UPDATED: SLO Sheriff responds to ambush shooter, posits protests as possible motive

By Joe Payne

Less than 24 hours after an unnamed gunman ambushed a SLO County Sheriff’s Office deputy and Paso Robles Police Department officers in the early morning of June 10, SLO County Sheriff Ian Parkinson led a press conference about the incident, mentioning nationwide protests against police brutality as a possible motive, despite an admitted lack of hard evidence.

The Sheriff’s Office released a photo of the suspect, a Hispanic male with curly hair and a beard, but other than the his appearance, nothing else is known. The agency has asked for the public’s help in identifying the shooter who struck a Sheriff’s deputy in the chin during the ambush at the Paso Robles Police Department, and sometime later is believed to have shot a transient point-blank in the head nearby while fleeing the scene. The deputy is in critical care according to Parkinson; the transient was killed.

Despite the lack of information, Sheriff Parkinson attempted to link the ambush to the ongoing protests and unrest nationwide after the killing of George Floyd by officer Derick Chauvin in Minneapolis, Minn., but tepidly so.

“Once he’s in custody maybe we’ll know the answer to that,” Parkinson said, “other than it’s kind of been the general theme floating around the nation right now, this rise up anti-law enforcement coalition it seems.”

“All we can surmise at this point is that this was an unprovoked attack on officers simply doing their job in the community.”

The San Luis Obispo Sheriff’s Office released this image of the suspected shooter on June 10. He is yet to be identified.

Law enforcement agencies across the United States have reacted in myriad ways since the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, from meeting peaceful protesters with tear gas and batons to police chiefs taking a knee in solidarity with activists and George Floyd. The situation has been complicated by the Trump Administration’s insistence that “far-left extremists” and “ANTIFA” are to blame for civil unrest and rioting nationwide despite no evidence to prove so. But even more complicated is how law enforcement officials process and react to the few cases of targeted attacks on officers in the days following May 25, and whether or not there is a connection to the violence and the mass movement calling for reforms to policing in the country.

After a contracted Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officer named Dave Patrick Underwood was killed in Oakland, Calif., in an ambush-style attack from a moving vehicle on May 29, DHS officials said it was an act of “domestic terrorism.” On June 6, a team of Santa Cruz Sheriff’s deputies were met with bullets and explosive devices while trying to apprehend Air Force Sgt. Steven Carrillo, who allegedly killed Sgt. Damon Gutzwiller in the firefight before being shot by a citizen and apprehended by police. The FBI is now looking at whether the Oakland incident was the work of Carrillo as well.

Carrillo did voice anti-police sentiment as he was taken into custody. An ABC7 News report caught him on camera shouting, “This is what I came here to fight. I’m sick of these goddamn police!” According to the same report, Carrillo was an active duty military police officer in the 60th Security Forces Squadron of Travis Air Force Base. His personal Facebook page listed his political affiliation as Libertarian.

Before the attack in Santa Cruz, Carrillo voiced anger at the police response towards peaceful protestors, including writing “RIP Sarah Grossman.” Grossman is believed to have died after tear gas exposure at a protest in Columbus, Ohio exacerbated her asthma, though an official autopsy hasn’t been completed to confirm.

Air Force Sgt. Steven Carrillo is alleged to have killed Santa Cruz Sheriff’s deputy Sgt. Damon Gutzwiller and injured other officers in a shootout in rural Santa Cruz.

The limited information about Carrillo doesn’t simplify matters. How does a military law enforcement officer turn against domestic law enforcement? Some friends interviewed by media supposed that his libertarian views may have dipped into more extremist attitudes after the suicide of his wife, also an Air Force veteran, who died in May 2018 while stationed in South Carolina. Other accounts say he is “narcissistic” with “dead eyes” and was abusive towards his late wife.

Though Carrillo did post memes on social media that could be described as anti-fascist, that doesn’t necessarily denote affiliation with ANTIFA, which is best described as a loose label for a variety of radical left-wingers who believe in using street violence in response to the rise of the alt-right. Carrillo was definitely aware of ANTIFA, but only brought it up directly in connection to President Donald Trump and Attorney General Bill Barr’s attempts to blame it for unrest across the U.S.

“Who need antifa to start riots when you have the police to do it for you…” Carrillo posted on June 5.

How law enforcement agencies respond to Black Lives Matter protests has ignited nearly as much debate as the killing of George Floyd nationwide. While some agencies, especially in larger cities, have responded with violent force to discourage and end protests, especially as curfews were imposed due to unrest and looting, other departments have approached the situation in a more collaborative and holistic way.

