This past Monday my wife, Hilary, and I ventured out of town for our first getaway since the Covid-19 pandemic hit. We went to visit my uncle, Stan, who lives in Paso Robles. He’s 90 years-young—just bought a brand-new Ford F150 pick-up—and has been living by himself since Joan, his beloved wife of 67 years, passed away two years ago.
We made record-time. Not including a stop in Ventura for lunch, we did the 310 mile drive from San Diego in under 5 hours. Ninety minutes to LAX airport. Never touched the brake. One of the few things, I guess, on the plus side in these surreal times.
We arrived in downtown Paso around three and checked into the Hotel Cheval for our two-night stay. The hotel is a charming, 16 room, two story boutique at the corner of Pine and 10th Streets. It is one of my sister’s and her husband’s favorite hotels—and they live in Switzerland! Our friends, Pat and Rich, visited the week earlier right after the Hotel reopened on a 50% occupancy basis, and they gave it raves. We were excited to be out of lockdown!
Our room was on the second floor facing Pine. Each room is named after a famous French cheval- horse. We were in Whistlejacket. We unpacked our bags and headed out for a walk around downtown to stretch our legs.
Most of the buildings are one and two stories and have retained their Western design of the late 1880s when the town was incorporated. Paso Robles (Pass of the Oaks), once noted for its abundance of oak trees and golden hills covered with grass and cattle as far as the eye could see, is now blanketed with thirty-five thousand acres of vineyards and home to 350 wineries.
The tidy city park is immediately north of the hotel. To the south is the Paso Robles Police Station. The movie theater-still closed- is on the other side of Pine. The train station is a short two blocks south.
Uncle Stan Uber’d to the hotel around 5:30. We shared a bottle of wine on the patio of the Pony Bar facing Pine, walked over to the Paso Robles Inn for a lovely dinner outside, and came back to the Hotel to enjoy a sampling of the Hotel’s signature S’Mores heated up for us at one of several outdoor fireplaces in the courtyard.
Stan picked us up the next morning in his hot new ride and was our guide for a day packed with fun: Wine tasting at the Austin Hope Winery owned by some of his friends; lunch and watching the elephant seals in San Simeon; a stroll on the boardwalk along the ocean in Cambria. It was over 90 in Paso, but a very pleasant 72 at the stunningly beautiful, rugged and mostly undeveloped coastline.
We closed our wonderful visit with an early dinner back at Stan’s house. We would have been sad to say goodbye but for the good news we’d be seeing each other soon on Father’s Day.
We returned to the Cheval for an early-turn in, but not before we had some more S’Mores. We made a plan to hit the road after breakfast and find a good hike in Santa Barbara on our way back to Solana Beach. Not big fans of air-conditioning, I opened the window onto Pine. It was very quiet–no foot or car traffic to speak of.
Best laid plans….
I was jolted out of a deep sleep by what sounded like someone pounding on the metal roof below our window with a sledgehammer. Three crushing, deafening metallic slams in quick succession: BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! We both exclaimed ‘WHAT WAS THAT?!’
I sprang out of bed and looked out the window. I didn’t see anyone on the roof, thank God. Did someone throw some big rocks onto the roof? Hilary asked ‘What time is it?’ I looked at my Polar watch and pushed the backlight button.
Maybe a minute later. BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! The same sledgehammer on the metal roof. But I was wide awake now and there was no mistaking that sound.
I once again got out of bed and looked out the window. The street was quiet. This time I closed the window.
Maybe thirty or forty minutes later, I heard another round of BOOMS not as close as the previous ones. There were three or four, followed by a long burst of shots from a different gun—pops, not as loud—some kind of automatic weapon.
Out of bed for the third time, I opened the window and looked up and down Pine. With the police station right next door, I figured if some idiot or idiots were outside firing weapons the officers would be on it immediately. We would be hearing sirens and commands delivered over loud-speakers. We’d see flashing lights on top of law enforcement vehicles.
We didn’t see or hear one thing.
I tried, unsuccessfully, to grab a few winks. I abandoned sleep around 6:30.
I heard a helicopter above the hotel. It sounded like it was low and circling.
