SANTA CLARITA, Calif. -- A former police officer with a criminal record and a penchant for firearms allegedly shot and killed a Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy during a wild shootout Friday, then apparently died in a fire that consumed his house and blackened the sky over a terrified Santa Clarita neighborhood, about 20 miles north of Los Angeles.
Authorities said James Allen Beck, 35, opened fire through his front door after federal agents and two sheriff's officials tried to serve a search warrant at his home in upscale Stevenson Ranch, where crime is rare and fountains gurgle on the front lawns of spacious, Spanish-tiled homes.
Beck allegedly started a siege that ultimately claimed the life of Sheriff's Deputy Jake Kuredjian, 40, a popular motorcycle officer who had responded to a call of shots fired.
The suspect and the authorities exchanged hundreds of rounds of gunfire-- some shattering windows and pocking the walls of nearby homes-- before officers blasted as many as 15 tear gas canisters into the Beck home. Fire erupted and quickly raged through the two-story building.
The gunfire ebbed as the roof collapsed and flames and black smoke boiled skyward. In minutes, as hoses trained towering arches of water over the home, it was reduced to a blackened pit of wet, steaming embers.
No other homes caught fire and there were no other injuries, officials said. A nearby elementary school was locked down and eventually evacuated, and the normally placid neighborhood took on a surreal quality, with ashes drifting lazily through the air and armored police assault vehicles roaming the empty streets.
Although there was no immediate indication that any remains had been found in the ruins of Beck's house, authorities said they presumed the suspect had died in the fire.
Although the use of tear gas has controversial associations with fires, including the one that killed about 80 members of the Branch Davidian religious cult near Waco, Texas, in 1993, a sheriff's spokesman said investigators did not think the canisters had ignited the fire.
"They believe that the fire was started by the suspect and wasn't started by tear gas," said Sheriff's Deputy Harry Drucker.
Officials with two federal agencies, however, said it was not clear how the fire started. "Historically there have been instances where tear gas started a fire," said Donald Kincaid, agent in charge of the Southern California division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
Even before the ashes of Beck's home had cooled, some law enforcement experts had begun questioning the tactics employed in the siege.
"The question I always have in these situations is: Why not nail these guys when they are out on the street?" said James Fyfe, a former New York City officer and now a professor at Temple University. "You are better off trying to ambush rather than invade. What can he do when five cops jump out and grab him?"
Kincaid, however, insisted that the officers had handled the situation properly. "I don't think anything went wrong except that you had some moron who had absolutely no respect for human life," he said. "That's what went wrong."
Like the Branch Davidian siege, the conflagration at Beck's house involved the BATF, which was executing a search warrant based on suspicions that Beck had a substantial amount of illegal firepower in the house. However, the investigation began with the marshal's service, which was looking into allegations that Beck had been impersonating a marshal.
Although most neighbors said they found nothing sinister about Beck-- "If my life depended on it, I couldn't pick him out of a crowd," one said-- others had become suspicious and one neighbor ultimately called the marshal's office.
"The neighbor was suspicious because he was telling everybody he was a deputy U.S. marshal," said William Woolsey, a supervisory deputy marshal. "He was very flagrant about the abundance of weapons he had in the house. The neighbor was suspicious that he never did anything or (went) to work so the neighbor called us and asked if we had anyone by that name."
Beck, who served briefly as an officer with the Arcadia Police Department, had multiple criminal convictions for crimes that included grand theft, receiving stolen property, burglary and illegal firearms' possession, according to court records.
He was fired by the Arcadia Police Department in August 1988, four months before he could complete his one-year probationary period. Arcadia Police Chief Dave Hinig said Beck was fired for failure to complete the probationary period, and for not meeting departmental standards.
"A lot of people going through the probationary process simply don't meet the performance standards or our expectations. That was clearly the case here, that's why we dismissed him," Hinig said. "It's kind of like a reporter who can't spell; they're clearly not suited for journalism. He was clearly not suited for our law enforcement venue."