THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. — A Ventura County sheriff’s deputy killed during the November 2018 mass shooting at a California bar was struck by “friendly fire” after he tripped and fell while attempting to stop the gunman.
Sgt. Ron Helus, 54, was a year from retirement when he responded Nov. 7, 2018, to the Borderline Bar and Grill in Thousand Oaks, where gunman Ian David Long had opened fire, killing 11 people.
Long, 28, of Newbury Park, turned his weapon on himself during a gunfight with responding officers, authorities said.
Ventura County District Attorney Gregory D. Totten announced Thursday that the use of force exerted by both Helus and California Highway Patrol Officer Todd Barrett, who accidentally shot Helus, was determined to have been justified.
Authorities had announced in December 2018, a month after the mass shooting, that Barrett’s rifle had fired the round that killed Helus, a 29-year veteran of the department.
Helus and Barrett, along with Highway Patrol Officer Lidia Espinoza, were the first law enforcement officers to arrive at the bar that night. The officers soon found themselves in a gunfight with Long, though Espinoza never fired her shotgun that night.
“When Officer Barrett fired his weapon at Long, Officer Barrett honestly and reasonably believed that he, Officer Espinoza, Sgt. Helus and all individuals in the area were in imminent threat of death or great bodily injury from Long,” the investigative report into the shooting concludes. “Officer Barrett’s shot that inadvertently hit Sgt. Helus was aimed at Long in lawful self-defense, and the fatal shooting of Sgt. Helus by Officer Barrett was a justifiable homicide.”
The gunshots Helus suffered at Long’s hands caused “serious injuries, but potentially survivable injuries,” Ventura County Chief Medical Examiner Christopher Young said in 2018.
FBI ballistics analysis confirmed that Barrett’s shot killed the deputy.
“This bullet struck Sgt. Helus in the chest and struck his heart,” Young said at the time. “Ultimately, this was the most severe injury sustained.”
Totten announced last week that the shots fired by Helus that night were also reasonable in force, and therefore justified.
If he had survived his self-inflicted gunshot wound, Long “could have been prosecuted for Sgt. Helus’ death as a provocative act murder,” the report states.
‘Shots fired at Borderline’
The night of the shooting, about 260 patrons were at the Borderline, a popular country music venue. It was College Country Night, a regular event attended by students from multiple nearby schools.
When Long walked in at 11:18 p.m., the former U.S. Marine was armed with a handgun, about 190 rounds of ammunition, a knife and 10 smoke bombs.
“Within minutes, he had killed or wounded numerous individuals as the rest of the approximately 260 patrons and employees scrambled to hide or escape,” the report states.
Most of the patrons were able to escape, but more than two dozen were unable to flee.
Throwing bombs that filled the venue with a thick smoke, Long found himself “methodically moving through the building, searching for and killing victims that he found.” He ultimately holed up in the front office, located in an area to the right of the front doors, where he could watch the live feed from the bar’s nine security cameras, located both inside and outside the building.
“While he was in the front office, Long posted to social media and frequently checked his phone,” the report states.
“I hope people call me insane,” he wrote in one Instagram post, BuzzFeed News reported. In another, he mused on his motive for the shooting.
“It’s too bad I won’t get to see all the illogical and pathetic reasons people will put in my mouth as to why I did it,” Long wrote, according to the report. “Fact is I had no reason to do it, and I just thought, (expletive) it, life is boring so why not?”
Meanwhile, Barrett and Espinoza were conducting a traffic stop on Moorpark Road, less than a quarter-mile from the Borderline, when the massacre began. Bar patrons running for their lives approached the highway patrol officers and informed them about the shooting.
“They’re shooting in there,” Espinoza recalled the patrons saying. She almost immediately afterward heard gunshots.
“I heard a couple people yelling and then, just, it was almost right away, you just heard, just, ‘Pop, pop, pop, pop, pop, pop,’ and it just kept going,” Espinoza said in her statement to investigators.
Espinoza sent the driver of the stopped vehicle away as Barrett got on the radio.
“Reports of shots fired at Borderline,’ Barrett told dispatchers. “Shots fired at Borderline.”
Read the investigative report from the Ventura County District Attorney’s Office below.
When they got to the parking lot of the bar, the officers spotted several people running and taking cover. Others were obviously injured.
The bar patrons told the officers that the gunman, who was dressed in black, had moved toward the back of the bar as they fled. Barrett and Espinoza used cars in the lot as cover, so they could observe the rear doors on the east side of the building.
They kept their weapons trained on the windows of the bar.
Helus soon responded to the scene, where the highway patrol officers briefed him about what was going on.
“OK, let’s go, let’s go,” Helus said, according to the report.
‘A kill zone’
As Helus, Barrett and Espinoza approached the front entrance of the bar, Long could see their every move. At the top of the stairs leading to the doors, Helus found one of Long’s victims, who was unresponsive, just inside the entrance to the bar.
According to Barrett’s statement, the victim found at the door was Sean Adler, who Time magazine reported was working security at Borderline.
After checking on Adler, Helus entered the front doors, unaware that Long was hiding nearby and watching their progress. Helus activated the light on his rifle and called out, “Sheriff’s Department,” the investigative report states.
