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A point of return: How a database record reduced casualties in a mass shooting

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If the mettle of a community is measured by how it reacts to adversity, the community of San Bernardino, California, will continue standing together when other communities splinter and disperse.

On Dec. 2, 2015, San Bernardino joined in infamy with other cities as reluctant hosts to mass shootings: Charleston, South Carolina; Columbine, Colorado; Fort Hood, Texas and Oak Creek, Wisconsin. Married couple Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik fired automatic weapons on community members at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino. Although the world knows how many were lost that day, it will never know how many lives were saved had the community members, including law enforcement personnel, not taken concerted action to end the violence.

Call to action

On that Wednesday morning in December, Sergeant Gary Schuelke of the San Bernardino Police Department (SBPD) and his narcotics investigation unit was on surveillance duty in Los Angeles when they got word of the mass shooting. Shortly before 11 a.m., while monitoring Schuelke’s surveillance, Daani Svonkin, asset forfeiture analyst for the SBPD, heard the triple-tone alert relaying information of an active shooter in the city.

Earlier that morning, employees of the San Bernardino County Department of Public Health including Farook, a county health inspector, met at the Inland Regional Center (IRC) for an event. Regional Centers are nonprofit private corporations that contract with the California Department of Developmental Services to provide services and support to individuals with developmental disabilities. Approximately 550 people work at the IRC, which serves the counties of Riverside and San Bernardino.

Farook left the event and returned with Malik. Dressed in combat gear and brandishing assault rifles, the couple fired upon health department employees. In the melee that ensued, a fire alarm was triggered, setting off sprinklers. Workers in nearby buildings sheltered in their offices as the carnage ensued.

Within minutes of the dispatch notifying officers of the IRC incident, law enforcement personnel arrived on the scene to engage the active shooter. Finding the suspects had escaped in a black SUV, according to witnesses, the police cleared the scene and evacuated the injured. During the evacuation, officers discovered an undetonated explosive device.

Once Schuelke received information that multiple people were down at the IRC, he broke his team away from the Los Angeles surveillance and started back to the city. When they arrived at the scene there were hundreds of officers at the IRC and evacuations of the buildings were underway and under control. Schuelke directed his team to meet at the command post and decided they would start focusing on locating the suspects.

According to Svonkin and Schuelke, shortly after the officers arrived at the IRC and began triaging victims, a witness came forward and informed Schuelke’s son, also a police officer, that Farook had been at the function but left upset and irritated. Farook became a person of interest for Svonkin, who is an expert in finding people and assets on law enforcement and private databases. She immediately went to work.

While Schuelke’s team was regrouping, the SBPD received a report of a suspicious vehicle matching the description of the vehicle the suspects used to exit the IRC – with a Utah license plate number. Svonkin noticed that the plate number was a rental vehicle and reached out to her rental car agency contact, who faxed a rental car contract back to her that matched Farook’s name. Farook was now a primary suspect in the shooting.

Svonkin accessed a proprietary database of private and public information and located a Redlands address registered to Farook. The address differed from the address on the rental car contract and was not the address Farook used on his driver’s license or county employment application. The singularly different address in Redlands, however, was within blocks of the location of Farook’s county-owned cell phone, which the police were pinging, hoping to locate the suspect.

The tail end

Police officers in suits and a dark sedan first arrived at the Redlands address and witnessed a black SUV with Utah plates leaving the location of the apartment. Because Schuelke’s team was in plainclothes and in an unmarked, inconspicuous vehicle, they followed the vehicle and made a determination to get a marked unit to make a traffic stop rather than trying to stop the SUV in an unmarked vehicle.

When the black SUV reached the intersection of San Bernardino Ave. and Tippecanoe Ave., it made a right- hand turn going east on San Bernardino Ave. When an SBPD marquee unit lit up and attempted to pull the SUV over, gunfire erupted from the fleeing vehicle, which ground to a halt to further engage the officer in the police cruiser. With other officers, Schuelke and his team pulled over and engaged the SUV occupants in a gun battle, which ended the lives of Farook and Malik and badly injured a police officer.

When officers secured and investigated the scene, they discovered a detonating device in the SUV. The couple had been driving around the city trying to detonate the explosives they had left at the IRC. Had the SBPD not hastily found Farook’s residence in Redlands to enable Schuelke to follow the black SUV as it left that location, it is likely the couple may have returned to the IRC to continue the work they left earlier in the day, resulting in more civilian and police casualties.

Heroes are not defined by a job description. They neither report for work in superhero costumes nor plan their day around superhuman acts. They are everyday people who put themselves in harm’s way, and help support those in harm’s way, to respond to life-threatening events in a community.

Without the concerted acts of San Bernardino’s community and law enforcement members, everyday heroes, the mass shooting may have had more fatalities whose lives would have been cut short of their potential to benefit their community, the state of California and the world.


Learn more

Earlier this year we honored the SBPD with our fifth annual Everyday Heroes award. Watch the video to learn more.

The SBPD was also featured in a recent in-depth piece on ABC’s Nightline, marking the one year anniversary of the attack.

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