by: SEAN ROBINSON, Tacoma News Tribune Updated:
TACOMA, Wash. - When Tacoma police Officer Reginald “Jake” Gutierrez stepped into the dark house on Nov. 30, he had no reason to think he was going to die.
All questions about Gutierrez’s death return to a single moment, shortly after 5 p.m., when he and his partner, Officer Erika Haberzettl, along with a distraught wife and a landlord, unlocked the door of the house at 413 E. 52nd St. and called to the man waiting upstairs in darkness.
“Anyone would have gone in there,” said police spokeswoman Loretta Cool in a recent interview. “Any officer would have gone in there.”
Records of an investigation compiled by Tacoma police reveal that the shooting of Gutierrez, 45, was sudden and savage. A subsequent 10-hour siege was marked by hours of fruitless negotiation with the shooter, Bruce Randall Johnson, slain by a sniper’s bullet as he held his 6-year-old daughter in one hand and a gun in the other.
The following account reflects a survey of those records. Quoted material appears in audio and written reports.
Johnson, 38, had been crumbling for weeks. Never a rich man, he had shifted from job to job, from rental to rental, unable to keep pace with bills and child-support costs from his first marriage, a source of increasing angst.
A regular marijuana user, he’d been smoking more lately. He had rented the house on East 52nd Street from Kristi Croskey, an acquaintance from church who agreed to let him stay at the place as long as he paid the utility bills.
He owed money to friends and relatives, including his ex-mother-in-law, Pamela Rogers, who described her interactions to police.
“(Bruce) would call me up. Is there any way you can help me out? Our utilities got cut off, is there any way you can help me do this? And I would borrow him money,” Rogers said.
He was in trouble at his latest job cutting hair at Sam and Terry’s barbershop in Tacoma’s Hilltop neighborhood, where he went by the nickname “Zeus.” The owner, Damon Daniels, fired him the morning of the shooting, after Johnson failed to open the shop on time — again.
Increasingly paranoid, Johnson rained abuse on his wife of nine years, Noriyo Johnson. Two weeks before the shooting, he told her he was from another planet. He didn’t like her two small dogs, he said. He wanted to get rid of them. They were transmitting messages from his ex-wife. People were following him.
Noriyo, 37, rarely fought back. She had arrived in Tacoma by way of Japan, and met Johnson when she was a student at Pierce College. The couple had two children: a daughter, 6, and a son, 8. They were home-schooled. Relatives and acquaintances of the family described Johnson as a controlling husband who wouldn’t allow his wife to work.
She had never obtained her citizenship. Johnson would remind her of that during fights, and threaten to have her deported if she spoke against him or called police.
Johnson had guns — a shotgun and a .22-caliber rifle. He was a frequent customer at Tacoma’s Bull’s Eye Indoor Shooting Range, and claimed to be training for the Olympics. Records show seven sessions at the range in the two weeks before the shooting.
He had no significant criminal record, no history with the public mental health system and no one, apart from his family and a few acquaintances, knew of his increasing paranoia.
He had been spotted at the Tacoma Mall on Nov. 15, wearing a hat labeled “SHERIFF,” and carrying a rifle case. Police questioned him, but Johnson said he was simply on his way to the shooting range.
The incident didn’t lead to an arrest or a charge, though it prompted an internal “safety bulletin,” alerting local law enforcement to Johnson’s apparent impersonation of a police officer.
On the day of the shooting, Noriyo woke at 7:30 a.m. Her husband and the children were gone. He’d taken her cellphone after an argument the night before, so she couldn’t call him. Records show Johnson had stopped at the shooting range and two other businesses that day, attempting to apply for jobs. A worker at the range heard Johnson muttering to himself.
Johnson returned with the children around midday, and started in on the dogs again. The children began to make themselves bowls of cereal. He dumped them on the floor, and said the cereal contained chemicals that would make the children crazy.
To avoid another fight, Noriyo took the dogs for a walk. She came back and jumped in the shower. When she came out, she noticed the dogs running around outside. Johnson had been shooting at them with his rifle, wounding one.
