By Bill Sessa / OPEC
A drug-addled arson suspect surrendered peacefully Thursday in Blythe and a man he had taken hostage was released safely with the help of the Crisis Response Team from Chuckawalla Valley State Prison, authorities said.
The suspect led police and fire officials on a crime spree that terrorized families in four apartments in two complexes and left two injured firemen and homes in ashes before he barricaded himself in an apartment of a young couple with a small child, officials said. The Blythe Police Department, which only has 21 sworn officers and does not have a SWAT team, called CDCR’s crisis team for help.
“We normally would call the Riverside County sheriff for a SWAT team,” said Blythe Police Chief Steve Smith, “but they are three hours away and we needed someone here quick.”
By the time the CDCR team arrived, the woman and child had been allowed to leave the apartment, but a man was still being held hostage with a shotgun aimed at his head.
The crisis team’s chief hostage negotiator, Correctional Officer Joe Logan, determined that a Blythe police officer was doing a good job of talking with the suspect and shouldn’t be interrupted. Throughout the five-hour standoff, Logan coached the officer and consulted with the suspect’s father who had come to the scene.
Logan had the father record a message for the suspect, which was played over a bullhorn.
“That had a calming effect on him and got him to pass the shotgun out the window,” said Smith, before the suspect surrendered. “Without your guys, we wouldn’t have been able to end this peacefully,” Smith added as he praised the work of CDCR’s response team.
“I know what a SWAT team is supposed to do,” said Smith, a former SWAT commander in the Central Valley before becoming Blythe’s chief five years ago. “They were quick, professional, very disciplined and very well-trained.”
The bizarre chain of events began in the morning when the suspect broke into an apartment apparently chosen at random.
“He was high on drugs and ran into an apartment with a pistol and a shotgun,” said Smith. The suspect set the apartment on fire, escaped as police closed in on him, and subsequently broke into two other apartments in an attempt to avoid being taken into custody.
In the third apartment, he had a woman gift-wrap his guns, said Smith, evidence of his drug-induced state of mind.
As the suspect then attempted to drive away from that apartment, he drove through a cordon of police cars and fire engines, slightly injuring two firemen.
In addition to CDCR, the Border Patrol dispatched 35 officers to cordon off a large crowd of bystanders at the hostage scene and to keep order in what was a chaotic situation.
“It’s usually a very peaceful town,” said Smith, who has needed to call a SWAT team for help only twice in five years. “In my 33 years as a cop, I’ve never had a suspect that was both armed and in a burning building,” said Smith. “Now, we have five crime scenes.”