Something was up.
I reached for my iPad and searched “Paso Robles Gunfire.”
I couldn’t believe my eyes.
DEPUTY SHOT IN DOWNTOWN PASO ROBLES-ACTIVE SEARCH UNDERWAY FOR SUSPECT
A shooting has been reported in downtown Paso Robles. The San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office confirms one of their deputies has been wounded. The deputy sheriff is being treated and their condition is unknown.
The gunfire started Wednesday around 3:15 a.m. near the Paso Robles Police Station on 10th Street. Law enforcement is looking for one suspect.
Urgent: Active shooter in downtown Paso Robles. The Sheriff’s Office is asking anyone in the Paso Robles downtown area to shelter in place at this time. This is an active situation.
The article was posted at 5:33 a.m.
I said loud enough to wake Hilary up:
Are you f….ing kidding me!
I relayed to her what I had just read and we instantly realized: This happened right outside our room!
I said, “I’m going downstairs to see what’s going on.”
I threw on some clothes and hustled down the stairs to the lobby that fronts Pine.
I was surprised to see Wade Simmons, the hotel’s Food and Beverage Manager who helped us with our wine selections that first night. He had drawn the short straw for the all-night security shift. I was the first one down. He was amped and brought me up to speed.
We both heard the same first shots. He made a 911 call picked up by the Police Station next door. They were very well-aware of the activity. Wade told me
“I was standing at the window when the next volley of shots rang out. They came from in front of the movie theatre across the street. I saw the muzzle flashes.
“Moments later a young man crossed the street and walked past the lobby door and windows. He was in his late 20’s early 30’s, dark curly hair with a beard. He just walked right past—didn’t look into the hotel or at me.
“I watched him cross the street and go back to the movie theatre where he crouched behind the corner of the building. He kept peering around the corner of the theater looking towards the Police Station.”
Several minutes later he heard the same exchange of gunfire we did in our room.
He walked me outside and we stood on the sidewalk in front of the hotel. I looked up and down the street. It was blocked by law enforcement SUVs from 14th Street down to 8th Street. Other than law enforcement personnel and their vehicles, there wasn’t a car or soul in sight.
A helicopter and a fixed wing plane were circling overhead. Three men-I assumed officers- were huddled several steps away on the sidewalk closer to the Police Station: one uniformed and two in plain clothes. Wade said
“They think the suspect intentionally opened fire on the Police Station. They believe he did it to draw them outside to ambush them. After the first two rounds of gunfire, the suspect made his way around the back of the movie theatre to the vacant lot across from our hotel. That is where he shot the deputy sheriff. His partner returned fire and then pulled the wounded deputy to safety.”
Wade continued “The detectives said a body of a man was found at the train station. It could be related. They just don’t know at this point.”
I told Wade what we had heard from our room. He waved one of the plain clothes detectives over.
He was with the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Department—a near Doppelganger of the actor Lou Diamond Phillips—and had been on scene since 4:30 that morning. While working from the hotel lobby, this detective would soon obtain the vital information that would lead to the identification of the suspect and his ultimate demise.
I told the detective what we heard from our room and our rough timeline. I pointed out the location of our room above the Pony Bar.
“When we learned gunshots were fired in the street, I believe what we heard were not sledgehammers, but bullets hitting the metal roof below the window of our room.”
Lou—that’s how we’ll remember this cool professional— wrote it all down and didn’t abuse me of that possibility.
That wouldn’t register with me until several hours later.
Lou walked me back inside and I noticed he kept away from the windows of the hotel. He was clearly uncomfortable and fessed up.
“I’m a plain clothes detective. I dread displaying anything that identifies me as law enforcement, especially when we have an active shooter situation. But I’ve got to wear my badge now per orders from above.”
Other guests trickled down from their rooms over the next couple of hours. I think six of the 16 rooms were occupied. So twelve guests, Wade and the two detectives. Some of the other guests had heard the shots—others not—and no one, like us, initially had any clue what was happening and that they/we were smack dab in the middle of a shoot out.
Wade, who by now had been up for over 26 hours, politely, coolly and patiently, shared with each guest what he had told me.
