Man accused of killing deputy pleads not guilty by reason of insanity

Deputy Ryan Clinkunbroomer
Deputy Ryan Clinkunbroomer Photo credit LASD

The man suspected in the fatal ambush shooting of a Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy in Palmdale was charged Wednesday with murder, and the defendant -- who relatives describe as mentally ill -- pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity.

Kevin Cataneo Salazar, 29, appeared in a Lancaster courtroom with his hands shackled to his hips, and he appeared to be wearing a bullet-proof vest. During the short arraignment hearing, a judge entered dual pleas on his behalf of not guilty and not guilty by reason of insanity.

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He is due back in court Nov. 7. Salazar remains jailed without bail at the Twin Towers jail in downtown Los Angeles after his arrest early Monday morning at his family's home in Palmdale.

The murder charge against Salazar includes several special circumstance allegations, including murder of a peace officer, lying in wait and firing from a vehicle, along with multiple allegations of personal use of a firearm, specifically a .22-caliber revolver.

The special circumstance allegations normally could open a defendant to a possible death sentence, but Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón is a staunch opponent of the death penalty, so Salazar will face a maximum sentence of life without the possibility of parole if convicted. At a Wednesday afternoon news conference, Gascón stood by the decision not to seek death for the defendant.

"If I thought that seeking the death penalty was going to bring Ryan back to us, I would seek it without any reservation. But it won't," he said. "If I thought that the death penalty was going to stop people from committing brutal murders, I would seek it. But we know that it won't. The reality is that the death penalty doesn't serve as a deterrent, and the death penalty does not bring people back. ... What I can assure you is that we're going to do everything within our legal power to make sure that this defendant never is out of prison."

If Salazar is convicted and determined to have been insane at the time of the killing, he would be confined to a state hospital rather than prison.

Salazar was arrested Monday morning following an hours-long standoff with law enforcement and a manhunt that began Saturday night, shortly after the slaying of Deputy Ryan Clinkunbroomer near the department's Palmdale station.

The Los Angeles Times, citing unnamed law enforcement sources, reported that Salazar has confessed to the killing.

Salazar's family insisted he is not a "coward" -- as Luna called him -- but is mentally ill and not in his right mind.

Clinkunbroomer, a 30-year-old, third-generation deputy who was only recently engaged to be married, was shot around 6 p.m Saturday while sitting in his patrol car at a traffic light near the station at Sierra Highway and East Avenue Q.

Video from the scene shows a dark-colored sedan pulling up behind the patrol SUV, then slowly pulling alongside the driver's side of the deputy's vehicle, pausing, then driving away.

Sheriff's officials said a good Samaritan stopped to render aid after the shooting and the wounded deputy was taken to Antelope Valley Medical Center in grave condition. He was pronounced dead that night.

Early Monday morning, sheriff's deputies in tactical gear and armored vehicles -- working off tips from the public -- descended on Salazar's family home, initiating a standoff that finally ended when Special Enforcement Bureau personnel flushed him out with "chemical agents," Luna said at a Monday news conference.

Luna said "numerous firearms" were also recovered following the arrest, and that deputies seized a dark-colored sedan that was believed to be linked to the killing.

"Thirty-six hours after the murder of our deputy, the men and women of our department arrested him early this morning," Luna said Monday.

Luna said Clinkunbroomer was "murdered, ambushed by a coward."

But Salazar's mother and sister told reporters he is mentally ill.

"My brother, he's getting called a coward," Salazar's sister, Jessica, told reporters Monday. "He wasn't in his right state of mind."

"I do want you guys to know that my brother did have schizophrenia," she said. "He has paranoia. He heard voices. We're not justifying, we don't know if he did (the shooting), if he did not. We are not justifying anything. We feel for the family. It hurts.

"... Nobody wishes to go through that. There are a lot of people that know, have family members with the same situation will understand, will understand how it is so hard to want to help a loved one and knowing that their mind is not at the right state of mind."

She said her family is praying for the Clinkunbroomer family, but added there are "two sides to the story."

"Just please, don't punish him like if he was a regular person. He's sick," she said.

Salazar's mother, Marle Salazar, also told reporters her son was mentally ill and had stopped taking his medication, but they were unable to get him the help that he needed. She told the Los Angeles Times the family called sheriff's deputies at least twice because he refused to take his medication, but she was told there was nothing they could do.

She also told the paper that her son was never violent or aggressive toward anyone else, but tried twice to take his own life because of the persistent voices he would hear in his head. She said her son was acting normally Saturday night at home after the shooting occurred.

She also said she was unaware her son owned any firearms, but said an investigators told her that he had legally purchased a weapon. It was unclear how someone with mental illness was able to purchase a gun.

Speaking to reporters Wednesday afternoon, prosecutors declined to discuss details behind Salazar's alleged purchase of the weapon.

"We believe the suspect in the case ... did purchase a firearm in the weeks before the crime occurred, but that's all we can say," Deputy District Attorney Michael Blake said.

Gascón and Luna, appearing at the news conference Wednesday, declined to delve into any specifics of the case, saying they did not want to jeopardize the prosecution. There has been no indication of a possible motive for the killing.

Luna said earlier that tips from the public led investigators to Salazar. The Times reported that a man who had allegedly been involved in a road-rage confrontation with Salazar was among those who contacted authorities, but Luna and Gascón declined to address that issue Wednesday.

Clinkunbroomer had gotten engaged four days before he was killed. His fiancée, Brittany Lindsey, attended the Wednesday news conference alongside Gascón, Luna and Clinkunbroomer's parents, brother and sister.

Fighting back tears, Lindsey said, "First of all, I want to thank each and every officer from the bottom of my heart. Thank you for everything you've done for our family the last few days. I also want to say thank you to anyone who helped solve this case.

"Ryan was the best guy I've ever met. He was so thoughtful and caring, and everyone who met him or knew him, loved him. I'm so happy I was able to love him. It was not long enough. I couldn't wait to start our lives together. We were just engaged, planning to get married and start a family. Ryan, I miss you and I love you so much. I don't know how to live without you and I didn't ever want to imagine it. Now look down on all your brothers and sisters in blue, keep them safe so this never happens to anyone else. Protect them and watch over them as they continue to serve their community. Until we meet again."

Anyone who witnessed anything related to the shooting was urged to call the Sheriff's Homicide Bureau at 323-890-5500, or Crime Stoppers at 800- 222-TIPS (8477).

Clinkunbroomer's body was carried in a procession Wednesday morning from the county Medical Examiner's Office in Lincoln Heights to a funeral home. Details of funeral services have not yet been announced.

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Featured Image Photo Credit: LASD