The exhaustive, exhausting effort to capture alleged killer of Newman police corporal

Before deputies on the Kern County sheriff’s SWAT team descended upon a house in Lamont on Friday morning, seeking the suspect in the slaying of a Newman police corporal, they opened a live audio feed with their law enforcement colleagues in Stanislaus County.

Deputies, officers and others here gathered around a speaker phone, breathlessly listening as the operation unfolded that culminated with Gustavo Perez Arriaga, 32, emerging from the home with his hands raised.

Joy and relief flooded the room when they learned the target was in custody, Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Department Sgt. Tom Letras said in a phone interview Saturday morning in which he gave a behind-the-scenes look at the roughly 55-hour manhunt following Cpl. Ronil Singh’s shooting death early Wednesday.

With Arriaga’s surrender, worry that finding him could lead to another gunbattle, that another law enforcement officer could be hurt or killed, evaporated, Letras said. “It was such a huge release that we not only had him, but had him peacefully,” the sergeant said. And it was so good to be able to tell Singh’s family and his law enforcement brothers and sisters in Newman that the suspect was captured.

The period that began shortly before 1 a.m. Wednesday was physically, mentally and emotionally exhausting for those working to find Singh’s killer. Some personnel had to be ordered to go home and get some rest because they’d pushed themselves beyond any reasonable expectation, Letras said. Deputies such as those with the Crimes Against Persons Unit and the Street Team Investigation Narcotics and Gangs (STING) Unit worked nearly 40 hours straight, he said, not wanting to ease up lest the suspect elude capture.

Singh, 33, was fatally shot minutes after he was flagged down by a Newman resident who reported seeing a man come out of a liquor store and get behind the wheel of a pickup truck, pretty clearly intoxicated.

The resident even saw Singh pull his patrol vehicle behind the pickup to make the traffic stop. Moments later, no longer in view of the corporal and pickup driver, the resident heard the gunfight that took Singh’s life.

That person’s report to authorities is how surveillance camera images of the shooting suspect were so quickly obtained and shared out to the public within about five hours.

Law enforcement from throughout Stanislaus County and even Merced County responded as word went out that the corporal was shot. There were early reports that he could not be located at the scene and may have been taken by the gunman, but in a matter of minutes, the dying corporal was found in the dark, some distance away from his patrol vehicle.

Singh’s fellow Newman police officer working that night, Patterson Police Services deputies and CHP officers were among the first on scene, and one of the responders began CPR. The corporal was taken by ambulance to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

Every second counted

With photos of the suspect and his Dodge Ram pickup circulating on social media and news sites, law enforcement felt sure that when residents began rising that morning after Christmas, tips would start coming in, Letras said. “This was something where time was of the essence because of the head start Arriaga had in getting away from the scene.”

While the shooting happened when the Sheriff’s Department had a higher-than-usual number of deputies on vacation because of Christmas, it also happened at a time of day when all deputies on the graveyard shift and swing shift were working. And at around 4 a.m., a sergeant began calling in all day-shift deputies.

“Our department went to condition red,” Letras said, “which means no proactive activity, deputies were not to stop people for traffic violations or anything that could keep them tied up. It also means we will respond to only the highest-priority calls for service” — basically crimes in progress. No immediate response to, say, noise complaints or a person finding that his car has been broken into.”

Speaking from the experience of working at the time his fellow deputy Dennis Wallace was ambushed and killed at Fox Grove Fishing Access near Hughson in November 2016, Letras said, “I can’t describe the difficulty of keeping your emotions in check and doing the job you have to do right now.”

And it’s not just the emotion of grief, the sergeant said. There’s fear, too, because you know someone just murdered a cop and is still armed. “There’s a fear that when we find the guy, and we all wanted to find him, we may be forced into a shootout,” he said, pointing out that from the get-go, Sheriff Adam Christianson publicly appealed to the suspect to turn himself in. “Don’t think for a second that law enforcement officers don’t have fear. Fear is healthy, it keeps you alive, but you have to overcome it and focus on what you need to get done. To know I may be shot and killed, or I may be forced to shoot someone is a heavy, heavy feeling.”

Flooded by tips

Tips did indeed start pouring in Wednesday morning about the suspect’s possible identity and location. Some led to the discovery of the Dodge pickup, which was left at a mobile home park in the 26000 block of River Road, about 4.5 miles northeast of the shooting scene.

