Police Responded Immediately To Chaotic, Confusing Mass Shooting At Borderline Bar — Then Slowed
By Annie Gilbertson and Frank Stoltze
NOTE: This story was updated Dec. 7 to reflect new developments in the investigation.
There's no question the initial response to a shooting inside a busy Thousand Oaks bar was swift.
Ventura County Sheriff's Sgt. Ron Helus was at the Borderline Bar and Grill within minutes of the first dispatcher report of "gunshots fired" at approximately 11:20 p.m. At 11:25 p.m., with a California Highway Patrol officer at his side, Helus radioed, "We're making entry."
Acting fast to stop an active shooter is considered paramount to saving lives. The night of Nov. 7 began as a textbook example of quickly confronting a dangerous gunman. After rushing inside the bar, officers exchanged fire with the gunman.
Helus was struck six times by gunfire. The fatal shot, authorities later determined, was friendly fire from the CHP officer who was with him. Once Helus was shot, the hurried confrontation ground to a halt.
KPCC/LAist combed through publicly available dispatch tape from that night to better understand how authorities responded. We found it took about 15 minutes after the first report Helus had been shot for authorities to pull him from the building. Then it was another 21 minutes before officers announced they were re-entering.
Only one person shot that night survived, authorities said.
At a news conference held Dec. 7, Ventura County officials said the CHP officer — who has yet to be identified — was devastated to learn he had fired the fatal shot, which authorities said entered Helus's body at the edge of his protective vest and hit "vital organs."
At a news conference Tuesday, Dr. Christopher Young, Ventura County's chief medical examiner, described those killed that night as sustaining injuries to "vital areas."
"There was no chance of survival," Young said.
Immediate medical attention is critical for gunshot victims — minutes can mean the difference between living or dying.
When asked earlier this month about the response the night of the mass shooting, Ventura County Sheriff Bill Ayub acknowledged protocol is to stop active shooters as quickly as possible.
"When we lost our officer, we had to formulate a different tactic to enter and address that threat," Ayub said.
Ventura County Sheriff's officials declined to give the amount of time it took to get to victims, citing a pending investigation.
A key consideration that night, Ayub said, was concern that the gunman could ambush more officers. With that possiblity looming, authorities switched from a response intended to deal with an active shooter to a response designed to deal with a barricaded suspect. That meant SWAT and crisis negotiators were summoned.
The shooter, identified as Ian David Long, fired more than 50 rounds that evening and threw multiple smoke grenades, which Ayub said "contributed significantly to the chaos and confusion inside."
Ventura dispatch tape, obtained from Broadcastify (which claims to be the largest scanner radio communication stream), offers only a sliver of the communication amongst officers and recordings of events that night. The Ventura County Sheriff's Office has said they rarely release 911 tapes, and the California Highway Patrol has denied a similar request, citing the pending shooting investigation.
SCRUTINIZING MASS SHOOTINGS
The Borderline shooting — like so many others — will be heavily scrutinized in the months ahead.
Researchers who studied the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Fla. found 16 victims might have survived if they'd gotten care more quickly.
Their report, published in the journal Prehospital Emergency Care, examined victim autopsies. The conclusion of doctors was that certain injuries could have been survivable, but time was critical. Those injuries could have been non-fatal with prehospital care — like a tourniquet — within 10 minutes and treatment at trauma center within an hour.
Forty-nine people in all died that night and dozens more were injured. In that case, the gunman took hostages and three hours passed before law enforcement confronted and killed him after a gun battle. Only then did authorities reach everyone still inside.
Once autopsies from Borderline are finalized, Young said the medical examiner's office will release them to the district attorney as part of the officer-involved shooting investigation.
As investigators examine law enforcement's response to Borderline, "the question about when the second-wave of officers went in is probably going to be a primary focus," said Jim Bueermann, a retired police chief and president of the Police Foundation, which reviews mass shootings.
Mass shootings are often fluid, Bueermann explained, with information changing frequently. Officers must continually reassess the high-stakes, high-stress situation.
"You are trying to rescue people at the same time as stop the shooter," he said. "It's messy, it's chaotic."
RISKING LIVES TO SAVE LIVES
As mass shootings become more commonplace, officers with assignments once considered relatively safe, such as schools and wealthy suburbs, are called to risk life and limb to confront a gunman — or risk more lives being lost.
What's become clear is that many of the people who escaped the gunman at the Borderline saved themselves. After the shooting began, people inside rushed out an emergency exit, threw bar chairs out windows to escape and hid under tables or in the bathroom, according to witnesses and dispatch tape.
As crowds poured out, Helus rushed in. The veteran sergeant and experienced SWAT team member can be heard on the dispatch tapes directing the initial response and, once inside, conveyed the extent of the carnage, rifle in hand.
"We got multiple people down. We need a lot of ambulances." Helus looked around and counted. "At least five down inside."
That's it. You hear nothing more from Helus. Then, another broadcast report of gunshots.
Officials later learned the suspect had ambushed the officers "almost immediately from a position of tactical advantage." Both officers fired, but neither hit the suspect. Only one escaped.
Five minutes went by and at about 11:32 p.m., an officer reported "We have Sam unit down," presumably referring to Helus' call sign "4-Sam-3." The report went unacknowledged by the Ventura County sheriff dispatcher. The minutes drag on.
The last gunshot is reported near 11:39 p.m.. Officials said it was only later that they learned the final shot had been Long taking his own life.
At approximately 11:47 p.m., the call for help was urgent: "We have Four-Sam-Three. We are 'evacing' to the west parking lot. We need a unit — fast!"
By the time officers evacuated Helus, more than 15 minutes had passed since the first report of him down.
Ayub said there was confusion initially as to whether Helus had made it out. Officials declined to say when officers realized Helus had been shot and declined to answer questions about the timing of their attempt to rescue him.
At around 12:03 a.m. a law enforcement official can be heard on the radio saying nearby responders have assault rifles.
"I have multiple people with AR's ready to come in. Do you need entry team at the front?"
"Tell them to stand by," an officer responded. "Going to wait for SWAT personnel."
Finally, an announcement: "Making entry now."
It was around 12:08 a.m. — approximately 48 minutes after the first shots were reported across the dispatch tape.
The sheriff's office has given several reasons for reevaluating the rapid response.
They were coordinating with multiple agencies, Ayub said, and officers didn't know if the suspect was dead.
"They believed he was active," Ayub said. "Possibly lying in wait to ambush officers or perhaps seeking other victims inside the bar that may have hidden."
Losing one colleague was already one too many.
"We don't want to sacrifice officers needlessly," Ayub said.
So his officers sought to strike a balance between rescuing civilians and keeping officers alive. And, it took time.
"It certainly is a high priority to rescue anybody that may have a non-mortal wound or is severely injured and we can get them to the hospital," Ayub said. "That is always a top priority in our formulation of plans, but there's a balance between getting the correct number of personnel that are properly equipped to be effective at conducting that type of rescue."
It would not be until after 12:40 a.m. that the final people were escorted out. They had been hiding in the attic.
*Embedded dispatch audio is edited for clarity and length.
**Timestamps are estimates based on records kept by the audio source, Broadcastify, and law enforcement reports.
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