Paragraph five reads: “Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer
said Friday that Liles had been taking medication
for depression and probably took his own life with a gunshot to the
A slow burn suddenly turns deadly in Minkler, Calif.
First there was a series of fires in the small town east of Fresno. Then
came the shootings. On Thursday, a shootout left a sheriff’s deputy dead and two
other law enforcement officers injured.
(Paul Sakuma /
Associated Press / February 26, 2010)
By Diana Marcum
Reporting from Minkler Trouble had been brewing in tiny
Minkler, a Sierra foothills community about 20 miles east of Fresno, for months.
But residents never envisioned that it would end with two people — one a
sheriff’s deputy — dead and two other law enforcement officers
Joel Wahlenmaier, 49, a veteran with the Fresno County Sheriff’s
Department who investigated homicides and other violent crimes, was killed in
Thursday’s gunfire. Deputy Mark Harris, 48, was injured.
Javier Bejar, a
Reedley police officer who responded to the call for backup in the minutes after
Wahlenmaier was shot, is on life support at Community Regional Medical Center in
Fresno and is not expected to survive.
The suspect, Ricky Ray Liles, 51,
died during the gun battle that erupted when authorities attempted to serve him
with a search warrant.
Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer said Friday that
Liles had been taking medication for depression and probably took his own life
with a gunshot to the head.
Liles had told his wife “that he would not go
to prison,” Dyer said at a news conference. “He would take the lives of several
officers before taking his own life.”
On Friday, what there is of Minkler
was cordoned off as a crime scene, helicopters buzzing overhead.
Minkler’s worries began about five months ago with small fires. A bunch of
leaves here, a patch of grass there.
“You’d come out and say, ‘How did
that tractor seat catch on fire?’ ” said rancher Jeff Rodenbeck,
Eventually, a shed and a trailer burned. Then the shootings started.
Someone shot up the Minkler Cash Store six times since January. On Monday,
someone fired four bullets into Sally Minkler’s mobile home.
she bent over to get her cellphone and the bullet went right where her torso had
been,” said Mary Novack, who runs the Minkler Cash Store, the nerve-center and
commercial entirety of Minkler, a town so small it once was listed for sale on
Residents were convinced the culprit was Liles, a former security
guard renting a mobile home on Minkler family property across from the
“He was just your average pasty white guy with a bad back,” said
Jeff Butts, who grows grapes and plums along the Kings River.
you know all your neighbors, you look around and say, ‘Well, I know it’s not
Mary, and it’s not Charlie and it’s not Sally’ . . . and pretty soon everyone
came up with Liles,” Butts said. “He wasn’t friends with anyone. But no one ever
actually saw anything they could prove. Things were getting tense out
On Thursday morning, Novack was relieved when she saw law
enforcement vehicles pull up to Liles’ place. She called Butts and told him cops
were about to knock on Liles’ door.
“Hey, this guy is finally going down,
let’s go to the store and watch,” Butts said he told one of his
A small crowd gathered on the front porch of the general store,
which has held court in Minkler since 1920. They watched as a deputy kicked in
the door, shots were fired, an officer slumped, more law enforcement came and a
prolonged gun battle raged.
“I was stunned. I didn’t even get down,”
Butts said. “I kept thinking, ‘What are they doing? Those can’t be real
bullets.’ The cops are saying hundreds of rounds were fired, but it had to be
He was incredulous when a woman, later identified as Liles’
wife, Diane, and a dog emerged from the trailer. “I don’t see how anyone came
out of that alive,” Butts said.
Half a mile down the road, Rodenbeck
heard the first volley of shots. He loaded a pistol and rifle, and got his wife
and teenage daughter away from the house in case gunmen emerged from the woods
behind their home. Then he went to see what was going on.
When the bigger
gun battle began, he crouched inside his truck’s tire well.
is the country, gunfire is not a big deal, you hear it all the time. Someone’s
shooting at coyotes. Or skeet,” he said. “But this was a war zone. It sounded
like the cops had automatic rifles and they kept shooting. If you’d been here,
you would have hit the ground. It rocked this place. He killed a cop right in
front of them, and they don’t take lightly to that and I can’t say I blame
Rodenbeck moved to Minkler from Huntington Beach to raise his
family away from the city. He likes the beauty — “this is river bottom, green
all the time” — the quiet, and the fact that men such as Charles Minkler, the
great-grandson of Orzo Minkler, who founded the town in 1892, can still load
1,000 bales of hay. Minkler is in his 70s.
“Out here, men don’t get old.
They get beat up and wrinkled, but they don’t use canes,” Rodenbeck said. “They
have chores to do.”
But he was never under any illusion that violence
couldn’t touch this place.
“They say they used to hang people from that
tree over there,” he said. “Charlie can tell you about the bandits that used to
hide out in these hills. Different people have different reasons for wanting to
be out somewhere quiet.”
Novack, 54, recalls drug-dealing motorcycle
gangs in the 1970s. As a teenager, she glimpsed white-robed Ku Klux Klan members
burning crosses at the river’s edge.
“That’s a sight you never forget,”
Novack said. “It’s chilling.”
She looked around at the orchards in bloom,
snow-dusted peaks and sheepdogs trying to make friends with the
“People are saying, ‘In Minkler? It’s so beautiful and quiet
there.’ But good and evil are everywhere,” she said. “Right in front of you.
Right next to each other all the time.”
Marcum is a
special correspondent for The Times.
The Associated Press contributed to
Copyright © 2010, The Los Angeles
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