Minkler suspect planned on deadly shootout

Ricky Liles told his wife he was ready to kill, die.

February 26, 2010 

2:42 p.m. today: Highway 180 was re-opened late Friday night east of Sanger for the first time since a fatal shootout on Thursday.

Law-enforcement officials were continuing to process evidence this afternoon, and police tape marked off the site where Fresno County Deputy Joel Wahlenmaier was killed, another deputy was injured, and Reedley police officer Javier Bejar was critically injured.

They were shot after suspect Ricky Liles refused to comply with an arrest warrant, then shot at officers, before fatally shooting himself, police said.

Bejar remained on “nonrecoverable life support” this morning, Reedley City Manager Rocky Rogers said.

11:03 p.m. Friday: Ricky Liles was ready to kill when sheriff's deputies knocked on his door.

The 51-year-old Minkler resident, suspected in a series of arson fires and shootings, had told his wife several times in recent months that he intended to shoot officers and then take his own life rather than go to prison.

Officials provided details Friday about the gunbattle during which Liles killed one deputy, critically injured a police officer and wounded another deputy before killing himself.

Investigators attempting to serve a search warrant at Liles' mobile home Thursday morning were met by a barrage of gunfire from Liles. Then, according to police, Liles told his wife that he was sorry for what he was about to do. He told her that he loved her. She told him she loved him.

Diane Liles took cover in the bedroom and laid face-down on the floor. She later told police she didn't try to stop her husband because she didn't think he would listen.

As at least 150 officers from nearly a dozen agencies soon surrounded the mobile home off Highway 180 about six miles east of Sanger, Ricky Liles holed up in the living room. He had stashed away six handguns and four rifles, police said.

Liles used two high-powered rifles -- both with scopes -- to shoot and kill Fresno County deputy Joel Wahlenmaier, 49, and wound deputy Mark Harris, 48.

About 30 minutes later, in another hail of gunfire, Liles also shot Reedley police officer Javier Bejar in the head from a distance of about 80 yards, police said. Bejar, 28, had taken cover behind a police car when he was shot. He is not expected to survive.

Over about two hours, some two dozen officers fired about 400 bullets into the home, police said. But in the end, police say, Liles ended his own life. Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer said his body was found face down in the bedroom with a handgun next to him. His only wound was a single bullet to the head.

His wife -- to the surprise of many officers -- walked out of the mobile home alive. She later told police that Liles had been taking several medications, including Prozac.

"She said he had become increasingly more paranoid as of late and would frequently look outside the window to see who was outside," Dyer said.

Liles rarely came out during daylight hours, according to Don Burkett, who works in Minkler.

Fresno police say they are investigating whether Liles had mental health problems.

Dyer said there was no indication that Diane Liles, who had been married to Ricky Liles for three years, assisted her husband in the attack on officers. He said she will not face criminal charges.

As Fresno police continued to investigate the shooting on Friday, families, friends and fellow law enforcement colleagues tried to make sense of what happened.

Wahlenmaier and Bejar are being hailed as heroes.

Bejar remained on life support Friday at Community Regional Medical Center in Fresno. His sister, Maricela Chavez, said doctors told her that there is no hope for recovery.

"But we are praying and hoping for a miracle -- a miracle that only God can make," she said.

Reedley Police Chief Steve Wright grimly stated at a news conference Friday that Bejar was the first officer that the department has lost in its 100-year history. He called it a "dark, dark day in the city of Reedley."

The Reedley Police Department was closed to the public on Friday, and most officers were in Fresno for a debriefing. Officers from several surrounding agencies filled in.

Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims said her department is reeling from Wahlenmaier's death. "We are all hurting right now," she said.

Harris, the injured sheriff's deputy, has been released from the hospital and is recovering.

Authorities had come to Liles' mobile home Thursday morning with a search warrant because he was suspected of setting a series of fires in the Minkler area and also was a suspect in half a dozen recent shootings, including one that injured a neighbor.

Seven sheriff's deputies and four state fire investigators went to the mobile home to serve the warrant.

Mims said the investigators had planned for how they would serve the warrant.

She said they were armed and were wearing protective vests when they approached the home.

