By Larissa Van Beurden-Doust and Cynthia Neff The Tribune
A 16-year veteran of the Grover Beach Police Department died in an apparent suicide Thursday.
Lt. Brian Thomas, the third longest serving employee at the department, was found dead at the Best Value Inn on East Main Street in Santa Maria.
He had been placed on administrative leave for a "family issue" Monday and was under investigation by the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff's Department for an undisclosed reason.
Grover Beach police Chief Jim Copsey said Santa Maria police confirmed that Thomas died of a self- inflicted gunshot wound. Copsey did not give a specific time of death but said it likely happened sometime during the night or early-morning hours.
Lt. Kendall Greene, a spokesman for the Santa Maria Police Department, said someone at the hotel called police shortly before noon Thursday.
An employee at the inn declined to comment but confirmed that Thomas had checked into the hotel. The employee declined to say when he had arrived.
Greene said Thomas was alone when he died.
Thomas had been on paid administrative leave from the department since Monday, Copsey said.
He refused to talk about the reasons in detail because it's a personnel matter.
"They were family issues that had nothing to do with the Police Department or the community," Copsey said. "It had absolutely nothing to do with police issues."
Sgt. Brian Hascall of the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff's Department confirmed Thursday that his department has an investigation into Thomas in progress. He declined to give any more specifics, saying the investigation will continue despite Thomas' death.
Worked his way up Copsey said that he was devastated by the news of Thomas' death.
"The community is going to miss Brian," Copsey said. "Brian has been instrumental in so many things in this agency and this community."
He said Thomas seemed fine when he talked to him several times this week.
Public records show that Thomas, 42, lived in Nipomo.
Thomas' teenage son answered the phone Thursday afternoon and said his father had "passed away." Sheriff's Department Sgt. Aaron Nix, who was at the family's home, then came to the phone and said the family declined to comment further.
Thomas had a wife and four children, ranging in age from 7 to 19, Copsey said.
Thomas started at the department in 1990 as an officer, Copsey said. He was promoted through the ranks, working as a detective along the way. He was instrumental in solving at least two homicides.
The most significant one may have been the case of Anthony Fiorella in 1998.
Fiorella, who was 20 at the time, shot to death 16-year-old Garrett Hunter of Pismo Beach outside the Boston Market restaurant on Grand Avenue in Grover Beach.
After a 27-day manhunt, Fiorella was found in San Felipe, Mexico. Thomas drove Fiorella back to San Luis Obispo County.
Department go-to guy Aside from outstanding police work, Copsey said Thomas was involved with the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Masons, DARE and the Toys for Tots program.
Most recently, Thomas was in charge of patrol operations at the department, Copsey said.
Thomas was considered the go-to guy in the Grover Beach department, Copsey said.
"Brian seemed to always have the right answer," Copsey said.
When Copsey became chief a year ago, Thomas helped him with information about the county, local history and happenings in the community, the chief said.
With 19 sworn officers and 10 other employees, the Grover Beach Police Department is small and tight-knit, Copsey said.
He said nobody could believe the news Thursday.
"It's going to be extremely difficult for somebody to come in and fill Brian's shoes," Copsey said. "The wealth of knowledge he provided in this organization is going to be very difficult to replace."