The serving of a search warrant turned up evidence inside a mobile home that the suspect had been there, Letras said. That produced more leads, more names, more people to contact.

“So those efforts are ramping up, and we quickly realized that with all the tips rolling in, it was difficult to sort that many all at once,” he said. So many calls were coming in to Detective Michael Fisher’s line, which had been publicized, that his phone had to be handed off to another detective so Fisher could focus on investigating.

A dedicated tip line was set up, and community service officers and detectives sat answering phones and passing along the most relevant tips. By late afternoon Wednesday, a conference room had been converted to an intelligence center of sorts, where crime analysts at computers conducted in-depth searches, including of social media, working to determine the true identity of the suspect, who was known by several names.

The effort was made exponentially harder by the fact that the suspect turned out to be an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, Letras said. No driver’s license for him has been found, so there are no DMV records of addresses. There was no known birth date. It’s hard to run a criminal history when you don’t have a definite name, the sergeant said.

But investigating and interviewing ultimately led to the name Gustavo Perez Arriaga, and to the arrests of seven people in Modesto, Lamont, Hanford, Turlock and Livermore. Those people are Arriaga’s girlfriend, Ana Leyde Cervantes, 30; his brothers Conrado Virgen Mendoza, 34, and Adrian Virgen, 25; a co-worker, Erik Razo Quiroz, 35; and three people at the Lamont home: Bernabe Madrigal Castaneda, 59, Ermasmo Villegas, 36, and Maria Luisa Moreno, 57. All are expected to be charged with accessory after the fact, or aiding and abetting.

Letras said investigators also recovered what they believe to be the suspect’s handgun used in the shooting.

Searches by local, state and federal law enforcement agencies began heading south, including one in El Nido, about 12 miles south of Merced, late Thursday afternoon. That became a major place of interest, Letras said, and investigators started to gather some good, real-time information that indicated they were closing in on Arriaga.

“That’s where we started picking people off who had assisted him, to build our time line of where he was picked up, where he was taken — all parts of a manhunt and tracking somebody. Even if that person has left a specific area, you can glean who brought him there and who took him away.”

The state and federal agencies provided technology and manpower that was much more far-reaching than local law enforcement’s capabilities, Letras said. “We had excellent assistance from outside agencies in getting a cop killer off the streets.”

At a news conference, Christianson said investigators never were more than “a step behind” the suspect, and Letras added Saturday, “I don’t think he ever realized how close we were to him, and that probably helped in getting a peaceful surrender.”

Would Stanislaus authorities have liked to be there for the takedown of the suspect? “One hundred percent,” Letras said. But the members of Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood’s SWAT team didn’t hesitate to get the job done, he said.

They “showed up prepared for a fight, but not looking for one, and there’s a big distinction there,” Letras said. If Arriaga ever had any intention of putting up a fight, it must have been very apparent to him that day how futile it would have been.

Night and day

It was a far different situation than when he allegedly ambushed Cpl. Ronil Singh in the darkness two mornings earlier. Arriaga knew he was going to shoot, but Singh had no reason to see it coming, Letras said.

To the corporal, it was a traffic stop for a possible DUI. For the suspect, it was that plus being an illegal immigrant with a gun, Letras said.

Law enforcement officers including the corporal are trained in conducting traffic stops. They position their vehicles a specific way, shine their spotlights just so, approach in a standard manner. They know that with any stop, there’s the possibility of a violent reaction, Letras said, but they can’t just approach with guns drawn as a matter of routine.

“We’re at a tactical disadvantage in that moment,” the sergeant said. “... Once you see a gun, there’s a split second to react.”

Singh was able to draw his weapon and exchange gunfire, but he did not wound his alleged killer.

It’s easy and painful to imagine himself in the corporal’s position that morning, Letras said. ”Every day before my shift, I get in the shower and that’s my quiet time, and I pray for protection for me, for my partners, and I pray that if I’m ever forced into a situation like that, I will respond and battle with my last breath, and that’s what Cpl Singh did.”

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Deke has been an editor and reporter with The Modesto Bee since 1995. He currently does breaking-news, education and human-interest reporting. A Beyer High grad, he studied geology and journalism at UC Davis and CSU Sacramento.