SAN BERNARDINO, California — As Sgt. Andy Capps approached Interstate 10, he spotted a man in a silver van flagging him down, frantically waving his hands outside the driver’s side window.
On this day it fit the norm: People all over Redlands, California, were reporting every suspicious person in a black SUV, the vehicle description for the suspects wanted in the mass killing of 14 people just hours before in nearby San Bernardino.
Capps pulled his police cruiser up to a driver he thought had another lead likely to go nowhere.
“I thought, if I’m in (the suspects’) shoes I would leave the area and try to get away,” Capps said. “I didn’t think they would stick around.”
But the man waving his arms knew otherwise. He was San Bernardino police detective Nicholas Koahou. His undercover team had been tailing the suspects and needed a marked police car to initiate a traffic stop.
Capps’ timing couldn’t have been better.
“I rolled down my window, and he identified himself as a police officer and that they were following the suspects’ vehicle,” Capps said.
“Follow me” were the last words he remembers hearing before he joined the pursuit down the highway, still unaware if the lead was legitimate. Capps would later learn officers had already spotted the suspects’ vehicle near their Redlands apartment.
With his patrol lights flashing, Capps exited the highway into heavy traffic, giving another officer a chance to shout directions.
“That black SUV. That’s them.” The officer pointed ahead.
Several cars ahead, Capps saw the black Expedition. His lights still on, Capps turned into the opposite lane of traffic and pulled in a couple of car lengths behind the SUV.
He could make out two people. They were putting what looked like vests over their heads and passing items back and forth.
Capps knew this wasn’t another false alarm. He got on his police radio: suspects are arming themselves and putting on vests.
Then the back window of the SUV exploded.
“I saw that glass drop out. I heard the rounds being fired. I saw the muzzle flashes.”
It was the first time in Capps’ 24 years as a police officer that this had happened.
“They’re shooting at me.”
It wasn’t a calling
The Andy Capps who was now dodging bullets on a San Bernardino street didn’t exactly live the life of the Joseph Wambaugh crime novels that inspired him to get into police work.
No singular, spectacular case ever crossed Capps’ desk, he said, and he preferred it that way.
Though he’s now a sergeant, Capps won’t even let strangers address him that way.
“Call me Andy,” he said. But certainly not Andrew.
His easygoing persona extends beyond names and titles and explains how he became a cop in the first place.
“It wasn’t a calling,” he said.
Unlike many of the officers he knows, Capps doesn’t come from a long family line of law enforcement officers. But he does share one thing with many local officers: He grew up in the area where he would spend the bulk of his career.
For Capps it was Beaumont, California, just a 15-minute drive from Redlands. His family planted roots in Beaumont in the 1920s, graduating three generations from Beaumont High School.
Capps went on to UCLA with an undeclared major, preferring the party life of college in the 1980s. At the beginning of his junior year, Capps dropped out of college having learned one lesson, “I knew school wasn’t for me.”
He bounced around the UCLA campus area waiting tables at a Chinese restaurant and tending bar at the beach. Or as he remembers, just “having a lot of fun.”
Turning the corner of his mid-20s, the idea of finally growing up beckoned. Capps had just gotten married and his new brother-in-law was in the police academy. He recalled the pages of his Wambaugh novels. “I can do that,” Capps thought.
Capps didn’t just “do” it; he thrived in his new career. He busted petty thieves, drug sellers and moved into detective work for the special victims unit. He moved from the Rialto Police Department, in a suburb of Los Angeles, to the Redlands police department, giving him a chance to be closer to his childhood roots.
Capps’ most satisfying moments of his police career always had one thing in common: seeing justice served for the little guy. “I didn’t get into this line of work to fight with people. I got into it because it’s challenging. I like to use my head. I like to solve problems.”
Now 48, Capps is eligible to retire at age 50. Like most cops, he believed he’d end his policing career without ever firing his weapon. “I never thought it would happen to me.”
He was wrong.
They ‘have to be stopped’
“I’m lucky I haven’t been hit,” Capps thought as he unlatched his rifle and slid behind his dash amid a volley of bullets coming from the SUV in front of him.
Capps had wondered what his reaction would be in a shootout. He didn’t feel fear or anger. He didn’t feel anything.
But he did have one thought about himself. “I hope I don’t get shot, because that will hurt.” Beyond that, he fell into his years of training. “There was no thought. He has a gun and he’s shooting. My job is to stop him from hurting anyone else.”
Capps heard a lull in the gunfire coming from the SUV. He threw open his car door and scrambled to the back of his police SUV, trying to put as much metal between his body and the two suspects.
At well over 6 feet tall, the physically imposing sergeant crouched as small as he could get behind his right taillight. Then he fired his rifle at the two visible targets in the SUV.
He couldn’t see faces but he clearly saw two people, both with weapons, and “they’re shooting at me and my partners.”
Capps heard a deafening sound next to him, so loud it hurt his ears. It was another officer crouching next to him, firing at the SUV. Four or five guns were firing as officers ran up, using his vehicle for cover. Aerial shots from news helicopters showed nearly 20 officers crouched behind Capps’ SUV. The exchange of gunfire continued for five minutes.
Then the driver, Syed Rizwan Farook, got out of his car and stood next to his driver’s side door. Capps saw him pointing his rifle at approaching police. Farook appeared to be crossing the street, still firing. He nearly made it across before officer gunfire stopped him.
The suspect inside the SUV, just a silhouette to Capps, continued to fire.
Over the din of gunfire, Capps heard a call for help. “Somebody yelled, ‘Officer down, officer down.’ It’s a horrible thing to hear.”
The officer who was hit was Nicholas Koahou, the first undercover officer who waved Capps into the pursuit. Officers engaged in the gunbattle ran unprotected toward Koahou, leaving the safety of Capps’ SUV and three other police cars near him.
Koahou urged the other officers to leave him in the fight, saying he wasn’t badly hurt.
Time fell in on itself for Capps. He’s not exactly sure how long the gunbattle lasted. But at some point, Capps understood the suspect inside the SUV had stopped firing. He heard a ceasefire call.
‘So many heroes’
Capps slowly stood up, his knees and back sore from crouching, his ears ringing. He saw the suspects’ bullet-riddled SUV and remarked how his SUV only took two bullets. He then turned around. Officers and police cars stretched behind him on the street. Word quickly spread that all officers were alive and Koahou’s wounds were not life-threatening.
“There were so many heroes that day,” said Capps, visibly uncomfortable while talking about whether his actions that day should be characterized as exceptional. Koahou’s actions were more along the lines of what Capps thinks of as heroic, he said.
Capps said he’s a cop who just wants to do the right thing and get home after his shift ends. In this case, however, doing the “right thing” meant stopping further bloodshed.
“I have no doubt in my mind they were going to try and kill some more people,” Capps said.
A text, a tear
For Capps, the most important exchange he had that day wasn’t with the suspects — it was a text message from his daughter. It came while he was engaged in the gunbattle, a message he wouldn’t see until after the gunfire ended.
She asked if he’d seen the shootout.
“I was in that shootout, I’m OK,” Capps texted back. “All cops OK.”
The text still sits on his phone, and it is the one thing about that day that brings instant tears to his eyes.
“That’s when I realized how badly this could have ended,” Capps said. “For me and for my family.”
Nearing retirement, Capps may finally have a story worth the crime novels that inspired him as a kid; just don’t expect him to write it. Capps is still that easygoing cop in a small town; his family and friends are the only audience he needs.
“I have a great story to tell the other old men at the coffee shop someday,” said Capps. “And I hope I never have to do this again.”