LOS ANGELES – A man recently released from jail in Central California was shot and killed at the end of a 36-hour hunt that followed the shooting of a sheriff's deputy and other attacks that wounded three other law enforcement officers.
Mason James Lira, 26, was killed Thursday afternoon after he emerged from a brushy riverbed in Paso Robles where he'd hidden all night, climbed a steep hillside and ran toward a vineyard, authorities said.
He had two stolen handguns and investigators found a box of ammunition, Paso Robles Police Chief Ty Lewis said.
He clearly had been planning to attack police, possibly for days, the chief said.
The specific motive for the attacks was under investigation but one thing was clear, San Luis Obispo County Sheriff Ian Parkinson said: “He did want to shoot law enforcement.”
Lira’s father told The Associated Press he thinks the shooting at the police station might have been a suicide attempt.
Jose Lira said his son had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, Asperger’s syndrome and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. He said his son has been in and out of jail and treatment centers, didn’t take his medication and often thinks he is a special agent or a soldier.
“He lives in a fantasy world,” Jose Lira said. “He doesn’t have a beef with the police.”
The series of attacks began before dawn Wednesday when a gunman opened fire on the police station in Paso Robles, a wine and tourist town with little crime.
County sheriff's Deputy Nicholas Dreyfus, 28, was hit in the face when he and his partner answered a call for aid. Dreyfus underwent surgery Thursday and was in guarded condition.
The attack followed the close-range shooting of a 58-year-old homeless man who was found on some railroad tracks nearby and evidence at the scene linked both shootings to the handguns found in Lira's possession, Paso Robles Police Chief Ty Lewis said.
“I know that the community has felt a lot of angst and a lot of fear," he said. “And I’m glad that this is finally over.”
Lira had been released from a jail in the Monterey area on June 3 after being arrested on suspicion of making criminal threats and resisting arrest, Parkinson said.
He may have been in the Paso Robles area for a week, and was seen at some local businesses, the police chief said.
He is believed to have stolen the handguns in a commercial burglary in San Luis Obispo the day before the police station attack, authorities said.
He also may have visited a large crawlspace under a downtown movie theater that was accessed by a storm drain and may have been the site of a transient camp, Lewis said.
Ammunition was found there and Lira may have intended to retrieve some of it for more attacks on police, authorities said.
“I think ... he intended to continue,” Parkinson said.
Over the course of the search, Lira opened fire from ambush several times and managed to evade hundreds of law enforcement officers, authorities said.
“Every time that law enforcement got near to him, he engaged them in gunfire,” Lewis said.
The search began after the police station attack. Wednesday night, he was spotted again. He hid in an apartment building, fired at officers at a gas station but managed to escape into the riverbed, authorities said.
Overnight, police, San Luis Obispo County sheriff’s deputies, an FBI SWAT team and other law enforcement surrounded an area of the riverbed where Lira was believed to be hiding. They believed they had contained him and planned to begin a systematic search Thursday, Parkinson said.
“We knew we had to search a very large area with a very dangerous person” and authorities didn’t want him escaping into nearby neighborhoods, he said.
But shortly after 2 p.m., Lira came out of hiding and fired at surrounding officers. An Arroyo Grande police sergeant took a bullet through his calf, Parkinson said.
Two hours later, he emerged again, crawled up an embankment and up a short but steep hill and began to run to a neighboring vineyard, the sheriff said.
He was shot. During the shooting, Parkinson said a California Highway Patrol officer took a bullet to his protective vest and a Kings County sheriff’s deputy who got out of an armored vehicle to rescue him was shot above the knee, Parkinson said.
All three wounded officers were expected to recover, he said.
Along with the handguns, a box of ammunition was found, Parkinson said.
Authorities had urged family or friends of the suspect to convince him to surrender and avoid further bloodshed.
The sheriff said that Lira shot at officers from a distance so they never were able to talk to him to deescalate the situation.
“This was not by any means a happy ending,” Parkinson said. “This was not a win. This was an end to something we wish had never happened. The only fortunate thing about it is the community is safe tonight.”