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Fresno Deputy Killer dies in shootout

May 25, 2002

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Fresno Deputy Killer dies in shootout

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Killing suspect dies in shootout
Mark Volpa Jr. was wanted for questioning in deputy's death.
By Michael Baker
The Fresno Bee
(Published Sunday, May, 26, 2002 5:46AM)

BIG SANDY RANCHERIA -- SWAT officers Saturday shot and killed a man who they believe fatally wounded a Fresno County sheriff's deputy last week.
As 21-year-old Mark Charles Volpa Jr. bolted from his hideout spraying gunfire, officers returned fire and killed the man suspected of slaying Deputy Dennis Phelps, said Sheriff Richard Pierce.

"He came out the back of the camper shooting at the officers," Pierce said, holding up an AR-15 with a 20-round magazine. Volpa is suspected of taking an identical weapon from the slain deputy last Sunday night.

"As Mark Volpa came out of that camper, he was firing the same AR-15 that I believe they found laying next to him on the ground," the sheriff said. "It is indeed Mark Volpa who was shot and killed by officers."

SWAT teams from the Fresno Police Department, Fresno County Sheriff's Department and Clovis Police Department were at the shooting scene.

Saturday's deadly confrontation took place after officers received reports that Volpa was in the area. SWAT officers and snipers surrounded a truck camper set on blocks in a densely wooded rancheria neighborhood off Auberry Road near Mono Wind Casino.

Repeated attempts were made to coax Volpa out of the trailer before the hail of gunfire broke out.

Officers began surrounding the camper about 4 p.m. Shortly before 6:30 p.m., they moved in on the camper, located next to a large, red, single-story house in the Jose Basin area.

Two distraction explosions rang out around the trailer: flashes, loud bangs and plumes of smoke could be heard and seen from a nearby hillside. A negotiator on a bullhorn was heard pleading for Volpa to peacefully exit the camper.

"Come out, Mark, come out," a female voice urged. "Mark, come out of the camper. Come out with your hands above your head."

When Volpa did not leave the trailer, officers began firing tear gas at the structure. One of the gas grenades did not penetrate the trailer, but the next two did. Volpa remained inside.

Officers then rammed the camper with an armored vehicle and Volpa stormed out, police said. At least a dozen gunshots followed. At 6:55 p.m., radio transmissions confirmed Volpa had been hit. An ambulance was called, and a California Highway Patrol helicopter landed nearby for an emergency medical evacuation.

Volpa was pronounced dead before the helicopter could be used.

Pierce said a resident of the rancheria knew Volpa. The neighbor saw Volpa entering the camper Saturday afternoon. The sheriff added that it is possible that someone, perhaps a girlfriend, helped Volpa hide.

Volpa's death ended a search that began last Sunday night, when Phelps was fatally shot while checking a suspicious vehicle at Shepherd Avenue near Locan Avenue, just north of Clovis.

The suspect took Phelps' patrol car, which was seen about 12:30 a.m. Monday by another deputy on Highway 168 near Millerton Road. The deputy gave chase but was forced to break it off when shots fired from the fleeing patrol car struck the deputy's vehicle.

On Tuesday, just when Pierce was ready to scale back the search, shots were fired at deputies on the ground, and a sheriff's helicopter was hit by a bullet that was found lodged in a rotor blade.

Pierce confirmed Saturday that .223-caliber shell casings found nearby indicated the same gun Volpa fired at officers Saturday probably was used to shoot at the aircraft.

Wednesday afternoon, Pierce requested help from other law enforcement agencies from throughout the central San Joaquin Valley. On Thursday, 10 SWAT teams from several agencies gathered at Pineridge Ranger Station in Prather and set out at sunrise in one of the largest law-enforcement operations in Fresno County history.

For more than eight hours, 140 SWAT officers combed the steep and rugged terrain but did not find the suspect. At the end of the day, Pierce said he was satisfied that Volpa was "no longer where he had been." Pierce released all the other law enforcement agencies from the search.

Pierce said Saturday night that his announcement Thursday was a tactical move to attempt to lure Volpa out of hiding.

Saturday's search began at 10 a.m. at Highway 168 and Sample Road, when a sighting of a man believed to have been Volpa was reported. Deputies said the man was believed to be hiding under a bridge on the south side of the highway.

Deputies set up a wide perimeter and blocked all roads leading into the area, including the highway several miles above and below Sample Road.

The Fresno County sheriff's SWAT team was brought in, as were the department's helicopter and K-9 units.

As the day wore on, SWAT teams from the Fresno and Clovis police departments, the Tulare County Sheriff's Department and a joint team from the Madera County Sheriff's Department and the Madera Police Department were put into action.

CHP officers also were deployed and the CHP's helicopter was used to transport officers to different locations.

Hundreds of motorists heading up to the foothills on Highway 168 on the holiday weekend were forced to make a detour. Many of the motorists were hauling boats and said they were trying to get to Shaver Lake.

Highway 168 was not reopened until 8:30 p.m.

During Saturday night's news conference, Pierce held up Phelps' badge and said:

"Since he was killed, I had Denny's badge in my pocket. I was going to keep it in my pocket until we caught the suspect. Now it's going back to his wife."

The reporters can be reached at mbaker@fresnobee.com,

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