Noriyo rushed out to retrieve the animals, her hair still wet, wearing only sweats and a T-shirt. The dogs ran off. She came back to the house. The door was locked. She called to her husband. He didn’t answer. Instead, he called 911 at 2:27 p.m., to complain about “intruders at his doorstep.”
The call generated no response; Johnson hung up without giving his address, and he was using a prepaid cellphone that was difficult to trace.
Noriyo had no phone, no house key and no car. She walked to the police substation at East 56th Street, looking for help. No one was there. She started walking back.
Meanwhile, a pair of Tacoma Animal Control officers were responding to a call regarding two stray dogs in the area of East 52nd Street. One of the officers was Katherine Madden, who had recovered one of the dogs.
Noriyo, returning from her walk, rushed up to her.
“She was very upset,” Madden recalled. “Too upset to just be over a lost dog.”
Madden said the dog needed veterinary care. At first, Noriyo was reluctant. She said her husband would be very upset.
Haltingly, she explained that she’d been locked out of the house. The officers watched her go up to the door and bang on it, calling to her husband, who didn’t answer. She told the officers she had walked to the police substation, that her children were inside the house.
“You know, you get that weird feeling, like this is really not a good situation. I got that feeling,” Madden said later.
She suggested calling police.
At first, Noriyo said yes, then no, no, no. Madden told her it was already too late. Police were on their way.
Gutierrez and Haberzettl picked up the call and soon arrived. The matter looked entirely routine. They knocked on the front door. No answer. They checked the sliding glass door in back. Locked. No answer.
They spoke to Noriyo. Did she have a relative she could stay with? Noriyo said her mother-in-law lived nearby, but she wasn’t sure of the address.
For about 40 minutes, the officers drove Noriyo around the neighborhood, but could not find the mother-in-law’s house. During the ride, they asked about her husband. Was this normal? Was she afraid of him?
“A little bit,” Noriyo said, adding they had been arguing more than usual lately.
She didn’t mention that her husband had guns. The safety alert from the Tacoma Mall incident wasn’t in play, and Gutierrez and Haberzettl weren’t aware of it. In the midst of a routine call such as this, checking such details would have been unusual.
Had her husband locked her out of the house before? Yes, Noriyo told them. And the children were inside.
That settled it for the officers. At the very least, a welfare check was necessary.
How to get in? The officers decided the best route was calling the landlord, Kristi Croskey. Gutierrez spoke to her, and asked her to open up the house. Croskey, after trying to reach Johnson from her own phone, agreed.
She arrived on the scene shortly before 5 p.m.
Croskey was in front; she had the key. Gutierrez followed, with Haberzettl and Noriyo trailing.
“He always kind of walked faster than me so he was always kind of the footstep,” Haberzettl recalled.
The sun was setting on a gray, damp day, one of the shortest of the year. The open doorway threw a beam of dim light into the dark house: a split-level, with two staircases angled up and down.
The lights appeared to be off.
Croskey called out.
Johnson’s voice answered from a hall, upstairs to the right.
Croskey identified herself and said she had to go downstairs and get some stuff from storage.
“The police are here,” Croskey added.
“What are the police doing here?”
Croskey said they just wanted to tell him he couldn’t lock his wife out of the house.
Croskey walked downstairs. The two officers looked up and listened, with Noriyo behind them.
Gutierrez broke the silence, calling into the dark hall.
“We just need to tell you, don’t lock your wife out,” Gutierrez said.
Gutierrez and Haberzettl exchanged looks.
“We kind of did the shrug, like oh OK, well let’s go up,” Haberzettl said later. “So Jake starts going up the stairs, and I follow up behind him.”
She pushed Noriyo back, “like you gotta stay here. You can’t, can’t go up.”
Gutierrez didn’t draw his gun, Haberzettl recalled.
“We didn’t feel like it was a threat at that time,” she said. “There was no, nothing that gave us any sort of indication of a threat.”
Gutierrez reached the top of the stairs, turned to the right and leaned his arm on a couch.