Contemporaneously, he was giving statements to law enforcement officers in person and on the phone. Wade was in constant communication with the hotel’s owners and management and relaying updates to his guests in real time.
Someone asked “We have a tasting at Daou at Noon. Do you think we’ll make it?”
Wade graciously replied, “I have to think this will be over by then.”
The other, younger, plainclothes detective posted in the lobby, his gun prominently displayed in the holster on his hip, also heard the question.
“It could be an hour. It could be five hours. I’m sorry, but we’re locked down here until we get an order from command. The shooter is active and very possibly still in the area.”
I should have taken the over bet: we had seven more hours of lockdown.
There were marked and unmarked vehicles rolling up and down Pine.
No sirens. No lights. Eerily quiet.
A little after 8, Hilary said to Wade, the only staff on the property, “I’d be happy to cook up some eggs and toast for all of us.”
Wade explained, “Oh, that is so kind of you, but our food is stored in the building across the alley, and with the lockdown we can’t get to it.”
Undeterred, Hilary went into the Pony Bar and rustled up some cereal, milk and yoghurt. Wade somehow found a quiet moment and made coffee before dawn. We wouldn’t starve.
About an hour later, two SWAT teams rolled up in front of the hotel.
Things were far from deescalating.
Lou explained “These teams are comprised of law enforcement officers from all over the County: City police from Paso, Atascadero and San Luis Obispo, County Sheriffs, California Highway Patrol and others.”
Some of us guests were glued to the lobby windows as we watched one of the teams meticulously and methodically prepare to enter and clear the Western Janitor Supply building across the street. We had heard over one of the Detective’s radios that the door was suspiciously unlocked.
There were nine team members: Seven on the ground, a driver and an officer standing in the metal plate protected turret on top of the truck with his weapon trained on the front door of the building. Everyone wore black protective gear and helmets and carried powerful weapons. Those on the ground walked behind the truck as it approached the building.
The team was soon joined by two deputy sheriffs and their German Shepherds.
A robot was brought out from the back of the truck and remotely guided on a slow approach to the front door. The neck of the robot was raised and extended- it’s head, a camera, peered through the glass door; all movements slow and deliberate.
It reminded me of a Blue Heron ever so slowly extending its head and eyes to the water, and otherwise standing dead-still, as it waits for a fish to swim by.
The robot’s mechanical hand deployed, deftly turned the handle on the door and pushed it open. The building’s security alarms went off. The robot slowly rolled into the building, soon followed by one of the unleashed and very excited dogs.
After a few more seconds team members entered the building with their weapons raised. No shots were heard. In a minute or two, the robot, dog and team members exited the building. One of them gave an “all clear” sign.
Start to finish the operation took about a half hour. At one point I wandered out to the Pony Bar patio to get a better look. A SWAT team member spotted me and quickly pointed-scolded me back inside.
Here’s a video of the team preparing to enter the building. The voices in the background are Detective Lou on speakerphone with the owner of the automobile parts store right behind the movie theatre. The owner is walking Lou through the steps to access the store’s security camera feed.
Soon, Hilary heard Lou excitedly tell his detective colleague,
“There he is! Some really good shots here. We now know what he looks like.”
Those still shots were immediately sent to all law enforcement agencies, TV and Newspaper outlets and the public.
The SWAT team and truck then crossed over to our side of the street and moved down the alley north of the hotel. There’s a Goodwill in back of the hotel, and I suspected they were heading there to clear that building.
That is also where our car was parked. I took a peek over the low, wooden gate that leads to the parking area and confirmed our car was OK and, hopefully, the case of Austin Post wine in our trunk.
This all happened before Noon. Now, except for a helicopter circling above, it was quiet. We waited for an all-clear.
Wade heard from the hotel management that Spring St., two blocks to the west with a direct shot to the 101 Freeway, had recently reopened. Hopefully, it wouldn’t be too much longer.
Hilary found some cards in the hotel library and we settled in for some games of Gin Rummy. It was getting warm and would eventually hit 100. We found a table in the Pony Bar. We left the door open to the courtyard so we could hear any updates.
