The Piffero Vineyard was the scene of a benign birthday party that ended unbenignly with the police shooting of Timothy Abshire.
On the afternoon of Last November 15th last year, Abshire walked out of his trailer firing his pistol, strode on into a nearby vineyard where the birthday party was underway, and shouted, “Somebody’s gonna die!”
This was the icing on Calvin Piffero’s birthday cake.
Until Abshire’s arrival — looking like Rambo in filthy camos and what appeared to be grease paint on his face — the young people had been playing slosh ball and tapping a keg of cold beer. The older folks were up at the house sipping pinot, perhaps congratulating themselves on getting their son properly raised, when everyone heard what at first they thought were firecrackers, then a man yelling, “I’m gonna kill ya all!” The afternoon dissolved in screams of terror and a stampede for safety.
The Piffero property is located at 8612 Colony Drive in Redwood Valley. By the time the first cops arrived, Mr. Ric Piffero had armed himself with a hunting rifle and Abshire had retreated to his nearby house trailer on Webb Ranch Road. It was about 5:00 in the afternoon. Young Calvin Piffero's cousin, Lance Piffero, had been seen by Devan Jackson (another party guest) being walked slowly to his truck with Abshire holding a pistol to his back. As deputies Luis Espinoza, Steve Gray, Craig Walker, and Derek Paoli arrived, Jackson thought he heard two shots fired.
Detective Paoli found Lance Piffero safe. Abshire had only pounded on the hood of Piffero's truck as he departed the chaos he'd created. By then it was after 7:00, and dark. Abshire was later seen in his trailer pacing back and forth past a window with a rifle. Somehow he soon managed to elude the deputies who had surrounded the trailer and was at large in the countryside, armed and dangerous and, apparently, tweaked out of his skull.
The manhunt was underway when CHP Officer John Heinke came on duty. A helicopter was circling the Redwood Valley area where Abshire was last seen. The chopper scanned the terrain with a powerful FLIR (forward looking infra-red) nighttime searchlight. Heinke’s partner, CHP Officer Miller, was already searching for Abshire with the other officers.
CHP Patrol Sergeant Lee was in command. He assigned Officer Heinke to secure the Webb family’s driveway, which was in the immediate area of the search. Heinke parked his patrol car out of sight, slung his standard-issue Remington 870 pump-action shotgun over his shoulder, and unholstered his Smith & Wesson .40 caliber duty weapon. He walked along the road to a metal gate at the entrance to the Webb residence. There was a little moonlight and a slight breeze blowing, he recalled.
Officer Chad Ramsey had grown up in the area and knew everyone involved. When he arrived, he advised Rick Piffero to put his hunting rifle away. He then drove his patrol car up to Abshire’s trailer and saw what he knew to be Abshire’s dog, a lab mix, going into the trailer. Two or three deputies, Ramsey said, had made their way to the trailer house. He said he saw Timothy Abshire walk by a window, then saw him with a rifle crouched outside the trailer. Then Abshire went back into his house and passed by the window several times.
The officers kept calling for Abshire to come out, and finally sent for a K-9. But Abshire had left the trailer and was now out there somewhere in the dark. The helicopter was called in, the search begun. After nearly an hour of very careful recon in the murk of the early night, Ramsey heard what he described as "four to six shots" fired in rapid succession. Then CHP Officer Heinke’s voice came over the radio saying an “individual” was down.
Last week this individual, defendant Timothy Abshire, who had been shot in the buttocks by Officer Heinke, was in court with his lawyer, Jan Cole-Wilson. She works for the Mason & Mason law firm and looks like Della Street of Perry Mason Show fame. Twenty-odd years ago she did a stint as a public defender, but currently she’s best known for salvaging homicide cases botched by (her friend, she insists) Public Defender Linda Thompson.
Abshire, charged with attempted murder, appears to have recovered from his gunshot wounds. His parents sat in the gallery looking on. Deputy DA Josh Rosenfeld was prosecuting. Rosenfeld’s investigator was former Fort Bragg Police Chief Scott Mayberry. Mayberry took the stand to flesh out the details of the prosecution’s case.