Subsequent ballistics analysis indicated Johnson was standing in the corner of the hall, holding a .20-gauge shotgun as Gutierrez turned.
“I’m probably midway up the stairs, as he takes his first step and turns eastbound like toward the hallway, I hear a pop-pop-pop, four pops,” Haberzettl said.
Blinded, Gutierrez slumped and fell. Haberzettl saw his face flood with red, then a silhouette, rushing forward.
I see like a dark shadow come. ... I saw a black shadow come. And I don’t know if he was holding something but he was like beating him with something.
Q: He was beating who?
A: Jake Gutierrez.
— Excerpt of police report
Haberzettl drew her gun and fired four rounds.
“And then another four came.”
She couldn’t tell where Johnson was firing — at her and Noriyo, or at Gutierrez.
Down, back, scrambling, Haberzettl grabbed Noriyo, who seemed poised to run up the stairs.
“Get out of the house — get out of the house!”
The officer retreated out the door, pulled Noriyo with her and yelled at her to get away. She ran to the cover of the patrol car and sent a frantic radio call for priority backup.
“Shots fired, officer down!”
The radio answered with replies and swift questions. Where? Who?
“My partner’s down inside the residence,” Haberzettl answered. “I also have two kids inside, maybe two more adults. I heard four shots, I returned fire and I don’t know if I hit him.”
From the four corners of the city, officers from multiple police agencies swarmed toward East 52nd Street, chiefly from Tacoma and the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department, as well as Lakewood, Fircrest, Puyallup and Bonney Lake.
One of the first to arrive was Tacoma Officer Travis Waddell, who saw Haberzettl, crouched behind the car, amped on adrenaline. Officer Tim Caber arrived within moments. Haberzettl relayed what she knew to both of them.
Jake was still inside, she said. The shooter had a long gun.
Waddell took cover behind another car and sent the word over radio, telling arriving officers to bring rifles.
More shots echoed from inside the house — eight to 12 in rapid succession, Waddell thought.
No officers were inside at that moment, except Gutierrez. Johnson was shooting him again and again, from point-blank range, records state —subsequent forensic analysis revealed 24 shots.
Johnson also struck Gutierrez with the butt of his shotgun, so hard he broke the stock and the officer’s femur, severing an artery.
Outside, arriving officers included Tacoma Sgt. Barry Paris, who carried a shield; Patrol Officer Dean Waubanascum, who brought a battering ram; and Sgt. Paul Jagodinski, who saw an immediate need: get Haberzettl out of the danger zone.
“She was upset,” Jagodinski recalled later. “She needed to be relieved.”
More specifically, Haberzettl, banging on the car, wanted to go back in, to join the officers who intended to rescue her fallen partner.
That wasn’t going to happen. Jagodinski ordered another officer to escort her away. She protested, but gave in.
Only a few minutes had passed since the initial shooting, but time was precious. The other officers, joined by a growing contingent, devised a quick plan to rescue Gutierrez.
Waddell, still posted nearby, felt someone grabbing his legs: Noriyo.
“Oh, my god, please don’t kill him,” she said.
The officers tried the front door first. No good; Johnson had barricaded it from the inside. The officers regrouped.
By this time, sheriff’s Detective Bob Shaw had arrived, partially geared up. Shaw, a nine-year veteran, was a sniper on the county SWAT team.
“Where are we going?” he asked.
“Around the back,” said Jagodinski.
The back side of the house had a staircase leading to a deck on the upper floor, and a sliding glass door that opened into the living room.
Jagodinski crept up, looked inside and saw Gutierrez on the floor, lying on his side. No one else was visible.
Other officers followed. One broke the pane of the glass door. Jagodinski stepped in, over Gutierrez’s prone form, looking right and left, toward the barricaded front door and the hall that led to bedrooms. He saw no sign of the shooter.
He shouted into the darkness: “Tacoma police! Come out with your hands up!”
Jagodinski called out again, to Johnson and the children.
“Get him out!” he told the group behind him. “Get Jake out!”
