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Airman may face death penalty in California cop killing

SANTA CRUZ, Calif. – The sheriff's deputy reached a house at the end of the narrow Northern California dirt road and decided getting help from more deputies would be a good idea. The terrain was steep, the redwood forest thick.

The deputy turned the patrol car around and headed back down the hill, just as a van passed by heading up. It was a close call.

The van's driver, officials say, was U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Steven Carrillo, who lay in wait for more law enforcement to arrive before ambushing them from the steep hillside above in a barrage of gunfire and explosives.

Carrillo, 32, was charged with 19 offenses, including murder and attempted murder of peace officers, and was calm and unflinching Friday during his first appearance in Santa Cruz Superior Court. The charges include the possibility of life in prison without parole or the death penalty.

Gov. Gavin Newsom has put a moratorium on executions but Santa Cruz County District Attorney Jeffrey Rosell said Friday he hadn't yet decided whether he would seek the death penalty.

Carrillo allegedly shot and killed Santa Cruz County sheriff’s Sgt. Damon Gutzwiller on Saturday and wounded four other officers in Ben Lomond, an unincorporated area outside the beachfront city of Santa Cruz south of San Francisco. He was armed with homemade bombs, an AR-15 rifle and other weapons and was intent on killing police, authorities said.

The FBI is investigating whether Carrillo, a leader of an elite military security force, has links to the killing of a federal security officer outside the U.S. courthouse in Oakland during a protest against police brutality on May 29.

Federal authorities have not confirmed whether Carrillo is a suspect in the Oakland case.

On Friday, Carrillo appeared via video from jail in Monterey County. He is being held without bail and is scheduled to enter a plea Wednesday.

Defense attorney Jeffrey Stotter said his client has a traumatic brain injury, though he would not elaborate beyond saying it was not related to his active-duty military service.

Carrillo had no record of disciplinary issues during his service, according to the Air Force.

The military said Carrillo was deployed to Kuwait for four months in 2019, but his attorney stated he served in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Justin Ehrhardt, a former friend of Carrillo who served in the Air Force with him before his retirement, told The Mercury News that Carrillo considered himself a libertarian and may have been pushed over the edge following police use of force during protests over the death of George Floyd, a black man who died after a white officer pressed his knee into his neck for several minutes in Minneapolis.

“Excessive use of force on unarmed civilians — that was a huge thing for him,” Ehrhardt told The Mercury News. “It was a mental tipping point for him.” Ehrhardt imagined it was Carrillo’s way of saying, “If I’m going to fight for something, it’s going to be against the establishment.”

Ehrhardt told the newspaper that Carrillo shared memes on Facebook about the right-wing extremist “boogaloo” movement, a loosely organized internet-rooted network of gun enthusiasts expressing support for overthrowing the U.S. government. Three purported followers of the movement were arrested last month in Nevada and accused of planning a terror attack during recent Las Vegas protests over Floyd's death.

Ehrhardt did not respond to requests for comment from The Associated Press.

Rosell would not discuss Carrillo's potential links to the “boogaloo” movement and said the investigation to any possible connections is ongoing. The district attorney also did not know why Carrillo was not wearing a mask.

On Saturday, someone called 911 to report a suspicious white van in Boulder Creek, saying guns and bomb-making devices were inside. The van’s registration led a sheriff’s deputy up Carrillo’s steep driveway to his Ben Lomond home, roughly 8 miles (13 kilometers) away from Boulder Creek.

Carrillo arrived in a second white van and ambushed the deputies, showering gunfire and explosives down a hillside from the high ground onto police who scrambled to find cover and defend themselves.

Gutzwiller, 38, was shot and killed. Another deputy was shot in the chest — his bulletproof vest saving him — and suffered shrapnel wounds from an explosive and then was struck by Carrillo’s vehicle as the suspect fled the home. A California Highway Patrol officer was wounded in the hand.

Carrillo escaped, carjacked a vehicle and tried to carjack several others before being subdued through the herculean efforts of a heroic resident, who managed to tackle and detain him as Carrillo, toting an AR-15, pulled a pipe bomb and pistol from his pants.

A CHP officer shot Carrillo during the gun battle. Carrillo was treated for a non-life-threatening injury, though it's not clear where he was struck.

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Dazio reported from Los Angeles.