Just days before his trial was set to begin, Daniel Witczak changed his plea to guilty. Witczak had pleaded not guilty to shooting two sheriff’s deputies as they came to arrest him on child molestation charges. NBC 7’s Megan Tevrizian reports from El Cajon.
A man accused of opening fire on two San Diego sheriff deputies during an extensive shootout in Lakeside was sentenced to life in prison Wednesday after changing his plea to guilty.
Daniel Witczak, 31, is accused of shooting sheriff deputies Det. Ali Perez and Sgt. Craig Johnson on September 25, 2012, during a gunfight at a Lakeside apartment complex. The deputies were in the process of arresting Witczak on child molestation charges when Witczak opened fire.
Det. Perez and Sgt. Johnson -- both law enforcement veterans -- were both seriously injured in the shootout, but survived.
Witczak was also wounded in the battle and was later arraigned from his hospital bed. Once his health improved, he was arrested and charged with three counts of attempted murder of an officer and eight counts of sexual misconduct. He’s remained behind bars ever since.
On Wednesday, officials from the San Diego County District Attorney’s office confirmed that Witczak had entered two guilty pleas for the attempted murder of an officer and using a firearm to cause great bodily injury.
In addition, DA officials said Witczak pleaded guilty to two counts of lewd act upon a child under 10 years old and admitted the sexual misconduct involved more than one victim.
With the guilty pleas in place, Judge William J. McGrath sentenced Witczak to two life terms in prison, plus 80 years.
With Sgt. Johnson and Det. Perez in attendance, it was a somber day in court. Still, Witczak sat emotionless, never making eye contact with his two victims.
Sgt. Johnson delivered an emotional statement specifically directed at Witczak.
In a shaky voice and wiping tears from his eyes, Johnson recalled the horrific day that changed his life forever.
“I want to take you back to that day on September 25, 2012. The reason I want to do this is because every day since then I relive that day in my head,” said Sgt. Johnson. “I wish I could get those nightmares out of my head, but I just can’t right now. I hope that one day the memories of that horrific day will fade or go away altogether. Only time will tell for me.”
“I wonder about you, do you think about what you did that day and subsequent days before that day? I guess you will have the rest of your life to think about this as you waste away in prison,” he continued.
“You know you caused great bodily injury to me and to Detective Perez -- you were trying to kill us. You also caused great emotional injury, not only to us but to other deputies who were there, but even more importantly, to the two girls that you sexually assaulted."
Johnson went on to talk about Witczak’s young victims of sexual assault. He said he hopes the girls will be able to forget the “violence and despicable acts” Witczak committed on them.
He also talked about the risks that come with working in law enforcement and all of the pain Witczak inflected through his actions.
“What you did on that day was try to take our lives and take us away from all of that – all that we hold dear in our lives. You shortened the careers of three deputy sheriffs on that day, you took the innocence of two girls that day, you caused me and my family great pain and suffering, you caused Det. Perez’s family even greater pain and suffering,” he said. “Although you tried to take our lives that day, you failed.”
Johnson recalled bleeding from his wounds on the day of the shootout and trying to find cover from Witczak’s high-powered rifle. He said he wanted to “talk some sense” into Witczak between bullets, but feared Witczak would become aggravated and kill Det. Perez, who was still inside the apartment.
“I was terrified,” said Johnson.
In the end, Johnson – a devout Christian – told Witczak that he has forgiven him. He urged him to find God while incarcerated, read the Bible and “listen to the words of Christ."
“It’s never too late for you Daniel, and I hope God will bless you one day.”
After Johnson spoke, it was Det. Perez’s turn to address Witczak.
“I forgive you, I’m not angry at you. I really hope you take this opportunity to turn your life to Christ. Just as he saved my life, he can save yours,” said Det. Perez.
“This day, as tragic as it was, it is a blessing. All of my partners lived, the girls are safe and you’re being held accountable for what you did. Take the opportunity you have to turn your life to Christ so that the day that you meet him, he’ll accept you into his Kingdom. I forgive you. God bless you,” he added.
Prosecutors said Witczak’s change of plea Wednesday was slightly unexpected. His trial was supposed to begin Monday but because he admitted to the crimes, there will be no trial.
Witczak has been in and out of court since the shootout. In February, he was stabbed behind bars in a jailhouse assault, according to the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department.
Meanwhile, Det. Perez and Sgt. Johnson have continued to recover over the past year.
During the 15-minute-long gun battle with the suspect, Sgt. Johnson was shot twice, in the side and arm. Det. Perez sustained critical injuries in the shootout, including gunshot wounds to the stomach, shoulder and vital arteries in his arm.
Both deputies underwent several surgeries following that extremely frightening day on the job. In January, the deputies sat down exclusively with NBC 7 San Diego and recounted the ordeal.
Sgt. Johnson told NBC 7 he remembered the day as chaotic and intense. Det. Perez said he remembered the very second he was critically struck by high-caliber bullets causing him to instantly drop to the ground.
In March, the deputies testified in court during a preliminary hearing for Witczak, revealing even more details from that shootout at the Maplewood Apartments.
Det. Perez testified that as he lay critically injured, Witczak allegedly got on the floor next to him and told him, “Let’s go together,” indicating he was going to kill Perez and then himself.
On the stand, Det. Perez also described a moment after being shot when he felt like he saw Jesus Christ.
Over the past year, both wounded deputies have received much support from their colleagues and the San Diego community. Supporters have rallied around the deputies, hosting many fundraisers and events, including blood drives, to aid them in their recovery.
On Wednesday, the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department said Witczak’s sentencing “brings a measure of relief to everyone impacted by the actions of this one man.”
In a prepared statement, Sheriff Bill Gore said, in part:
"I am pleased with today's sentence, as Witczak can no longer cause harm and suffering to the public and law enforcement. The severity of this sentence underscores the seriousness of Witczak's actions. Both deputies were seriously wounded, and Deputy Perez nearly lost his life. Today's plea and sentencing allows our deputies to focus on healing and won't continue to impact them, or their families as a lengthy trial would have done. When one law enforcement officer is wounded or killed in the line of duty, all law enforcement is affected."
San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis was also had this to say about Witczak’s sentencing:
“Today’s guilty plea and life sentences provide a measure of justice to the victims in this case, including the law enforcement officers who put their lives on the line every day and the young children who were victimized by this defendant.”