Three officers gathered Gutierrez as Jagodinski, Paris and others covered, watching for any activity.
Gutierrez was a big man. Carrying him down a flight of stairs was a struggle. Was he still alive? No one could tell.
Interviewed later that night as part of the investigation, a few of the officers who moved Gutierrez or saw him conveyed to an ambulance struggled to hold back tears. Some failed.
Outside, Fircrest police Officer Joshua Miller, arriving on the scene, saw a group emerge from behind the house, carrying the wounded officer. He rushed forward, took hold of Gutierrez’s upper body, and saw the terrible damage.
“His face,” Miller said in an interview later that night. “I couldn’t recognize him. I’ve seen him. I know this guy. I’ve seen him before. Talked to him.”
Six officers carried Gutierrez two blocks to a waiting ambulance and loaded him in at 5:23 p.m., roughly 18 minutes after he’d been shot. The rig headed for Tacoma General Hospital, arriving 14 minutes later.
Gutierrez was out and clear. The scene at East 52nd Street was shifting by the moment.
While the officers were moving Gutierrez, a South Sound 911 dispatcher picked up an emergency call at 5:17 p.m.
“911, what are you reporting?”
“I’m a sheriff and they’re trying to kill me,” Bruce Johnson said. “A police unit in Tacoma.”
“A police unit is trying to kill you?”
“Yes, yes, in Tacoma. I’m the new sheriff.”
“You’re the new sheriff. OK. What’s your name?”
“My name is Zeus.”
Jagodinski, Paris and SWAT team members, still inside the house, had little information. Where was the shooter? They couldn’t be sure. In the house? Upstairs? Downstairs? Where were the two children? They heard no sounds from them.
Initially, they didn’t realize someone else was in the house: Kristi Croskey, the homeowner and landlord.
She’d locked herself in the downstairs bathroom when the shooting started. In the midst of chaos she could hear but not see, she had silently tapped out text messages and Facebook posts to friends, anyone who could help her.
Eventually, the virtual calls for help reached South Sound 911. A dispatcher called Croskey’s number.
“Yes,” Croskey whispered.
Yes, she said — she was inside the house. In the downstairs bathroom. She didn’t know where the kids were, where the shooter was.
Who was the shooter?
“It’s Bruce Johnson,” Croskey whispered, her voice barely audible. She didn’t want to talk. She feared someone would shoot her.
The dispatcher told her to scratch the surface of her phone to make sure Croskey understood. She did.
“Stay on the phone with me.”
Again, Croskey said she didn’t know where the shooter was — except that he wasn’t downstairs. She could hear movement above — the police, searching.
“Hurry,” she whispered. “He’s not down here. I am.”
The dispatcher told her to yell out, to tell the officers where she was.
“I’m here!” Croskey shouted. “I’m here in the bathroom!”
The officers heard her. Bob Shaw, the county detective and sniper, opened the bathroom door to let her out.
Croskey was crying.
“Where is he? Where is he?” Shaw asked.
“I don’t know — I don’t know.”
Shaw passed her off to another officer, who led her out the front door.
Upstairs, time passed with little sound. Jagodinski and Paris waited as the SWAT team cleared the downstairs rooms.
From upstairs, the officers heard breaking glass and thudding sounds, as if heavy objects were being moved. Johnson was building a barricade. No sounds from the children, though. How could they not cry out?
Paris, among others, began to think Johnson had killed them, but couldn’t be sure.
At one point, perhaps 45 minutes after the group had entered the house, Paris caught a glimpse of Johnson, who briefly opened one of the bedroom doors upstairs: a thin black man, light-skinned, with a red hat or hoodie. Their eyes met and locked.
“Police, don’t move!” Paris shouted.
Johnson slammed the door shut — but he’d revealed his location, if not the children, who still made no sound.
Were they alive? Guardian One, the King County sheriff’s helicopter, was hovering over the scene, looking for heat signatures inside the house. The hits revealed Johnson, but not the children.