Investigator Mayberry had driven out to the scene and interviewed Rick Piffero. Piffero had de-escalated the sudden appearance of an armed mad man at his son's birthday party by calmly confronting Abshire as Abshire waved his gun around, telling everyone to leave as he threatened to kill them if they didn't obey him. Mr. Piffero told Mayberry that Abshire had tried to stare him down. Piffero had gotten some of the other party goers into the safety of his truck and watched Abshire — who at first was thought to be an Hispanic vineyard worker by Piffero and his wife, Michele — leave.
Piffero, Mayberry said, then took the remaining party goers up to his house and passed out weapons, positioning them in a defensive perimeter. Officer Ramsey who was passing on Highway 101 and knew everyone involved, soon arrived and had Piffero's ad hoc defense unit stand down. Piffero told Mayberry he was thankful he’d been there and felt he’d prevented somebody from getting killed.
Mayberry also mentioned Detective Andrew Whittaker had found Abshire’s rifle, a .22 with a shattered stock — presumably shattered from one of the shots Heinke fired at Abshire near the Webb family’s gate. The rifle had a round in the chamber, but the magazine was missing. Detective Whittaker also found a meth pipe near the rifle.
At the gate, Officer Heinke said he saw lights on at the Webb house, and thought he saw what looked like a person standing by the garage. This proved to be a potted plant, however, when he shined his flashlight on it. A breeze was blowing and Heinke said he heard leaves falling from a large oak tree. The helicopter passed over and as the noise receded he heard a branch snap. A large branch — bigger than anything the light wind could account for. After about 30 seconds, he heard another branch snap. Then he heard footsteps running towards him.
Rosenfeld: “How did you know that?”
Heinke: “I could hear a jingling, like change in someone’s pocket, and gravel scattering on the road.”
Rosenfeld: “What did you do?”
Heinke: “I advised dispatch that I had movement.”
Rosenfeld: “Could you see anything?”
Heinke: “There was a little moonlight, and I saw what looked like a person moving towards me.”
Rosenfeld: “How did you react to that?”
Heinkie: “I considered letting the subject run by me, but he veered and started going around a building, then up onto an embankment.”
Rosenfeld: “How far away was the subject?”
Heinke: “He came to within 25 feet of me then veered to the north.”
Rosenfeld: “Could you see anything else?”
Heinke: “As he ran along the top of the embankment, the helicopter circled back to my location, and I saw some other object which seemed to be following the subject, as the helicopter was illuminating the hillside behind the subject.”
This object was very likely Abshire’s dog, indistinctly in silhouette with the harsh glare of the chopper’s floodlights on the hillside behind it.
Rosenfeld: “Did you make any radio transmission?”
Heinke: “I again put out that I had movement.”
Rosenfeld: “Was there any reply this time?”
Heinke: “Someone said ‘I copy,’ yes, and at that point the subject started to jog in a southerly direction. There was a shed and a large oak tree about to come between me and the subject. That’s when I turned on my flashlight and ordered him to stop and let me see his hands.”
Rosenfeld: “Did he stop?”
Heinke: “No. He looked over his shoulder directly at me, slowed from a jog to a walk, and continued to the south.”
Rosenfeld: “Did you notice anything in his hands?”
Heinke: “Yes. He was carrying a rifle in his right hand, with his hand around the trigger well, although I couldn’t tell if his finger was on the trigger.”
Judge Ann Moorman asked for a technical explanation of a trigger well assembly, then the examination of the witness resumed.
Rosenfeld: “So the barrel of the rifle was pointed down?”
Heinke: “Yes. It took two-and-a-half to three seconds to give the orders: Drop the gun and let me see your hands. Three times, I said drop the gun and let me see your hands.”
Rosenfeld: “Did he do as you asked?”
Heinke: “No, he continued to walk in a southerly direction.”
Rosenfeld: “How far?”
Heinke: “Ten to 15 feet, a total of 20 feet, then his shoulder turned in my direction and the rifle barrel started to rise and rotate towards me.”
Rosenfeld: “What did you do at this point?”
Heinke: “I fired my duty weapon.”
