LOS ANGELES – A school police officer who reported getting shot in the chest – prompting the lock-down of 9,000 students during a dragnet – shot himself and has been arrested for filing a false report, authorities said.
During a hastily called news conference, LA Police Chief Charlie Beck said investigators processed more than 350 clues and talked to hundreds of people before concluding that the purported gunman who shot officer Jeffrey Stenroos was fictitious.
“The current state of the investigation refutes Stenroos’ initial account of the incident, and we are now certain that there is no outstanding suspect in this shooting,” Beck said. “We go where our investigations take us – if it is to a suspect that is named in a crime or is to a law enforcement officer of another agency.”
Stenroos claimed that he was on patrol Jan. 19 outside El Camino Real High School in the wealthy Los Angeles suburb of Woodland Hills when he confronted a man who had been breaking into cars. He said the suspect tried to kill him.
The shooting prompted the largest area lock-down in history. Hundreds of officers from local, state and federal agencies vainly combed a seven-mile area looking for an armed gunman in his 40s with a long, gray pony tail. Helicopters, SWAT teams and K9 units were deployed.
Children from nine schools remained locked in their classrooms for seven hours, unable to get access to restrooms or food out of fears that the suspect would enter a campus and create a hostage situation.
“I’m flabbergasted. I don’t know what to say,” City Councilman Dennis Zine told AOL News. “To do something like this is unconscionable, stupid and asinine. To stage something like this puts a very negative mark on himself and law enforcement.”
Zine said that the incident caused panic and hysteria in the community and that investigators spent hundreds of hours looking for a suspect in the following days.
“If this is true, we need to go after him to repay the taxpayers,” said Zine, a former LAPD officer. “I would press for a civil claim against him. I’ve spent 43 years in law enforcement, and I can’t fathom coming up with this story.”
After the shooting, Stenroos, 30, was transported by ambulance to a hospital, where he was treated and released for a bruised chest caused by his bulletproof vest. The bullet hit him squarely in the center, and authorities praised the device for saving his life. He worked with a sketch artist that evening, and on the following day a composite drawing of the alleged suspect was widely disseminated.
At least two men who fit the description of the suspect were detained and later released.
Beck refused to give further details on how the shooting occurred, saying the investigation is ongoing. However, CBS2-TV cited an unidentified source as saying Stenroos was mishandling his gun when he was shot.
Los Angeles’ KFI640 radio reported that no neighbors in the vicinity of the shooting heard a gunshot and that investigators soon began to doubt Stenroos’ story.
The school district’s superintendent, John Deasy, dismissed any negative claims in the following days, telling ABC7-TV that Stenroos – an eight-year veteran of the Los Angeles School Police Department – has “an impeccable record and should not be questioned.”
Apparently, Stenroos’ chief was taken by surprise as well, because his department’s website on Thursday night still had a notification on its home page wishing Stenroos a speedy recovery and saying, “We expect him to be back with the team soon.”
In a tersely worded statement titled “An Embarrassment to Law Enforcement,” Paul Weber, the head of the LAPD’s officers’ union, apologized to the community on behalf of the police and said Stenroos deserves to be in jail if the allegations are true.
“The law enforcement community is disgusted upon learning that Mr. Stenroos filed a false police report and apparently may have shot himself,” Weber said. “His lies set into motion the largest search for a suspect in recent history and inconvenienced thousands of people for hours. While Mr. Stenroos is a disgrace to the badge, his individual and dangerous actions should not reflect on the hard-working men and women in law enforcement.”
Stenroos was scheduled to be a guest Thursday at a news conference where Beck and other top law enforcement officials spoke out against new ammunition laws. His name was abruptly removed from the list, CBS2-TV reported
At 6:30 p.m., Stenroos was arrested by the LAPD’s Robbery Homicide Division and booked at a jail in downtown Los Angeles. He posted a $20,000 bail and was released shortly before midnight. The charge carries a maximum of three years in state prison.
By Tori Richards