How many guns did he have? What kind? The officers, relying on information relayed from Noriyo, believed there were two: a shotgun and a rifle. It appeared Johnson had taken Gutierrez’s handgun as well.
Jagodinski and Paris backed out of the scene, handing it off to the SWAT team: a mix of Tacoma and Pierce County officers.
Sheriff’s Deputy John Delgado, a SWAT commander, conferred with Tacoma Sgt. Pete Habib. Two children were inside, status unknown. They had to try a hostage rescue.
Delgado went in. Six officers — three from Tacoma, three from the county, took positions. The best information suggested Johnson was barricaded in the bedroom, the last point where he’d been seen.
Delgado called upstairs.
“Are you OK?”
Delgado repeated himself several times, hearing nothing but silence. He told Johnson to call 911. Nothing.
Assessing the scene, Delgado saw hazards and danger. The shooter held the high ground and the advantage. He was barricaded somewhere upstairs, with the children as possible hostages.
“There was no safe way to approach the suspect’s location due to the layout of his position,” Delgado wrote in a report filed later. “It was a death trap for law enforcement to make entry.”
Shaw, the sniper, had spoken to Delgado and relocated outside, to a position behind the back of the house, along with another officer. They had a view of a bedroom window.
Delgado, after consulting with Habib, had given a clear order: Lethal force was authorized. If the shot was there, take it — but only one. The hostage rescue team would launch if the moment came.
For the next hour and a half, the combatants waited in silence. Johnson made no move. The SWAT team held.
During the long pause, at 6:40 p.m., Jake Gutierrez died.
The news came through dispatch calls from the hospital, slowly trickling out. Cool, the Tacoma police spokeswoman, heard it, as did sheriff’s spokesman Ed Troyer, checking in periodically.
“Aw no,” Troyer said to a dispatcher. “Aw shit.”
An aching pause inside the house ended at 7:24 p.m. Delgado and the SWAT team heard three gunshots. Was Johnson executing the children? They breached the bedroom door, tossing flash-bang explosives to the opposite side as a distraction.
The room was empty. Shots, at least five, came from through another door in the room: a “Jack and Jill” bathroom that separated the two upstairs bedroom.
“He’s shooting through the walls!” someone shouted.
Officers recognized the distinctive sound of the reports: a Glock .45. Johnson, barricaded in the bathroom with his two children in front and back, was firing at them with Gutierrez’s gun.
Officers fired back, but the disadvantage was plain. Anything direct might hit the children. They pulled back to the front door, shouting at the shooter.
For the next three hours, they heard nothing. They sent messages and calls to Johnson’s phone, using the number supplied by his wife. No answer.
Troyer, on the phone with dispatchers again for another update, sounded a note of frustration.
“I don’t know why somebody just doesn’t smoke him,” he said.
“Because the kids,” the dispatcher replied.
Finally, at 10:20 p.m., Johnson called 911. He was routed to hostage negotiator Shawn Malott.
Johnson was evasive on the phone. He said his son was with him, and his daughter was “in a safe place.”
Malott asked for evidence. He heard the small, high voice of child, who said, “Hello.”
Proof of life. Malott guessed he was speaking to the 8-year-old boy.
So began a strange negotiation — closer to a therapy session — that lasted almost five hours. Johnson’s parents arrived, hoping for a chance to speak to their son, to talk him down — but the situation was too volatile.
Speaking off and on to Malott, and later to negotiator Bill Westfall, calling in and abruptly hanging up, Johnson raved, airing grievances and conspiracy theories. His voice never rose. He was oddly calm, even courteous.
His wife and the landlord were conspiring against him, he said. His wife and his ex-wife were having an affair, and wanted him dead. He was “the highest sheriff for national Homeland Security.” His favorite number was 42.
Westfall gave his first name: Bill. Johnson insisted on calling him David.
“I just want to know, do you love God?” Johnson asked.
“I do, actually,” Westfall said.
“You love God.”
“I have that belief.”
The SWAT team was still devising a plan to rescue the boy. Westfall pushed Johnson gently, offering to supply Gatorade through the bedroom window if the children were thirsty, as well as a “hailer” phone Johnson could use that wouldn’t run out of battery.
