By Thomas Watkins
LOS ANGELES — A school police officer who triggered a massive manhunt by saying he had been shot in his bulletproof vest was regarded as a pariah Friday by authorities who deemed the shooting a hoax.
"A lot of people were inconvenienced that day, particularly given the fact that we now find out it was based on a fabrication," Los Angeles police Chief Charlie Beck said. "I am extremely sorry about that."
The Jan. 19 incident had the hallmarks of a brazen attack on law enforcement, when Los Angeles Unified School District police Officer Jeff Stenroos claimed he had been shot by a man with a gray ponytail who had been breaking into cars.
Hundreds of officers were dispatched to scour cars and yards as part of a massive dragnet.
Turns out, police said, there never was a gunman.
Stenroos was arrested Thursday on suspicion of filing a false police report and released on $20,000 bail shortly before midnight. The allegation is a felony. A message left at a telephone listing for Jeff Stenroos was not immediately returned.
School district Superintendent Ramon Cortines said he had directed the school police chief and the district's lawyer to immediately relieve Stenroos of duty and begin the process of dismissing him.
It was unclear what actually happened to Stenroos. Police initially said he had been treated for bruising to his chest caused by a bullet striking his vest, but Beck backed away from that possibility.
"There's evidence there was a round expended," Beck said. "Where and when that happened is subject to speculation."
Beck said a shell casing from a 9-mm round was found near the scene, but Stenroos's service weapon was a .45-caliber handgun. The chief did not discuss the discrepancy.
A law enforcement official, who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak about the case, said Stenroos was mishandling a firearm when he was shot.
School police Chief Steven Zipperman said he was shocked and dismayed by the case. Paul Weber, president of the union representing Los Angeles Police Department officers, said he was disgusted to hear that Stenroos was suspected of filing a false report.
TV helicopters followed the motorcade the escorted the ambulance that carried Stenroos and showed him being wheeled into a hospital. A passerby who had found Stenroos on the ground was hailed as a hero after he used the officer's radio to call for help, and police marveled at how lucky Stenroos was to have been saved by his vest.
The manhunt cost an estimated $500,000, Beck said, and countless residents and workers were delayed for hours as they tried to move around the neighborhood.
Students were kept in classrooms without access to food or bathrooms, prompting anger and frustration from parents. Some students had to urinate in trash cans.
Police initially said Stenroos reported being shot in the chest by a man who appeared to be breaking into cars near a high school.
Beck, however, said investigators soon grew suspicious.
"My detectives are a very skeptical lot," Beck said. "There were some inconsistencies ... that emerged early on."
The City Council voted unanimously Friday to sue Stenroos to recover the cost of the manhunt.
Asked if there had been previous instances of police faking attacks, Beck referred to a 1984 case in which Officer Jimmy Pearson diffused a bomb-like device he'd found on a bus carrying the Turkish Olympic team.
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He later pleaded guilty to planting the device and staging his rescue in hopes of attracting praise from his supervisors.