Judge Moorman sadistically broke the suspense of Heinke's riveting narrative, to say, “It’s five o’clock; we’ll resume tomorrow at two in the afternoon.”
When the case took up the following day, Officer Heinke described how he always held his flashlight away from his body in these situations so that the subject will miss him if he fires at the flashlight. At the behest of Deputy DA Rosenfeld he also did a walk-through of the way he saw the subject turn toward him and raise the gun barrel in his direction. He said he fired his duty weapon at least five times.
“The subject was on the ground, but I continued to say let me see you hands as I approached and the subject put his hands forward, in front of his head.”
“Where was the rifle?”
“I didn’t see it until I moved around to handcuff his hands behind his back, then I saw it lying on the ground.”
The charge against Abshire was attempted murder of a police officer. So it was important for Ms. Cole-Wilson to show, on cross, that with his patrol car parked out of sight and wearing a dark blue tactical uniform, her client, with the light in his eyes, couldn’t have been certain that Officer Heinke was a policeman. Her clincher was that at no time did Heinke specifically identify himself as a cop.
Judge Moorman said she would have to give the evidence some thought before she ruled. This being a preliminary hearing, the bar is rather low and only a reasonable suspicion that Abshire was going to fire at the officer would be necessary for a holding order — and that there was a round in the chamber of Abshire's rifle, the rifle was charged, ready to fire, coming up and rotating in the officer’s direction… Again, the judge left us in a state of suspense but it's highly likely Abshire will be bound over for trial.
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Notes. Edited versions of the original press releases describing Abshire-related events.
ON SATURDAY, November 15, 2014 at 4:53 PM deputies from the Mendocino County Sheriff's Office were dispatched to reports of an armed individual threatening people in the 2800 block of Road D and Webb Ranch Road in Redwood Valley. Upon arriving in the area deputies spoke with witnesses who identified Timothy Abshire, 35, of Ukiah, as having brandished a rifle and having fired that rifle in their direction. Abshire, as they say, "is known to law enforcement." Deputies responded to Abshire's residence in the 2800 block of Webb Ranch Road and were able to call him out of the residence briefly before he returned inside. Sometime thereafter Deputies saw Abshire flee from the back of the residence carrying a rifle. Deputies, reinforced by CHP officers, began a search for Abshire in the wooded terrain surrounding his residence. At 7:14pm a CHP Officer encountered Abshire who apparently turned toward the officer with a rifle in his hands. The CHP officer, armed with his service handgun, fired at Abshire, who sustained multiple gunshot wounds and was soon on his way to an out of county hospital. He is expected to survive his injuries.
OFFICER INVOLVED SHOOTING. On Saturday, November 15, 2014 at 4:53 PM Deputies from the Mendocino County Sheriff's Office were dispatched to reports of an armed individual threatening people in the 2800 block of Road D and Webb Ranch Road in Redwood Valley, California. Upon arriving in the area Deputies spoke with witnesses who identified Timothy Abshire, 35, of Ukiah, has having brandished a rifle and having shot in their direction in a negligent manner. Deputies responded to Abshire's residence located in the 2800 block of Webb Ranch Road and were able to call him out of the residence briefly before he returned inside. Sometime thereafter Deputies saw Abshire flee from the back of the residence while in possession of a rifle. Deputies began a search for Abshire in the wooded terrain surrounding his residence and were assisted by Officers from the California Highway Patrol (CHP). The search included K9 personnel and SWAT members from the Mendocino County Sheriff's Office. Due to the darkness and terrain the Sonoma County Sheriff's Office helicopter (Henry 1) responded to the scene to assist with the search efforts.
AT 7:14 PM THAT SAME DAY a CHP Officer encountered Abshire who was in possession of a rifle resulting in the CHP Officer discharging his service weapon. Abshire sustained multiple gunshot wounds and was rendered medical aid at the scene and was transported to a local hospital. Abshire was subsequently transferred to an out of county hospital and is expected to survive his injuries. At this time the Mendocino County Sheriff's Office and the California Highway Patrol are conducting a parallel investigation into the circumstances of the shooting. At this time the identity of the CHP Officer is not being released. (Sheriff’s Press Release)