hiding. Galer continued forward.

Immediately after Lasater had been shot, Florence had put out over the radio that shots had been fired. When he finally observed Lasater lying on the ground, he also put out an 1199 over the radio, “officer down”. But, the other responding officers could not discern the officer’s whereabouts.

It should be noted that the location of this shooting was actually in the city of Antioch. Due to the fact that neither officer was familiar with the exact location and there were no street signs readily apparent, they had determined that one of them needed to run to Desrye Boulevard to identify the street and possibly a cross street.

Obviously, it was critical that the officers be able to describe their exact location. Galer ran to the intersection of Desrye Boulevard and Belle Drive and put the cross street out over the radio. At that moment, he observed his brother, Les Galer, traveling directly at him on Desrye Boulevard and approaching Belle Drive. After he announced his location, Phil then ran back along the trail to assist Florence. At the same time, Officer Les Galer turned off of Desrye Boulevard onto the trail and crashed through a locked gate on the trail. Eventually, he stopped within a few feet of Florence to provide him with cover. It was at that point that the officers took cover behind Les Galer’s patrol vehicle. Les Galer was armed with his AR-15.

While the three officers were at the scene, they were continuing to yell at the suspects to come out. Although they tried desperately to discern the exact location of the suspects, they simply could not see through the thick brush. Shortly thereafter, another patrol car driven by Officers McSorley and Anderson arrived at the location, and drove onto the trail and parked immediately to the left of Les Galer’s vehicle.

All of the officers on the scene knew that Lasater was lying on the ground and they felt the need to take immediate action. Therefore, Officers Phil Galer and Florence decided to move away from the patrol vehicles toward the location of Lasater. After traveling a distance of approximately five-to-15 feet from the vehicle, one of the suspects began firing shots from their location in the overgrown vegetation. It was at that point that Les Galer returned fire with his AR-15 and, at the same time, Phil Galer and Florence dropped to the ground and attempted to return to the vehicle for cover. Phil Galer also returned fire as he crawled back to the patrol car.

Shortly after the officers were again behind the patrol vehicle, they continued to yell at the suspects to come out. Eventually, a suspect came out from the brush area. A verbal exchange occurred and the suspect indicated that he did not shoot the officer, but that the other suspect had done so. He pointed back in the bushes and said something to the effect that “he had done it.” The suspect was placed into handcuffs and taken to a patrol vehicle.

At or about the time that the suspect was being placed into handcuffs, it was determined that a protective shield in the trunk of Sgt. Calia’s patrol vehicle, parked in the area, would be retrieved and that officers would attempt a rescue of Lasater. When the shield was retrieved from Calia’s vehicle, Phil and Les Galer then positioned themselves behind the shield and moved in to rescue Lasater. At this point, both officers huddled behind the shield and approached Lasater. Phil Galer reached down and pulled Lasater approximately 40-to-50 feet away from the location where he had been shot. They dragged him in a direction away from Desrye Boulevard. They moved in this direction so as to not cross the line of the suspect’s potential fire.

It was at that point that Les Galer then picked up Lasater and carried him to the other side of the trail directly away from the suspect’s location. As they arrived at the other side of the trail, a patrol vehicle had driven up to their location. The officers then began to apply CPR and called for emergency medical to assist them. Apparently, a paramedic and a firefighter ran to their location. Lasater was eventually placed into an ambulance and then into a helicopter and taken to John Muir Medical Center.

Shortly after Lasater was taken from the scene, the officers at the scene learned that the Antioch Police Department had taken the second suspect into custody several blocks away from where the shooting occurred. In retrospect, it is now apparent that when Florence heard someone attempting to climb a fence, it was the sound of the other suspect climbing the fence and leaving the trail area. It should be noted that all of the officers on the scene assumed, and rightly so, that the second suspect was still in the bushes after the first suspect surrendered.

As it has been reported, Lasater was eventually taken to John Muir Medical Center. We were advised that he had taken two shots, one to the neck, which had severed his spinal cord. The second shot was in his thigh. A few days later, Lasater was taken off life support and his organs were donated.

Finally, the law firm of Rains, Lucia & Wilkinson has over the year represented perhaps hundreds of police officers in shooting incidents. Frankly, I have never experienced first hand the heroism which was displayed by the officers involved in this incident. These officers, as described above, literally put their lives at risk in an attempt to rescue Lasater. Their acts of bravery may never be fully appreciated. However, from the perspective of both myself and Mary Sansen, we can, without equivocation, say that these officers were, in fact, heroes and should be acknowledged for their acts of heroism and bravery. Sansen and I felt honored to assist them and we will never forget their acts of selflessness and courage.

PORAC Legal Defense Administrator Ed Fishman Testimony: Law Enforcement Use of Body Cameras.