"Unfortunately, things don't always go as planned," Mims said.

A normal life

A divorce file in Fresno County Superior Court shows that Liles, a former security guard, lived what appeared to be a stable and likely middle-class life during a 12-year marriage to his previous wife, Sandy Liles.

They were married in October 1987. A daughter was born in early 1990. By the time they legally separated in mid-2000, they had purchased a Reedley home and filled it with appliances, furniture and a piano.

Sandy Liles received most of the household possessions in the divorce settlement, as well as a 1988 Honda Accord. She also took possession of two checking accounts, a certificate of deposit and an individual retirement account.

Ricky Liles got a 1999 Chevrolet pickup, a tool chest and tools, gardening equipment, an air compressor -- as well as police scanners, a gun safe and five handguns, four rifles and gun parts.

The couple also had debts, which were split. They had joint custody of their daughter, though she lived with Sandy Liles. Ricky Liles agreed to pay $200 a month until the girl reached adulthood.

The divorce was finalized in July 2000. At that time, court records show Ricky Liles was living in Dinuba.

Carol Knoy of Dinuba said she was stunned when she heard that Liles, her former neighbor, had killed a sheriff's deputy.

He was "a super-nice guy when he was young," she said. "I was so shocked he would go off the deep end. In this economy, you expect crazy things, but not this."

A day like any other

When Wahlenmaier left for work Thursday, he told his wife matter-of-factly that he would be assisting in serving a warrant in Minkler.

It was not something he seemed overly concerned about, said Barbie Turner, his sister-in-law.

"He left that morning, told her he loved her and that was it," Turner said.

But within a few hours, Wahlenmaier was dead.

He was a Fresno High School graduate and attended California State University, Fresno. In June 1998, he was hired by the Sheriff's Office. In his latest assignment, he investigated homicides and other violent crimes.

Turner said Wahlenmaier loved his job.

"You could just tell when he talked about it or when he saw one of his deputy friends," she said. "He was close with everyone he worked with."

But his investigations, such as the grisly killing of a Kerman couple last summer, always remained at the office, she said.

"I never saw him bring it home," Turner said. "He was always happy, kind, a good person."

Wahlenmaier hunted, skied and water skied. He is survived by his wife of 26 years, Bev, daughter Amy, 24, and son Austin, 21, all of Fresno.

In June, the family had plans to go to Disneyland for his 50th birthday and the 50th wedding anniversary of Bev Wahlenmaier's parents.

"I don't know how we are going to handle that," Turner said.

Lifelong vocation

From his childhood, Bejar wanted to be in law enforcement.

His family moved from Mexico when he was 3 years old and eventually settled in Orange Cove, where many family members still live.

Angel Landeros, a friend since fourth grade, said Bejar was fascinated when a sheriff's deputy showed up at their Sheridan Elementary classroom in Orange Cove one day. The deputy kidded about using a Taser on Landeros.

Bejar -- a jokester from a young age -- jabbed at his friend and told him that when he grew up, "I'm going to be a sheriff's deputy and stun you for real."

When he was at Reedley High School, Bejar joined the Reedley Police Department's Explorer Program, which teaches the basics of police service to young people interested in pursuing a law enforcement career.

Bejar, who has five brothers and two sisters, joined the Marines after graduating from high school in 2000. He served a 14-month tour in Iraq and Kuwait and attained the rank of sergeant. After four years, he returned to civilian life.

In 2005, he became a Reedley police officer and was honored as Officer of the Year in 2007. He was second-in-command of the department's Rapid Deployment Team.

"He loved it," Landeros said of Bejar's job. "He truly loved it. He had a tremendous heart."

Two years ago, Bejar graduated from California State University, Fresno, with a degree in kinesiology. He married his wife, Miriam, in November 2008. The couple later moved to Clovis.

Chavez, Bejar's sister, said her brother easily made friends and was a "very caring person" with a big smile.

She said that his parents and many siblings were gathered at the hospital on Friday.

"The one thing we're asking for from people is for them to pray," she said.

Reporters Jim Guy,John Ellis, Eddie Jimenez and Barbara Anderson contributed to this story.

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