By Joseph Serna, Cindy Chang and Ruben Vives, Los Angeles Times
LOS ANGELES—Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputies mistakenly shot two hostages, killing one, earlier this week as the men fled a knife-wielding captor in West Hollywood, officials said Thursday.
John Winkler, a 30-year-old TV production assistant who had recently arrived from Washington state to pursue a career in entertainment, was hit once in the chest when three deputies opened fire on him Monday night at an apartment complex, officials said in a statement.
He died at a local hospital. A second hostage was shot in the leg, officials said.
“The apartment door suddenly opened and a male victim came rushing out,” the statement said. “He was covered in blood and bleeding profusely from the neck. Simultaneously, Winkler ran out of the door, lunging at the back of the fleeing victim. Both ran directly at the deputies.”
Winkler fit the general description of the suspect — a white man in a black shirt — and when he bolted out of the apartment, deputies believed Winkler was the assailant, officials said.
Interim Sheriff John Scott on Thursday called the shooting “very tragic.”
Winkler’s friend Devin Richardson said Winkler, who lived in the complex, was a friend of the two other men held hostage and rushed to the apartment when he heard them screaming.
But sheriff’s officials said they believe Winkler was already in the apartment visiting friends when the disturbance began.
Winkler had recently been hired for several days as a production assistant for the comedy show “Tosh.0.” Richardson said Winkler wanted to become a producer.
Winkler’s aunt said he was thrilled about being in Hollywood.
“He was quite excited the last time we talked to him,” said Anne-Marie Van Wart, 62, of Tacoma, Wash. “He was just getting his foot in the door of life. Just, the light was right around the corner … and (now) he’s gone.”
The incident unfolded about 9:30 p.m. Monday in a large apartment complex off of Santa Monica Boulevard.
Sheriff’s deputies said they got a call about an assailant with a knife inside one of the building’s units. When they got to the complex, a witness told them there were two men in the apartment and that the assailant was a thin white man wearing a black shirt, according to the statement.
Deputies “announced themselves” at the apartment but got no response. The door suddenly burst open and a bloodied man came out, with Winkler close behind, officials said.
The deputies believed “Winkler was the assailant and the assault was ongoing and he would attack the entry team.”
After the deputies fired on Winkler and the other man they heard “sounds of a fight coming from inside the apartment,” according to the statement.
They entered the room and saw another male victim as well as the suspect, identified as Alexander McDonald.
McDonald was choking the victim and “tearing at his face,” officials said.
The deputies subdued McDonald and arrested him.
Later, officials said, they learned that McDonald had held Winkler and the two other men hostage. When deputies arrived, McDonald “in a rage … began stabbing the men and fighting with them.”
The second man shot by deputies was transported to a hospital where he was treated for stab wounds to the neck and a gunshot wound to the leg. He is in stable condition.
The third victim, who was treated at a hospital for stab wounds to the leg, arms and chest, has been released. Officials said McDonald and one of the victims were roommates.
McDonald, 27, has been charged with one count of murder, two counts of attempted murder and one count of torture.
He pleaded not guilty and is being held on $4-million bail.
The Sheriff’s Department’s initial news release the day after the shooting made no mention of the mistaken identity and said the two people shot had “aggressed the deputies.”
Assistant Sheriff Todd Rogers said that it was “pretty apparent” the night of the incident that it was a case of mistaken identity. He said he was officially briefed of that determination Tuesday.
Scott, the acting sheriff, said the case was complicated and it took some time to sort out.
The violence left residents in the apartment building and beyond stunned.
The apartment where the violence took place faces the elevator and a stairway. The marble floor outside the door was stained with blood Thursday.
A woman who lives on the floor below, who did not want to be named, said she heard a commotion Monday night.
She heard shouting, “Get down! Get down!” and several popping noises.
Then she heard a scream.
“It was a primal scream,” the woman said. “It was fear, it was absolutely horrible.”
Residents said the apartment complex was already on edge because of a fatal stabbing two weeks ago.
A Yale-educated physician, Kurtland Ma, 34, was stabbed to death March 29 inside his apartment. His partner has been charged with homicide.
West Hollywood officials said they had been inquiring about the circumstances of Monday’s shooting and were stunned to get the sheriff’s statement.
“This was already a tragic situation but this makes it all the more tragic,” said Councilman Jeff Prang.
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