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Helicopter hit during search for killer

May 21, 2002

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Helicopter hit during search for killer

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Sheriff's copter hit
Gunfire strikes rotor blade during foothill search for deputy's suspected killer.
By Jennifer M. Fitzenberger, Jim Davis and Louis Galvan
The Fresno Bee
(Published Wednesday, May, 22, 2002 5:59AM)

The hunt for an alleged cop-killer intensified Tuesday when a bullet struck a sheriff's helicopter scouring the Fresno County foothills.
Mark Charles Volpa Jr., 21, was suspected of firing several shots at the helicopter as it circled the woods just south of Sierra High School in Tollhouse.

The search continued late Tuesday for Volpa, wanted in the Sunday night slaying of Fresno County sheriff's deputy Dennis Phelps. Officers concentrated on the area where the helicopter was hit but also said they were following leads in other parts of the county.

Relatives said Volpa is depressed and has attempted suicide three times in recent years. His mother, Anita Stroud, says she wants to try to talk Volpa into giving himself up.

"I'm sure he's grieving and he's starving and he's scared to death," Stroud said. "I'm sure he feels like a caged animal the way things are going. He's not capable of understanding what to do."

Police believe Volpa shot Phelps in the face during a traffic stop, then stole his squad car. After another deputy broke off a chase, officers found the stolen car off Highway 168 south of Prather.

Since then, more than 100 officers from at least eight agencies have participated in the manhunt.

For a second day, the Phelps family mourned privately inside their Clovis home, declining to talk about the tragedy.

"They're numb. They're stunned. They're hurt," said Tim McLain Rolen, senior pastor of New Hope Community Church in Clovis. "They love each other, and they're finding their strength in that love."

Officers who spent much of the day searching for Volpa returned to the Prather command center Tuesday night appearing tired and somewhat dejected.

They immediately tore into fast-food dinners and pizzas supplied by restaurants in the community.

"If we looked all day and all night, we probably couldn't hit everywhere he could hide," said Lester Esparza, a reserve Clovis police officer, referring to the steep and rugged terrain. "Every little noise or person could be the suspect, but if it's a lead, we are going to go on it."

One of those tips -- a report of gunfire -- took the sheriff's Eagle One helicopter near Black Mountain about 12:45 p.m. where a single bullet struck one of its five rotor blades.

The bullet lodged in the blade. Ballistics experts will examine it to determine whether it came from one of the guns Volpa is thought to be carrying.

Pilot Fred Baak, a Fresno County sheriff's deputy, was flying south about 60 mph on the west side of the mountain when he heard a "loud bang, as if we had gotten hit by a hammer."

The bang was followed almost immediately by a "hard jolt" that vibrated through the helicopter's control system.

Realizing his craft had been hit by gunfire, Baak swooped low to get out of the line of fire. He landed in a meadow west of the mountain where his observer, sheriff's Sgt. Joe Rascon, stayed to see whether he could locate the shooter and to help guide other officers to the area.

Baak flew the helicopter back to the command center at Pineridge Ranger Station. He said he got "shook up" when he saw the bullet hole. If the rotor blade had been severed, the helicopter would have crashed.

Baak said he guessed the shot came from a southern ridge of the mountain. He and Rascon saw no movement on the ground before the helicopter was shot.

Volpa's relatives said they want to join in the search but have been rebuffed by authorities. "I have begged them to let me go up there to get on the bullhorn or to do something," said Stroud, the mother.

Sheriff's Lt. Santos Tafoya said searchers would consider Stroud's request, "but we wouldn't want to place anyone in any danger. But we don't really know where he's at."

Stroud said deputies believe her son has a police radio -- another possible way to communicate with him.

Stroud still is holding out hope that her son is not the killer.

"Maybe Mark had been going to commit suicide, which he talked about, and the deputy attempted to stop him," she said.

Stroud said Volpa has a history of mental illness including manic depression that surfaced at an early age. Because of his illness, Volpa attended Fulton School in Fresno Unified, geared toward high school students who need mental health treatment.

Stroud said Volpa's first suicide attempt was five years ago when he overdosed on mental-illness medication. About three years ago, Volpa slashed his wrists at their Clovis home.

"When the paramedics arrived, he apologized for being a bother," Stroud said. "Does that sound to you like someone who would purposefully kill an officer?"