The Santa Maria Police Department (SMPD)—in north Santa Barbara County, which neighbors San Luis Obispo County—employed a more hands-off approach to a protest on Sunday, May 31, that devolved hours later into unrest at one intersection downtown. Only when police appeared to disburse those who set a fire in the intersection and were doing burnouts and wheelies with cars and motorbikes did a very brief instance of looting happen at the Santa Maria Town Center mall. I previously argued on this site that the SMPD’s response was warranted, and Sgt. Paul Flores helped explain to me the department’s approach.

“Santa Maria is Santa Maria; each area has its own personality,” Flores said. “The people who are out there protesting are out there protesting, and the only thing we had out there … it was obviously the people who decided to commit criminal acts afterward that were the issue.”

A vigil and protest march organized by the local NAACP branch happened on Thursday, June 4, in Santa Maria as well. The event ended without any property damage or unrest, Sgt. Flores said. SMPD officers also helped direct traffic as protesters marched on the sidewalks and through the intersections along Broadway and Main Street.

“We were there just to facilitate and make sure no one was getting hurt by traffic,” Flores said. “Honestly, we pretty much handled it like we would a parade. It was kind of the same, blocking traffic and redirecting if we need to.”

Whether the shooter in Paso Robles on June 10 is motivated by anti-police sentiment remains to be seen. A state-wide manhunt is underway in California to apprehend the suspect. But for Sheriff’s like SLO County’s Parkinson, they can’t help but draw a line between the mass movement and unrest gripping America with attacks on officers like the ambush on his deputy and Paso Robles police on June 10.

During the press conference, Parkinson said the killing of George Floyd was “horrific” and “unjust,” but added that “it occurred in Minnesota, it did not occur locally.” He also said that the attitude and signs from protesters in SLO County took a toll on law enforcement tasked with safeguarding the protest.

“You see what’s happening nationally, and you see the riots, you see looting and acts of violence occurring—not just towards officers but other people—so there’s naturally fear as a result from that,” Parkinson said. “Trying to calm the community has been our goal, and I think our law enforcement officers in our county have been absolutely amazing… and there’s no reason for them to be treated that way.”

After an attack like the one that just occurred, the feelings that officers had about the protests and what they feel now can mix together, understandably. Whether that will translate to a different attitude from law enforcement towards future Black Lives Matter protests locally remains to be seen—just like the shooters true motivations.

“Keep in mind this was a direct attack on law enforcement,” Parkinson said. “We hope that they won’t turn it into an attack on what they believed caused this, but it’s hard to ignore that.”

UPDATE: Suspect identified, appears to be mentally disturbed

In the late evening hours of June 10, the same day the shooting occurred and SLO County Sheriff Ian Parkinson speculated that there may be some connection between the attack on one of his deputies and the widespread protests to address police brutality nationwide, the suspected shooter has been identified as a transient and the Paso Robles Police were still searching for the suspect after reports of more shots fired downtown.

With just the release of his name, Mason James Lira, it became clear to the casual observer and activists concerned with the shooting being linked to the Black Lives Matter movement that Lira was mentally disturbed.

A news report from 2019 online names Lira as responsible for the delay of an Amtrak train headed for Seattle, Wash. from Los Angeles for “unusual gestures, statements about weapons, and threats to passengers and the conductor.” A self-published ebook on Amazon.com under Lira’s name is filled with rambling poetry that references ancient Egyptians, werewolves, and elves. And Lira’s personal Facebook page is filled with incoherent posts, with numerous made on single days, that paint the picture of an individual struggling with their mental health.

Two consecutive posts from Aug. 14, 2018, show that at the time Lira had some kind of awareness of his tumultuous mental state.

“Im not really mad because I dont know whats going on,” he wrote. “Im supposed to go insane. But Im loving this, its magic.”

According to the SLO County Sheriff’s Office update, Lira is a transient from the Monterey area, though other online sources say he’s from Fresno.

In the Facebook group SLO County Protest Watch, which began after a local business-owner in Arroyo Grande and others were seen on the roofs of businesses with rifles during a Black Lives Matter protest there, members shared information they found about the shooter and voiced their concern and frustration with Sheriff Parkinson for his comments earlier in the day.

“Check the suspect’s FB page and he was selling 4 books on Amazon,” one person wrote. “Seemed obsessed with death and law enforcement since 2018 or earlier. His actions have nothing to do with recent protests.”

“The sheriff needs to (be) held accountable for how he handled that,” another poster said. “That was unacceptable.”

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Published by Joe Payne

Joe Payne is a lifelong resident of the Santa Maria Valley who teaches music, performs, and tunes pianos (pianopayne.com). He's also a seasoned journalist who shares his own reporting and opinion on matters local and national (politicalpayne.com).

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