Crime

How a domestic dispute turned fatal for a Tacoma police officer

Law enforcement officials comfort each other outside Tacoma General Hospital as they wait for the body of slain officer Reginald “Jake” Gutierrez to be released Wednesday night.
Law enforcement officials comfort each other outside Tacoma General Hospital as they wait for the body of slain officer Reginald “Jake” Gutierrez to be released Wednesday night. dperine@thenewstribune.com

Reginald “Jake” Gutierrez walked up the stairs of an East Side home Wednesday, talking to a man who’d locked his wife out of the house and refused to show his face.

The Tacoma police officer stepped onto the landing on the third floor and turned down a hallway. A barrage of bullets cut him down.

Guitierrez’s partner, who was waiting downstairs with the wife, immediately returned fire. The officer then rushed out of the house with the wife and called for backup.

“They thought he may be coming out willingly, but obviously he didn’t,” Police Chief Don Ramsdell said Thursday.

By the end of it all, both the officer and gunman would be dead.

Officials gave the following account of what happened:

Police believe the shooter was hiding in an upstairs room, likely with his 8-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter. A family member identified the gunman as Bruce Johnson II, 38.

Gutierrez lay crumpled on the landing. Fellow officers could not raise him on the radio.

As soon as the call went out that an officer was down, officers from throughout Pierce and King counties descended on the house in the 400 block of East 52nd Street.

Officers cordoned off several blocks and ordered residents to stay inside. A SWAT team quickly surrounded the home, trapping Johnson inside with several weapons.

At one point, 185 law enforcement officers were on scene; 114 of them were from Tacoma, which is about half of the commissioned personnel.

A team of officers managed to rush inside the house and carry out Gutierrez, who was rushed to Tacoma General Hospital and later pronounced dead.

Investigators are unsure how many times Gutierrez was shot or whether he was able to return fire.

As nearly 200 uniformed law enforcement officers stood at attention in the biting cold outside the hospital, police were negotiating with Johnson, who barricaded himself in a room upstairs.

Although police knew the children possibly were inside, they didn’t have confirmation. They kept talking with Johnson, who threw things out a window and periodically shot off guns at unknown targets.

It’s unclear what set off Johnson.

The incident started just before 4 p.m., when two animal control officers were called out near the family’s home to respond to an injured dog.

While loading two dogs into their van, the officers noticed Johnson’s wife was outside and visibly upset. Assuming the dogs belonged to her and she was upset about losing them, the officers led her to the van to show her the dogs.

The woman broke down crying. She told them her husband had taken her cellphone and locked her out of the house.

The animal control officers called dispatchers, who sent Gutierrez and his longtime partner to the house. The woman recounted her story to the officers but Johnson did not come to the door when they knocked.

Police then called the landlord, Kristi Croskey, and asked her to bring an extra set of keys to the home. Croskey said she called Johnson’s cellphone several times and it went straight to voicemail.

“He never has his phone off and it never goes straight to voicemail because he’s a barber, he always has his phone on,” she said Thursday.

She said the scene didn’t feel tense and police told her they didn’t plan to arrest Johnson, they just wanted to advise him against locking out his wife.

Croskey unlocked the front door and yelled to Johnson to let him know they were coming in.

The house is a split-level: visitors enter on a landing with stairs leading upstairs to the main level and downstairs to the basement.

When she got inside, Croskey noticed a chair and a piece of wood near the door, as if Johnson had been trying to barricade it.

Croskey was going to head upstairs, she said, but something told her to turn around and go back down. She headed for the basement.

As soon as she did, she heard Gutierrez come up the stairs and enter the house. He started walking up toward the main floor, identifying himself along the way and telling Johnson he just wanted to talk with him.

Immediately after that, gunfire. Three shots rang out at first, Croskey said.

After the initial three shots, three more rang out. And then, what sounded like gunfire from a rifle.

Ramsdell said he’s unsure how many shots were fired.

After Guitierrez’s partner called for help, police managed to get Croskey out of the house before a nearly 12-hour standoff unfolded. At various times throughout the night, police said, Johnson used his children as a shield.

Witnesses reported hearing flash-bang grenades thrown into the house. Occasional gunshots rang out in the beginning of the standoff. A King County sheriff’s helicopter circled overhead.

Residents came to the scene’s perimeter after hearing about Gutierrez’s death just to hug law enforcement officers, shake their hands and thank them for their service.

People began bringing flowers and lighted candles to police headquarters, where stricken officers held each other and grieved.

As Gutierrez’s body was taken to the Medical Examiner’s Office, citizens and officers stood shoulder to shoulder, lining the streets.

When the standoff on the East Side passed the nine-hour mark, police spokeswoman Loretta Cool warned that the incident might stretch into daylight hours.

The Tacoma police SWAT team swapped positions with a Pierce County sheriff’s team.

Members of the SWAT team were inside the home when they saw the 8-year-old boy near the front door. Ramsdell later said he did not believe Johnson was releasing the boy.

A SWAT member brought the child to safety. When Johnson moved past a window a sheriff’s deputy outside the house fired a single shot and hit Johnson.

“We were able to get in the house and get one of the kids away from him,” sheriff’s spokesman Ed Troyer said. “We had a SWAT member who had a clear shot. We fired one round, which struck him, and we were able to rescue the second kid.”

Both children were taken to a hospital to be evaluated but neither were hurt during the incident.

Johnson was pronounced dead inside the house.

In the morning, police began removing crime scene tape from the neighborhood, allowing residents to move around unencumbered.

Investigators worked Thursday to process the scene. FBI agents helped by going door-to-door to speak with neighbors.

Gutierrez’s partner, a 42-year-old woman who has been with the department since 2002, was placed on paid administrative leave, which is standard procedure after an officer fires his or her weapon.

The deputy who fatally shot Johnson was placed on paid administrative leave.

Neither has been identified.

Gutierrez remained at the Medical Examiner’s Office on Thursday with a team of two uniformed officers standing guard nearby to ensure their brother in blue was never alone.

Police have not made plans for a memorial service yet but planned to talk Friday with the officer’s extended family, many of whom were flying in from Nevada and Georgia.

Officers from eight agencies stuck around to help Tacoma officers respond to routine calls, including domestic dispute calls such as the one that led to the death of Officer Gutierrez.

“We’re doing the best we can to do the job we’re supposed to do,” police spokeswoman Loretta Cool said. “We’re all here together to help each other out.

“They’re here because they know the entire community is hurting and they want to help.”

Stacia Glenn: 253-597-8653

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