Gunfire from Helicopter Helps Stop I-215 Pursuit (San Bernadino, California)
A deputy peers inside a Chevy Tahoe that was driven by a robbery suspect who died after being shot at from a sheriff's helicopter shortly before a wrong-way head on wreck on I-215 in San Bernardino Sept. 18, 2015.

Gunfire from Helicopter Helps Stop I-215 Pursuit (San Bernardino, California)

A gunshot from a sheriff’s helicopter and a subsequent head-on traffic collision left a home invasion suspect dead and three motorists hospitalized in San Bernardino, where the incident closed a major freeway shortly before the evening commute.

That gunfire made the incident highly unusual. Law enforcement officers rarely open fire from helicopters in the United States, say experts, some of whom can recall it happening only once or twice in more than 30 years.

The drama began when deputies tried to arrest the holdup suspect during the lunch hour Friday in Fontana.

The fleeing suspect sped through Fontana and San Bernardino at speeds topping 100 mph and ended up traveling the wrong way in the northbound lanes of I-215, said Deputy Olivia Bozek.

After the suspect began traveling in oncoming lanes, deputies turned over the chase to a sheriff’s helicopter crew, she said.

At some point, Bozek said, at least one shot was fired at the suspect from the helicopter.

Friday’s incident ended with the head-on collision near the Little League Drive freeway overpass in northwest San Bernardino. Involved in the crash were the suspect’s gray Chevy Tahoe and a blue Dodge Durango containing three people who had to be hospitalized.

The suspect managed to get out of the Tahoe and walked or staggered a short distance before collapsing and dying on the right shoulder of the freeway. A yellow tarpaulin was draped over his handcuffed body.

The incident closed all northbound lanes about 1 p.m. at Palm Avenue. About 4:30 p.m., northbound traffic was backed up for 5 miles past I-210. Lanes reopened about 7:30 a.m. this morning.

The closure created havoc for evening commuters and for vacationers planning on an early getaway toward Las Vegas and the Colorado River resorts.

As investigators continued their work at the San Bernardino crash scene, many details of the pursuit and fatal shooting hadn’t been released. Among the unanswered questions: What sheriff’s policy, if any, applies to shooting from a helicopter? Exactly what circumstances prompted the gunfire? Who makes the decision on whether to shoot?

“It’s unusual,” retired Redlands Police Chief Jim Bueermann said of the aerial gunfire. “Not unheard of, but unusual.”

Bueermann is president of the Police Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based organization dedicated to improving policing through innovation and science.

He has heard of only one or two such incidents, he said, and could vaguely recall only one that he thought dated back to the 1970s or early 1980s.

More recently, a Texas Department of Public Safety sharpshooter in a helicopter killed two Guatemalan immigrants in October 2012 as he tried to disable a fleeing smuggler’s speeding pickup truck near the Rio Grande Valley town of La Joya.

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