The sergeant could see multiple victims by the light of his weapon.
“We got multiple people down,” Helus called over the radio. “We need a lot of ambulances, fire.”
As video from an outside surveillance camera shows, Helus was at the door at that point, Barrett was at the top of the stairs and Espinoza was two stairs behind her partner.
The sheriff’s deputy eased further inside, followed by Barrett.
About 23 seconds after the officers entered the building, Long went to the doorway of the office and, bracing his back against a wall, started firing at the officers. He was between seven and 14 feet from Helus when he started shooting.
“From what I remember, we — the sergeant and I — started shooting back as we’re trying to move away from the door, ‘cause there’s nowhere else to go,” Barrett told investigators. “It’s like a funnel. It’s a kill zone.”
Barrett, who was crouched and checking on a victim when the gunfire began, retreated to the bottom of the exterior stairway, turned and began firing back toward Long, according to the findings. When he began shooting, he believed that Helus had been behind him as he fled.
Helus had also begun retreating, but he fell after his feet got tangled in a rope used to cordon off an area for customers to line up and pay the bar’s cover charge.
“(Helus) low-crawled out the door and, as he began to stand, was struck by one of Officer Barrett’s shots fired at Long,” the report states.
The bullet struck him in the chest, piercing his heart.
Even after being mortally wounded, Helus continued fighting against the gunman, who had left the security of the front office and was leaning over the front counter, firing at the officers as they retreated outside.
Helus, after reaching an alcove outside the entrance, rolled onto his back and fired several shots at Long.
“Sgt. Helus was struck by five penetrating gunshots by Long and one penetrating gunshot by Officer Barrett,” according to the report.
Barrett told investigators he realized Helus was not with him after he took cover at the bottom of the steps and reloaded his rifle.
“I’m trying to catch my breath, breathe, reload. I hear my partner say my name and I look around and there’s no sergeant there,” Barrett said. “There are other brick walls in that area, but once I pointed my weapon back towards the door, I saw someone lying there. Once I changed magazines and pointed my weapon back towards the door, I saw someone laying out there on that landing that wasn’t there before.”
He realized the second person on the ground was Helus.
“Officer down! Officer down, 11-99,” Barrett called over the radio.
Barrett made his way to where Espinoza had taken cover and they retreated behind a patrol vehicle.
Long, meanwhile, continued posting on social media and checking his phone. About 15 minutes after the shootout with the officers, he sat down on the floor, put the barrel of his handgun under his chin and shot himself, the report states.
Helus was rescued from the front entryway of the bar by backup officers about five minutes later. The sergeant was pronounced dead at a hospital.
Officers entered the bar a second time about 27 minutes after Helus was rescued, at which point they found Long dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, authorities said.
A total of 19 survivors were rescued from inside the building. Ten victims’ bodies were recovered from inside and the 11th victim was found outside the bar.
‘A testament to his … character’
During the approximately 20 minutes of the rampage, Long fired 61 rounds, investigators found.
The gunman, who as a Marine had been deployed to Afghanistan, lived with his mother at the time of the massacre. According to prosecutors, he had been a student at California State University at Northridge after his honorable discharge from military service.
He lived with roommates until a motorcycle crash in which he suffered a collapsed lung.
“According to his mother, his helmet had been cracked but there was no evidence of brain injury or head trauma,” the investigative report states. “She shared that Long’s life began to ‘unravel’ after the accident.”
He underwent physical and mental health treatment in 2015 and 2016, at which point he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, adjustment disorder with mixed anxiety and depressed mood, combat and military operational stress reaction, and chronic pain.
Long had no prior criminal history but had been the subject of a 2018 welfare check after a neighbor expressed concern for his well-being, according to the report. The crisis team that evaluated him found he did not meet the criteria for involuntary hospitalization.
At the time of the shooting, Long and his mother were at odds over him moving out of her home.
On Nov. 1, six days before the Borderline shooting, he sent her an ominous text.
“My plan fell through yesterday. I need another week,” he wrote. “By next Saturday morning I will be out of here forever.”
He left a two-word note behind when he left for the bar that fateful night: “No funeral.”
Ventura County prosecutors lauded the response of Helus, Barrett and Espinoza, who had witnessed “terrified patrons,” heard multiple gunshots and continued to move toward the danger.
“In an extraordinary act of heroism due to the active threat Long posed, Sgt. Helus and Officer Barrett entered the Borderline without knowledge of where Long was located, which afforded Long a substantial tactical advantage,” the report states.
The investigators found that the evidence suggested that Barrett’s fatal shot either inadvertently struck Helus as he rose into the highway patrol officer’s line of fire at Long, Barrett mistook Helus’s “suddenly rising figure” as Long in the office window — or a combination of the two.
“As tragic as the outcome was, the shooting is justifiable under any of these scenarios because Officer Barrett’s intent was to shoot the suspected killer who was actively shooting at him,” prosecutors wrote.
They praised Helus, who continued to act even after being shot and falling facedown on the landing of the bar’s entrance. After rolling over onto his back, he fired a total of eight shots at Long through the office window.
“It is a testament to his training, character, and valor that even though he had been shot in the heart, he found the strength and determination to continue to protect others and fight to the end,” the report states.