By Hillel Aron
LOS ANGELES (CN) — Kevin Eduardo Cataneo Salazar, the man accused of shooting to death Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputy Ryan Clinkunbroomer, appeared in court for the first time on Wednesday and pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity.
District Attorney George Gascón announced at a press conference that Salazar is being charged with murder, along with three special circumstances — killing a police officer, discharging a firearm from a moving vehicle and lying in wait. If convicted, Salazar could spend the rest of his life in prison without the possibility of parole.
“A loss of any life is a tragedy, but when it’s when it’s a sworn officer, someone who has taken the oath to protect our communities is taken from us, it’s an assault on the very fiber of our community,” Gascón said. “It is a stark reminder of the dangers law enforcement officers face every day.”
The 30-year-old Clinkunbroomer, who was a Santa Clarita resident and graduate of West Ranch High School, had just left his station in Palmdale on Saturday, and was waiting at a red light in his patrol car, when a dark gray Toyota Corolla pulled up slowly next to him. Shots were fired. The deputy was hit in the head with at least one of the bullets. The Toyota sped off.
Investigators have described the killing as an “ambush.” Salazar, 29, was arrested on Monday after an hourslong standoff with sheriff’s deputies at his parents’ home. After the arrest, a sheriff’s department press release said that deputies recovered “a substantial amount of firearms” from the crime scene.
“We believe the suspect in the case did purchase a firearm in the weeks before the crime occurred,” said Deputy District Attorney Michael Blake, at the press conference Wednesday. He would not say whether the gun was bought legally.
It is also unclear if Salazar specifically targeted Clinkunbroomer, or if he was was simply looking for any sheriff’s deputy to shoot. But, Blake said, the officer “was certainly targeted.”
Salazar’s mother, Marle Salazar, told the Los Angeles Times that her son was diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic five years ago, that he been hearing voices in his head, thought people were following him in the streets, and had attempted suicide twice.
“My son is mentally ill, and if he did something, he wasn’t in his full mental capacity,” she told the Times.
She also claimed that the firearm used to shoot Clinkunbroomer was legally purchased.
Marle Salazar said that she had called the sheriff’s department at least twice in the past, when her son refused to take his medication and became “aggressive toward himself,” according to the LA Times.
“I have called the police several times,” she told the newspaper. “In the end, they would say, ‘He’s an adult, so if he doesn’t want to take (his medication), we can’t do anything.”
An insanity plea means Salazar will be evaluated by mental health professionals. If found to be not mentally competent to stand trial, he would be confined to a psychiatric hospital of some kind. Law enforcement officials made it clear they preferred a prison sentence.
“Based on the DA’s announcement today, we are hoping for nothing less than the maximum punishment available under the law,” said Sheriff Robert Luna.
Gascón, whose first term as DA has been marked by controversy generated by his reforms — many aimed at reducing sentences — has resisted using special circumstances in many of his prosecutions. When asked by a reporter at the press conference if using the special circumstances had been a tough decision, he said, “It was not a tough decision. We have a process. What made it tough was the tragedy.”
When asked if he considered seeking the death penalty, Gascón again said no.
“Look, if I thought that seeking the death penalty was going to bring Ryan back to us, I would seek it without reservation, but it won’t,” said Gascón. “If I thought that the death penalty was going to stop people from committing brutal murders, I would seek it, but we know that it won’t. The reality is that the death penalty doesn’t serve as a deterrent. The death penalty does not bring people back. What I can assure you, is we’re going to do everything within our legal power to make sure that this defendant never gets out of prison.”
Clinkunbroomer’s mother, father, brother, sister and fiancé, Brittany Lindsey, also appeared at the press conference.
“I’m so happy I was able to love him,” said a tearful Lindsey. “It was not long enough. I couldn’t wait to start our lives together — we were just engaged — and to get married and to start a family.” She added: “Ryan, I miss you and I love you so much. I don’t know how to live without you.”