Our bags were packed and standing ready in our room.
At 2:30 two uniformed Paso Robles police officers entered the hotel and came into the courtyard. One of them announced
“Those of you who want to leave, get ready to go. We’ll escort you in your cars to Spring St. We leave in five minutes.”
I’ve never seen folks, most of us “elderly,” move so fast. Within three minutes we were all loaded up in our cars. Before we left, I shook hands with Wade Simmons-to heck with the virus.
“Wade, thank-you. You pulled some tough duty and handled yourself and the entire situation exceptionally well. Better than most would. We couldn’t be more grateful. I’ll be sending a note to the Hotel management to express our appreciation for all you did for us and law enforcement.”
And I did the next morning.
We were on the road by 2:45 and back in Solana Beach by 8 p.m. Traffic remained exceptionally light. On the way home we talked to our daughter Brittany and Stan and filled in some details. They said the shooter was still on the run.
We treated ourselves to a stop at the In-N- Out in Goleta. A double-double cheeseburger and fries never tasted so good. We got gas and from there a straight non-stop drive home.
It had been a very long-day and we were exhausted. Most of our adrenaline had burned off. I texted Brittany to let her know we were home safe, each with a big cocktail in hand.
“Much to process. Why were we in Paso Robles, at that particular hotel, at that precise moment? Why did bullets hit below the window of our room. Why were we 150 feet from where the deputy was shot? The shooter casually walking by the front door of our hotel, 15 feet below our room.
“We’re good. I will ponder in the morning the synchronicity of it all and perhaps the bigger context of everything else that is going on. Love Dad”
We watched the ABC Wednesday News with David Muir we had recorded and were stunned the Paso Robles story had made the top half of the national news. They flashed the still shots of the suspect Detective Lou had pulled from the security camera feed that morning.
We got a much-needed, uneventful, restful sleep.
There was no coverage in Thursday’s L.A. Times or San Diego Union Tribune. I searched on-line. The suspect was still on the run but, thanks to Lou’s photos, he was spotted at 2:00 a.m. that morning buying an energy drink at a Chevron Station just off the 101 Freeway, about two miles south of downtown Paso. The clerk recognized him—said he looked exhausted, sweaty and was mumbling to himself—but did not confront. He called 911 as soon as the suspect left.
By now the suspect had been identified as Mason James Lira, 26 years old. His father said he suffered mental illness and had been in and out of mental hospitals and prisons much of the last several years. He hated to be confined and preferred to live on the streets. It was also reported that Lira had broken into a home in San Luis Obispo two days earlier and stolen two handguns.
It would be another fourteen hours until Lira was found nearby, confronted and killed by officers. But not before Lira had shot and wounded three more deputies in two separate shoot-outs.
The wounded officers were transported to local hospitals with non-life threating injuries.
I reflected upon all that had happened over those thirty-six hours, all the pain and trauma inflicted by this one, disturbed, young man—an innocent man dead, four law enforcement officers shot with one in serious condition, terrorizing and locking down a whole town. One very strong feeling rose to the top of everything else.
My wife and I could not have been more grateful for and proud of the hundreds of law enforcement officers and support teams that mobilized to find and capture, if possible, the perpetrator, and protect the citizens and the tourists, like us, from further harm.
To have an, albeit unwanted, opportunity to witness them work so up close and personal—putting their lives at risk for us, the other guests of the hotel, the many others that live and work in the area—forever stamped this into my brain:
It is for situations exactly like this we so desperately need well-organized and well-trained law enforcement.
These brave men and women will tell you they were just doing their job. However, please allow me to tell you, based on this very fresh first-hand experience: Theirs is an extremely hard and dangerous job, fraught with the very real everyday possibility they might not come home at the end of their shift to their families, friends and loved ones.
Four of them didn’t. I pray they all do very soon.
The irony of the contemporaneous protests erupting all over this country with cries to defund or shut down police departments was not lost on us.
This San Luis Obispo County team of law enforcement officers saved lives—maybe even our own—while risking theirs.
I know many believe that law enforcement officers are paid too much.
In this humble and grateful man’s opinion, we will never be able to pay them enough.