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CHP Officer Fatally Shot in Drive-By After Testifying in Traffic Cases

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April 21, 2004

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CHP Officer Fatally Shot in Drive-By After Testifying in Traffic Cases

Officer Down: Thomas Steiner - [Pomona, California]

By Andrew Blankstein, David Pierson and Monte Morin, The Los Angeles Times

A drive-by gunman shot and killed a California Highway Patrol officer in front of a Pomona courthouse Wednesday, moments after the officer had testified in a series of minor traffic cases, authorities said.

The officer, Thomas Steiner, 35, was struck repeatedly in the attack and suffered one gunshot wound to the head, authorities said. The five-year CHP veteran died at Pomona Valley Hospital Medical Center.

"I'm very, very saddened, but I'm mad," said D.O. "Spike" Helmick, CHP commissioner. "It made absolutely no sense. We'll keep on going through the night and catch the guy and give comfort to the victim's family. That's all we can do."

Steiner, a 1999 police academy graduate and the father of two, worked out of the CHP's Santa Fe Springs station. Steiner's wife was among those who held vigil at the hospital Wednesday evening, and his mother was flown in by helicopter from her home in Orange County.

The CHP and the Pomona Police Department launched a manhunt for the killer, who was believed to have used a stolen car. A vehicle fitting the description of the car was found near the Los Angeles County Superior Court in Pomona, in a truck yard.

Steiner, in uniform, was shot about 2:50 p.m. as he walked to his patrol car. He was 200 feet from the courthouse steps and was preparing to cross 7th Street to a parking lot when a red car rolled to a stop nearby, witnesses said.

A man with a shaved head stepped out from behind the wheel, raised a handgun and fired four shots, striking Steiner three times. The gunman stepped back into the car and sped away, witnesses told police.

CHP Assistant Chief Art Acevedo said Steiner had testified in five traffic citations in Division One of the former municipal courthouse.

The motive for the shooting was a mystery, authorities said. "We don't know if there's a connection to the testimony," Acevedo said.

The gunfire caused confusion at the Civic Center complex, which includes two courthouses and the Pomona Police Department. Some courtrooms were locked. Others said they did not realize anything had happened.

"People did hear shots, but they didn't think anything about it," said a prosecutor, who asked not to be identified.

"You just don't think about things like that happening so close to home.... People are still trying to figure out what happened."

Acevedo knew the slain officer personally and said that he had been a well-respected lawman, an expert marksman and a loyal sports fan.

Steiner lived in Long Beach and was wearing the dark blue jumpsuit of a CHP special detail officer. He enforced transportation laws, and his duty vehicle was a white Camaro, said CHP Assistant Chief Chris Madigan.

Officials said Steiner had a 3-year-old son and a 13-year-old stepson.

Police appealed to the public for help Wednesday. Anyone with tips was asked to call (800) 835-5247 -- Tell CHP -- or the Pomona police at (909) 620-2156.

Authorities said they were searching for a red, 1987 four-door Nissan with the California license plate 2HFW777. The vehicle has been reported stolen and may have been involved in the shooting, authorities said.

Outside the courthouse Wednesday night, dozens of officers picked over the parking lot for clues. Steiner's jumpsuit and shirt were in bloody tatters lying on the entrance to the driveway, his badge and name tag in view.

Helmick said Wednesday's shooting comes at a time when police agencies throughout the state have seen officers killed or injured by gunmen. "Every year, we have officers killed. In the last week and a half, we've had four officers -- in Watsonville, San Francisco and Merced -- shot at point-blank range ... It's very, very disheartening. These young people that have their whole lives ahead of them."

Times staff writers Richard Winton and Jean Guccione contributed to this report.

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