LOS ANGELES — Hundreds of California police officers were hunting Thursday for a gunman suspected of opening fire at a police station, hitting a deputy in the head and killing a transient with a bullet to the back of his head.
Authorities described being a step behind the suspect, 26-year-old Mason James Lira, since he opened fire at the downtown Paso Robles Police Department before dawn Wednesday in an ambush. Officials later discovered the body of the transient, who had been shot in the back of the head at close range.
“It’s a wide-ranging, full-on, full-scale effort,” said Tony Cipolla, spokesman for the San Luis Obispo County sheriff. “We’re right behind him. You can’t run forever.”
The search intensified late Wednesday night into dawn Thursday in and around Paso Robles, a bustling tourist destination and centerpiece of the wine industry in California’s central coast region. Police closed parts of a freeway and used flash-bangs during a search of apartments.
A Chevron gas station clerk reported seeing Lira around 2 a.m. when he came into the convenience store to buy an energy drink, KSBY reported.
The clerk described Lira as being sweaty, exhausted and mumbling to himself, according to KSBY.
Lira “seemed crazy” but did not do anything threatening, said the clerk, who recognized Lira and called 911 after Lira left.
Officers and sheriff’s deputies from agencies throughout the region — including the FBI, detectives and SWAT team members — worked through the night in two-person units to search the area for the man they’re calling armed and dangerous.
Authorities have not determined the motive for the attack. But Lira, a transient from the Monterey area, was arrested previously for making terrorist threats, said Cipolla, who could not immediately provide more information about that case.
The events started unfolding shortly after 4 a.m. Wednesday, when Lira allegedly fired at police cars as they entered downtown Paso Robles, authorities have said.
Two sheriff’s deputies who arrived to search the area heard gunshots but didn’t see the attacker until they were outside of their patrol car with shots being fired at them. One was hit in the head. His partner returned fire and dragged the deputy to cover behind a police car.
“We feel that this was an ambush, that he planned it, that he intended for officers to come out of the Police Department and to assault them,” said San Luis Obispo County Sheriff Ian Parkinson.
The deputy was hospitalized with a bullet lodged in his head and in serious condition, Parkinson said.
“He’s not out of the woods,” Parkinson said of the wounded officer, who was not identified. “It’s a very dangerous time.”
Shots were fired at five downtown locations, and some buildings were hit, including a Department of Motor Vehicles office, Parkinson said. However, they were not targeted, he added. Surveillance camera photos from a downtown hotel and a bar were released of the suspect, showing a young man in a long-sleeved shirt.
While officers searched for Lira, business owners reported seeing a body near the train station and officers found the body of a 58-year-old man on the tracks.
He appeared to be a transient who was camping out overnight, Paso Robles Police Chief Ty Lewis said. It wasn’t immediately clear whether he was shot before or after the attack on the police station, authorities said.
Lewis urged family or friends of the gunman to convince him to surrender.
“There’s no need for further bloodshed. There’s no need for further violence in our community,” Lewis said.
The attacks came just five days after another unlikely California crime location, the community of Ben Lomond in Santa Cruz County farther north, was the scene of an ambush on police.
Santa Cruz sheriff’s Sgt. Damon Gutzwiller, 38, was killed and another deputy was injured Saturday in an attack allegedly carried out by an Air Force sergeant armed with homemade bombs, an AR-15 rifle and other weapons. Santa Cruz County Sheriff Jim Hart said the suspect, Steven Carrillo, was intent on killing officers.
Carrillo, 32, was arrested and the FBI is investigating whether he has links to the killing of a federal security officer who was shot outside the U.S. courthouse in Oakland during a protest against police brutality on May 29. The FBI also is assisting in the shooting of the deputy in San Luis Obispo County.
Parkinson said were no events in the Paso Robles area or imminent arrests by authorities that could have triggered the violence. He also said investigators didn’t know if the attack was connected to anger swelling nationwide at police over the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis officers. He called Floyd’s death unjust and horrific.
“You see what’s happening nationally, you see the riots, you see the looting, you see the acts of violence occurring … there’s naturally fear as a result of that,” he said. “So trying to calm the community has been our goal.”