The most recent attempt happened just less than a month ago. Volpa -- who has been living with his grandmother, Ada Stroud -- went into his bedroom and didn't come out for three days.

Stroud broke through his bedroom window, took him to her house in northeast Clovis and watched him for a week. He told her that he had injected drugs straight into his head.

She said that he was hearing voices and was increasingly suicidal.

About two weeks ago, Volpa was admitted to the county's psychiatric assessment center.

"When they picked him up, he was banging his head on the wall saying he was going to kill himself and this time he would get it right," Stroud said.

Stroud said that she went to a hearing to plead that the county keep her son. But she said the hearing happened earlier than she had been told.

"He's not a hardened criminal," Stroud said. "He's not, as Sheriff Pierce called him, a cold-blooded killer. He's a scared little boy. He's 120 pounds. He's 5-foot-7. He's never been a threat to anybody his whole life."

She said that her son has been raised around guns and has gone target shooting and hunting, although he quit shooting animals and instead took a camera on hunting trips.

Stroud gave her son two rifles -- a .30-.30 hunting rifle and .12-gauge shotgun -- when he was younger, before he showed signs of mental illness. She allowed him to keep the rifles because he enjoyed target shooting and was good at it.

"It was hard to find something that he could do that he could do well," she said. "Something that would give him some self-esteem."

She said deputies found both weapons in Volpa's room at his grandmother's house. Stroud said her son never has been in trouble with the law other than receiving a traffic ticket.

Rolen, the pastor, said he has prayed for Volpa and his family.

"I hope, if he is mentally ill or disturbed, that someone can reach out to him with the love of God to bring him some peace," said Rolen, also a Clovis police chaplain.

Rolen has consoled the Phelpses since learning of the deputy's death.

On Tuesday, Rolen recalled one of the first things he said to Dana Phelps, the slain deputy's wife: "I wish I had some magic words that would make this better, but I don't."

Her family saw to it that Dana Phelps got some rest Monday afternoon. Monday evening, relatives gathered in the family room to talk and remember their loved one, Rolen said.

Phelps also is survived by his children, Nicole and Kenny, and his parents, Brice and Mary Phelps of Clovis.

Phelps, who graduated from McLane High School, began his career in the early 1980s with the Kerman Police Department and as a sheriff's deputy assigned to the courts.

After pursuing other work, Phelps returned to the Sheriff's Department in 1999 as a reserve deputy, resuming his law-enforcement career so he could spend more time with his family.

Rolen said Phelps was warm, pleasant, even-tempered and always wore a smile. He was a likeable guy: "The kind you like to have in your neighborhood."

Rolen visited with Phelps about two months ago when someone slashed the tires on the pastor's son's bicycle. Phelps responded and took the report.

The pastor said Phelps' slaying left him stunned, "kind of like someone kicked me in the gut."

Rolen and his congregation offered the Phelpses food and help with chores and errands: "We want to help, but we don't want to be a hindrance. We want to encourage, but we don't want to be trite."

Rolen said Dana Phelps was grateful for the help and wanted to pray.

Also reaching out is the family of Erik Telen, the Fresno County sheriff's deputy killed in August while investigating a break-in at a rural home.

Sharon Telen, Erik Telen's mother, said that, through a chaplain, her family has offered to help the Phelpses.

"Our hearts are just broken for the Phelps family, and our concern is for them," Sharon Telen said between deep breaths.

News of Phelps' slaying rekindled grief for the Telen family. Sharon Telen and Shelley Telen, Erik Telen's wife, learned about the killing while watching the Monday morning news.

"It's something of a flashback for us," Sharon Telen said. "I know what they're feeling: They're totally in shock. It's like the world is going on around you, and you're not a part of it."

Sharon Telen doesn't know whether her son knew Phelps, but said it's likely that, had he survived, Erik Telen could have been the elder deputy's training officer.

Just before his death, Telen was promoted and was to become a training officer.

Phelps recently completed a 16-week training program and had been on solo street duty about a week.

The Christian faith, Sharon Telen said, links the families.

"We have the same hope that we'll see our loved ones again," she said. "We hope Dennis Phelps knew the Lord and is in heaven with Erik."

Staff writers Marc Benjamin and Michael Baker contributed to this report. The reporters can be reached at jfitzenberger@fresnobee.com, jmdavis@fresnobee.com, lgalvan@fresnobee.com or 441-6330.

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