Sheriff Christianson: Body in charred Modesto home is the gunman

04/13/2012 6:13 PM

04/13/2012 9:21 PM

Authorities on Friday found a body in the charred rubble of a burned apartment building where a gunman holed up in an 11-hour standoff with police Thursday after a deputy and a locksmith were killed while trying to serve an eviction notice.

Sheriff Adam Christianson said the body was that of the gunman. Modesto police, however, would not confirm that.

The body was discovered in the ruins of the northwest Modesto home that caught fire late Thursday. Police gave no other details, such as the gender of the body.

The eviction proceedings, however, were filed against 45-year-old James Ferrario, who owned the property.

His father was one of the original owners in the development formerly known as Prescott Estates, which was developed in 1972. Neighbors and family members said Ferrario lived with his father until the latter’s death in 2008, and continued to live there alone afterward. They described him as an anti-social, paranoid and sometimes strange man.

Police have not released the name of the man they believe was holed up in the apartment, but they have said they presume he is dead.

Authorities believe it might take days or possibly weeks to confirm the identity of the body. Nobody else was found in the burned building.

Stanislaus County Sheriff Adam Christianson said Friday he is convinced the man found was the gunman who killed Deputy Bob Paris, 53, and locksmith Glendon Engert, 35. A second deputy was uninjured.

“This senseless act of violence was committed by one person and he is dead,” Christianson said.

Investigators were not saying whether the gunman fired at the victims through the apartment’s front door, or if either of the deputies had a chance to return fire. Some neighbors have described hearing several bursts of shots.

The only building damaged in the fire in the 2100 block of Chrysler Drive was the fourplex where the gunman was Thursday. The building has four apartments, and the suspect was believed to be on the first floor.

It’s still unclear how the fire began, since authorities on Friday were not releasing details about the investigation. Christianson acknowledged late Thursday that a combination of flash-bang devices and tear gas could have been responsible.

Friday afternoon, Modesto police spokesman Chris Adams insisted that SWAT teams did nothing that would have started the blaze.

There are two types of tear gas cannisters police use. One is an incendiary cannister called a “burner,” which can start a fire, Adams said. The department doesn’t deploy burners; it only uses non-incendiary cannisters.

He said SWAT teams from several police agencies surrounded the home, including the one from Modesto police, which was stationed in front of the home. Investigators were certain the gunman was alive Thursday night, because someone was turning off and on the lights inside the home as SWAT teams began launching tear gas into the apartment.

Early Friday, Christianson said, “We exhausted every option to try to get the suspect to surrender.”

About 9 p.m., a small team of SWAT officers from various agencies approached the front of the home, including Modesto police officers. The huge blaze erupted about 9:45 p.m., engulfing the apartment building.

“We didn’t have anybody go inside the house,” Adams said. “We didn’t deploy anything inside the house that should have set the fire.”

The sheriff said everyone living in or near the building had been evacuated, so neighbors were not in danger.

The fire burned for several hours. Firefighters took a defensive stance, using a high-pressure hose from a ladder truck to attack the blaze. The firefighters were not allowed near the burning building because authorities were fearful of a gunbattle erupting.

Investigators did not release any details about what they found Friday in the demolished apartment.

“We’re taking it slow, so we make sure we collect everything,” Adams said. “Explosives are still in the back of our mind, so we want to do this correctly and safely.”

There were reports Thursday night that Ferrario may have kept explosives in the home.

Adams said investigators expect to be late into the night sifting through the rubble and looking for evidence.

Authorities expect to allow most of evacuated residents to return to their their homes some time Friday night, when investigators finish collecting evidence from outside the home on Chrysler Drive.

Residents who live in buildings on either side of the suspect’s apartment may not be allowed to return home until Sunday night or Monday morning, Adams said.

Investigators working inside the charred home have a large amount of debris to sift through and need space to collect the evidence.

The Modesto Police Department is responsible for the overall investigation and will handle the crime scene outside the building.

Agents from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives took the lead in the investigation inside the home. The federal agents brought dogs with them Friday along with a large truck hauling their equipment.

The agents are there to assist local investigators. John Lee, special agent in charge of the ATF San Francisco Field Division Office, would not discuss any details about the investigation Friday. He did speak in general terms about the role of the ATF in similar investigations.

He said ATF dogs are used to either sniff for accelerants that could have been used in a fire or residue that might lead investigators to an explosive or a firearm.

After a fire has occurred, the canines are used to find traces of gasoline or diesel fuel, “anything flammable that could’ve been used to help that fire along.”

The ATF’s explosive detection canines are trained to find more than 16,000 explosive compounds. Aside from finding explosives, the dogs are trained to search for firearms.

The 2100 block of Chrysler Drive was still closed late Friday afternoon. About 30 people spent the night at the nearby Prescott Evangelical Free Church, where a relief center was set up. More people arrived Friday morning after having spent the night elsewhere.

Jonathon Mullinix, who lives in the neighborhood, said he knew the gunman who stored rifles, shotguns, tactical gear, generators and other equipment in his home. Mullinix said he gave police that information Thursday during the standoff.

The man was “a very quiet man. He wasn’t social. He didn’t care to be around people.”

Mario Moreno said he lived in one of the apartments in the fourplex destroyed by the fire. He also said he shared a garage with Ferrario. He watched on TV as flames engulfed his home late Thursday. He returned to the Whispering Woods apartments Friday morning to see the aftermath.

“It was surreal; it was almost too much to take watching it unfold,” Moreno said. “That’s why I’m here. It still doesn’t seem real.”

He and a roommate shared the apartment, along with a cat that they have not found. He was at work and not home Thursday when the shooting occurred.

Ferrario had a dark-colored sport utility vehicle with a sign that read “Trespassers will be shot.”

Moreno said he never saw Ferrario outside his home. Before Moreno was pulled away by an investigator for questioning Friday, he said the man had some military items in the garage.

Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at rahumada@modbee.com or (209) 578-2394.

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