A fatal shooting in Chula Vista, south of downtown San Diego, led to a nearly 10-hour SWAT standoff at an apartment complex Thursday after the shooting suspect barricaded himself inside a unit with his family while armed with a rifle.
The standoff ended when SWAT officers discovered the man had taken his own life.
The initial shooting happened around 7:40 a.m. (10:40 a.m. ET) at 160 E. Street near 2nd Avenue, near the Mission Gardens apartment complex. More than a dozen police officers plus SWAT teams were called to the scene. At least three armored SWAT vehicles also surrounded the area.
Chula Vista Police Department (CVPD) Capt. Lon Turner said police received multiple calls reporting gunfire in the area. A neighbor told NBC 7 she heard gunshots and looked out the window. She said she saw the suspect, whom she called Mike, with an "automatic weapon" walk a couple of steps and start firing, hitting another man who lived nearby.
Mike and the man had problems, stemming from an incident about a year ago, the witness said. She told NBC 7 Mike was always angry and even threatened to shoot her adult son one day.
When police arrived, they found the critically wounded victim gunned down between cars near the apartment complex. The victim, a father of two children, later died.
Capt. Turner said the shooting suspect then barricaded himself inside an apartment with his family — two children, both under 10 years old, and his wife, referred to as Laura by police. It is unknown if the children are the suspect's biological kids.
By 3:35 p.m. -- eight hours into the standoff — the woman and kids were released from the apartment unit, police said. The suspect did not exit with them. Capt. Turner said the woman and children were safe and were being evaluated by medics.
The suspect remained holed up inside the apartment, and about an hour later, three shots rang out. CVPD Lt. Fritz Reber said the first came from a police test canon shot. The second was inside the apartment and did not come from officers. The third was a flash bang grenade that shattered a window so the SWAT team could send in two robots and check on the suspect.
One robot spotted a man down in an upstairs room, and a SWAT team soon followed to confirm. They found the suspect dead inside.
"Biggest thing that I'm happy about being able to report is that the wife and kids are out of there. Fortunately, they didn't lose their life in this incident. Clearly it's a tragedy when there's any loss of life," said Capt. Turner at a 5:30 p.m. news briefing.
Capt. Turner said the scene would now switch from a tactical one to a crime scene investigation. Investigators had gotten reports from other family that there may have been additional weapons inside the home, so officers obtained a search warrant to look for them.
The captain said Mike had been talking with officials about surrendering but had backed out of doing so several times during the long standoff.
Throughout the day, the suspect had been speaking with crisis negotiators and, at one point, sounded suicidal, according to police. They asked him to surrender without hurting anyone or himself.
At a 1 p.m. news briefing, after more than an hour without being able to make phone contact with the suspect, Capt. Turner said police had a very specific message for the man.
“If he is watching on television right now: Michael, we need to talk to you. We are calling your cellphone. So, either you or Laura need to pick up the phone. We want this to happen peacefully,” said Turner, staring into news cameras.
“We understand that there are two sides to every story. Let’s not make any rash decisions as it stands right now. Just pick up the phone so that we can communicate with you,” he continued.
Capt. Turner said officials would continue to call the man's phone. Again, the captain stressed the importance of bringing the standoff to a peaceful end.
At a 2 p.m. news briefing Capt. Turner confirmed that crisis negotiation teams were back in contact with the suspect and were able to speak with him on the phone.
“We’ve been talking with Mike,” said Capt. Turner. “We’ve asked him again to surrender peacefully. We’re concerned about the safety of him and his family.”
Police said the couple have been married for one year. The suspect was not making any sort of demands, officials said.
The standoff prompted officials to shut down traffic in parts of the surrounding downtown Chula Vista area for the majority of the day and evacuate some residents from the apartment complex.
The CVPD confirmed the 200 block of E Street had been shut down due to the heavy police activity. Police closed additional roadways due to the standoff including Third and First avenues, and F and D streets. Only residents were allowed in the area.
Hilltop Middle School is near the complex, but Capt. Turner said no lockdown had been ordered at the campus. He advised parents to keep road closures in mind as they picked up their students from school in the afternoon..
Meanwhile, police urged residents to stay indoors and shelter-in-place, and all others to stay away from the area.
A police captain said members of the shooting victim’s family had been escorted out of the complex safely and were with police just before 11 a.m. At that point, police said they had not ordered residents of the complex to evacuate, but officers were prepared to lead evacuations if necessary.
Police said they would utilize city resources to evacuate residents to the nearby Norman Park Senior Center at 270 F St., where residents would be given food and shelter while the standoff played out. Police said one resident, a 93-year-old man, had been safely evacuated from the complex due to medical issues earlier in the day.
At 11:35 a.m., an MTS bus arrived at the complex. By 11:45 a.m., it was confirmed that residents were being evacuated. About 10 residents exited several buildings at the complex, walking toward the bus alongside officers.
Police said the apartment complex is made up of four different sectors and officials were evacuating the property in an orderly fashion, sector by sector.
By 2 p.m., Capt. Turner said their evacuation of all residents at the complex had been completed. In all, he said 56 residents had been evacuated safely from the complex, including approximately 15 children. He said no forced evacuations had been necessary, as residents cooperated with the evacuation plan.
Some evacuees went to the senior center while others were picked up by family members.
“We have made sure we know who has come in and who has come out of this location,” said Capt. Turner, adding that officials planned to work their way from the “inside out” during the evacuation process.
The captain said officials found two to three rounds fired from the suspect’s weapon at the scene that indicated the suspect was armed with a long rifle, posing a major threat to the complex, thus prompting the evacuation.
“Rifled ammunition has much more significant range than a handgun. It goes a lot further and it goes through a lot more things than a handgun,” said Capt. Turner. “[This] poses a greater threat to the public and our officers.”
Investigators said the shooting may have stemmed from a dispute that escalated between neighbors. The motive is under investigation. Investigators were seeking a search warrant and researching the suspect’s background.
Officials said they hoped to bring the standoff to a peaceful resolution without further injuries.
The shooting, standoff and very heavy law enforcement response came as a shock to residents at the apartment complex.
One resident who has lived there for 10 years told NBC 7 he heard a loud blast but thought it was related to nearby construction and didn’t think much of it.
He took one of his three children to school and when he returned, police cars had the street outside his home blocked off.
“I thought it was a gas explosion, seriously I didn’t think it was a gun,” the man said.
The resident told NBC 7 he didn’t hear screaming or fighting before the blast.
The resident said he's been talking his mother who is in the apartment with his other children. He said they are safe and staying inside.
Another resident told NBC 7 he heard at least six back-to-back gunshots erupt as he was leaving for work. Seconds later, he heard one final shot.
Another man said he was outside when shots rang out. He said he could almost feel the ricochet as the bullets erupted.
The American Red Cross is at the evacuation site providing residents and police officers with food and beverages amid the standoff. There were approximately 15 evacuees using the center as of 1:20 p.m.
One evacuee told NBC 7 something just “wasn’t right” with the suspect. She said he lives at the apartment complex.
Another evacuee — a little boy — told NBC 7 he was very scared when officers began escorting his family out of their home. He thanked officials for keeping him safe.
The name of the victim shot and killed by the suspect before the standoff has not yet been released.