By Brian Rokos | firstname.lastname@example.org and Beatriz E. Valenzuela | email@example.com | The Press-Enterprise
PUBLISHED: January 3, 2018 at 11:31 am | UPDATED: January 4, 2018 at 12:50 am
Deputy Larry Falce, a man who loved animals so much that he rented an apartment for his cats, was not going to run over the dog that scampered in front of him as he drove along Kendall Avenue in San Bernardino late New Year’s Eve morning.
So Falce, 70, who had served his country first in the Army and then for 36 years with the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department, hit the brakes on his Chevrolet pickup.
Driving behind him was Alonzo Leron Smith, 30, a man described as a career criminal whose 12-year prison sentence in 2012 for being a felon in possession of a firearm and using it to benefit a street gang was later thrown out.
Smith could not stop his Ford Explorer in time, and he rear-ended Falce, who was off-duty at the time. The drivers pulled over and got out of their cars.
“I guarantee you my brother got out of the car apologizing,” Falce’s sister, Marjorie Falce-Jorgensen, said two days later.
But what is a common scene in Southern California – two drivers discussing a fender-bender – took a shocking turn when Smith punched Falce hard in the face, authorities said, citing witnesses and a surveillance video. Falce fell, hitting his head on the pavement and suffering a brain injury.
“We believe that he was knocked unconscious almost immediately and never did regain consciousness,” San Bernardino Police Chief Jarrod Burguan said Wednesday, Jan. 3, at a news conference where murder charges against Smith were announced and more details of the collision were revealed.
Falce was removed from life support a few minutes before 8 p.m. Tuesday, and he died shortly thereafter. An autopsy was being conducted.
Smith, meanwhile, fled after the confrontation but was arrested hours later at his girlfriend’s home thanks to witnesses who provided a description of Smith, his vehicle and his license plate, Burguan said.
Smith pleaded not guilty to murder Wednesday and denied sentencing enhancements that included committing a felony within five years of being released from prison. He has been assigned a public defender.
Because there is no evidence so far that Falce identified himself as a peace officer before the attack, Smith does not face a special circumstance filing that could send him to death row or put him in prison for life if convicted. Instead, he faces 25 years to life.
District Attorney Mike Ramos said his office is continuing its investigation.
“This person needs to spend the rest of his life in prison,” Ramos said at the news conference at the San Bernardino Police Department. “This isn’t over.”
Authorities declined to release a photo of Smith so that the memories of potential additional witnesses would not be tainted by seeing the mugshot.
Smith has been convicted of several other crimes including extortion, robbery, grand theft, carrying a loaded firearm and participation in a criminal street gang in San Bernardino County.
In 2012, Smith admitted in court to being a member of a gang in Colton after he was seen in a vehicle with others during a suspected drug transaction. Smith fled on foot and threw a gun as he ran. The vehicle sped off and was never located. Smith was convicted of charges including committing a crime to benefit a criminal street gang and was sentenced to 12 years in prison.
An appeals court, however, ruled that an element of the gang charge was that there had to be more than one gang member present. The prosecution was unable to prove that anyone in the vehicle was a gang member, so on Dec. 31, 2014, the conviction was tossed and a lower court was ordered to resentence Smith.
After Burguan and Ramos spoke, Sheriff John McMahon paid tribute to Falce, who patrolled out of the Central Station for 32 years in the city where he grew up and attended school at Aquinas High.
“Last night we lost a generous and caring man,” McMahon said. “Larry should be remembered as an honorable man who dedicated his entire adult life to his country.”
Falce was still working at age 70, long after having maxed out on his pension.
“What it shows is that he has a passion for his career and a passion for taking care of the citizens. He was a mentor and a great partner to countless deputies,” McMahon said.
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