Johnson spoke vaguely of surrendering, but made no move to do so. Eventually, he agreed to accept the Gatorade. He sent the boy to retrieve it.
The moment survives in dispatch recordings. At Johnson’s order, the boy crept into the open bedroom. He came back without the Gatorade. Johnson put him on the phone with Westfall.
“There’s too many soldiers,” the boy said in his piping voice. “They told me to come with them.”
“Where are there soldiers?” Westfall asked.
“They’re on the back porch. They told me to go with them.”
“They want you to go with them but you don’t want to?” Westfall said.
The boy didn’t answer.
“You want to just stay there with your dad.”
A little later, Westfall heard the boy say, “I love my mom. I want her back.”
Moments later, the boy crept out again, ordered by his father to retrieve a phone charger. This time the SWAT team was ready. An officer scooped up the boy, who called his father for help. He was carried outside and wrapped in a blanket. He had no apparent injuries.
Johnson immediately guessed the SWAT had snatched his son. Officers still had no idea whether the girl was alive.
Once more, as he had for hours, Westfall urged Johnson to come out.
“You know it’s the right thing to do now,” Westfall said.
“All right, OK.”
Johnson said he feared he would be shot, that officers would mistake his phone for a gun.
“I’ll come out to where you are,” he said.
Outside behind the house, Shaw, the sniper, was waiting, watching the bedroom window through a rifle scope. Would Johnson move toward the front door, as he indicated? He had feigned surrender at various points through the evening, only to hang up.
No. Johnson, carrying his 6-year-old daughter with one arm (though no one could see her) went the opposite way, toward the back. His free hand carried a gun.
“I knew that the little girl was in danger,” Shaw said later. “It was my impression that he was moving to gain a position of advantage and was going to ambush that team and put shots, fire shots at that team that was on the back steps because that was the team that had just grabbed his son.”
“As he moved into view, I had a clear, clear view of the side of his head. I’d settled my crosshairs just quartered, quartered his head so it was evenly divided in my cross hairs, and, and pressed the trigger.”
Over the radio at 3:18 a.m., Shaw sent the word: “Shots away.”
A second command from the SWAT team followed instantly.
Shaw’s aim was true. Johnson fell on the spot, mortally wounded. The SWAT team swept in to rescue the girl. They found her beneath her father’s body, his blood on her face.
A report filed later by Delgado, the SWAT team commander, said the outcome could have been avoided.
“Had the suspect walked out of the bedroom with his hands up and surrendered, the team would have taken him into custody,” he wrote.
Tears, mourning and analysis followed.
Later that night, at Mary Bridge Hospital, the boy told a Tacoma officer he and his father had been “hiding from the fake police,” who broke glass in the house. Soon he was reunited with his sister and mother. Noriyo, crying, apologized repeatedly, and told the officer to tell Gutierrez’s family she was sorry.
A police investigation and a subsequent assessment by Prosecutor Mark Lindquist reached a predictable conclusion. The shooting of Johnson was lawful. Police had responded to the fatal shooting of an officer, a barricaded suspect with child hostages who continued to fire multiple weapons as officers surrounded him.
For weeks, Haberzettl struggled with a guilt-ridden prospect: had she hit her own partner in the tumult of the first moments, when she fired back at Johnson?
The answer was no. Forensic analysis found traces of all four rounds Haberzettl fired, buried in the wall of the house. None hit Gutierrez.
The medical examiner, Thomas Clark, ran post-mortems. Johnson’s body weighed in at a spindly 104 pounds. He had no drugs in his system, apart from high concentrations of THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana.
For Tacoma officers, only grief remained. As the siege ended and the investigation began, a police procession from Tacoma General Hospital to the Medical Examiner’s office closed with a traditional radio call to “Paul 044” — Jake Gutierrez.
“Paul 044. Paul 044,” the call said.
“Paul 044, no answer.”
“Paul 044, out of service. Gone but not forgotten.”
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