Newhall Shooting: 50 Years Later
There’s a constant, ever evolving world of tactics and technology, especially for those of us in the line of duty. With the 50th anniversary of the infamous Newhall Incident upon us, I wanted to take a moment to present modern lessons that can be learned from this tragic Officer Involved Shooting (OIS).
We currently live in an age of body-cams and Mike Brown laws, resulting in a plethora of raw footage readily available. So much so, that anybody with access to social media or who has a YouTube account can now make after action reports. Before all this, there was a lot of speculation as to how most police incidents unfolded. The Newhall Incident is an exception to this, however. There are 3 reasons for this:
A) It’s One of the Most Well Documented OIS’s Out There.
Sometimes it can be a chore to track down information. Sometimes information isn’t readily accessible, while other times information doesn’t get recorded. With the Newhall Incident we have a detailed timeline, autopsy reports, background on the suspects, and the exact training the individual officers had gone through. There is even an entire book that has been written on this incident.
In fact, there are a lot of details on this incident that I was unaware about before I started researching it. For the sake of brevity, I’m only going to focus on the actual shootout itself, but you should absolutely look at the CHP footage on the event. If you don’t have the 45 minutes to watch the whole thing, or if you don’t have the patience to listen to the monotone narrator that literally every police footage of yesteryear had, this is a good, succinct post on it.
B) The Context of the Situation
This is something uniformed police will be dealing with until hovercrafts have been invented. I have long maintained that training alone is not enough- no matter the quality of training, it must be contextualized. Everybody at some point in their life has approached an unknown vehicle. For uniformed officers, it’s a staple of work.
C) Nearly Everything That Could Have Gone Wrong, Did
Suspects taking the officers’ guns, bystander joining the fray, manhunt, hostage scenario, barricaded gunman, the list goes on. While dashcam or bodycam footage may capture one or two of these things, all of them happening within the same incident has propelled this shooting to relevancy even today. Particularly with how good the documentation of the event was.
Keeping up with my usual formula for making these posts I’m going to break down the shooting and list 4 main lessons that are still applicable today.
And before I go any further, it is imperative to state that no after action report is meant to disrespect the people involved. Quite the opposite — these lessons are paid for in blood. Breach, Bang, Clear has stated, “The highest honor we can bestow upon those who have fallen in the line of duty is using their stories for future generations. We should be harsh in the criticisms of the dead, and we should put forth every effort to learn as much as we can about them and their actions.” No incident is ever handled 100% correctly, but if the outcome is tragic there’s even more that can be learned.
I also want to point out that I do know the names of the suspects, but I prefer not to say the names publicly. Vindicate the heroes, let the killers die in obscurity. The only time their names and faces should be known are when people like me are studying ways to faster neutralize them.
A Routine Traffic Stop
Kicking it off, the California Highway Patrol pulled a suspicious Pontiac over into a well lit parking lot of a 24 hour coffee banger. It was just before midnight, and plenty of patrons were still inside. The reason for stopping the car is that it matched the description several motorists had called in. One motorist also reported an individual threatening them with a handgun, and gave a good description of the revolver used. (For those of you considering going into the line of duty in some form: If an individual gives a good description of a gun, there’s a good chance it was real/a good chance the person involved still has it on their person.) Officers Gore and Frago both got out to approach the vehicle. This is the first mistake of several made that night- if you are approaching a possible gunman, leaving cover is not the best of ideas. Especially if you are silhouetted by street lights. Though, this is something I feel is lacking in the quality of training given today- VCQB, vehicle combat, driving, etc. Not enough training covers all the ways to effectively use this thing you have right in front of you. Knowing how to use your vehicle is important for CCWs and absolutely vital for anybody in the line of duty.
The two men sitting in the car were prison hardened career criminals (one had even done time in Alcatraz) who were observing the officers’ every move. The officers approached on either side and instructed them to get out, when the suspect in the passenger seat opened his door and pulled a .38 snub nose revolver out of his waistband. He proceeded to shoot Officer Frago twice. The bullets crossed laterally through his torso, from shoulder to shoulder, and Frago was dead before he hit the ground.
Later, when this suspect was captured (the other one committed suicide to avoid arrest) he was interviewed. When asked why he killed Officer Frago, he replied “He got careless, so I wasted him.” This brings us to our first lesson:
#1 – Dealing with Career Criminals
Most people, which includes the majority of people with criminal records, aren’t severe threats who require lethal force in order to neutralize them. Career criminals, however, are as good at what they do as you are at your job. This is how they get by, and they have finely honed their tactics for employing against their chosen victims. This includes cop killers.
This is also where Clint Smith’s saying “If you look like food, you’ll get eaten” comes from. Being a uniformed officer includes maintaining a social presence at all times, especially since there are people who can smell weakness. (This is something I struggled with myself when I first got on the line of duty, since it is the polar opposite of being a CCW where you just want to avoid trouble. Walking away from an encounter is good as a CCW, since removing yourself from the situation is the best defense out there. Can’t do that while you’re high-vis, it will have the opposite effect.) This goes for police, security, corrections, etc. It’s something that comes with the uniform.
Officer Gore then turned to engage this suspect, taking his eyes off the driver standing in front of him. The driver used this opportunity to pull his own .357 Magnum revolver out of the center console and shoot Officer Gore. Officer Gore jerked from the bullet impacts, which caused him to miss the passenger suspect. This leads us to the second mistake: standing still in a gunfight. Hard lateral movement off the X is stressed in training, but there’s more to it than just this.
Most people are not acclimated to violence or gunfights. This is not a bad thing, but you need to know how it’s going to affect you. Example being your adrenaline surging, causing tunnel vision on the threat. This is why stress inoculation is so important in your training. I can teach a monkey to shoot a piece of paper. Quality training focuses less on the HIGH SPEED COOL GUY DOOR KICKING SHIT and more on making intelligent decisions under duress. Some of the highest quality instructors, such as Craig Douglas or Larry Correia (who I learned a ton from and stole nearly all my curriculum for defense handgun use from), go out of their way to run people through various stressful scenarios.
This is meant to condition the person to analyze the totality of the circumstances and make clear logical thought process during. Slowing down a bit to analyze everything is more important than getting a .14 second split on someone. But also because in these rare situations where the circumstances are dire enough that they require lethal force, you’re making the best decisions you can in the moment.
The Newhall Shootout
Officers Alleyn and Pence were pulling into the parking lot as backup where they witnessed Officers Gore and Frago being mercilessly cut down. At this time, both suspects have just demonstrated that they are armed, dangerous, and that they are willing to kill law enforcement to get what they want. Which means, Alleyn and Pence were completely justified going in guns at the ready. Alleyn exited the car with a shotgun while Pence exited the driver side with his department approved 6″ barreled Colt Python .357 Magnum revolver. In a night full of mistakes, this is one of the things they actually did right- bringing the biggest guns they could to a gunfight.
Another thing they did right was utilizing their patrol cars. Officer Alleyn fanned out and stepped behind Officer Gore and Frago’s patrol car to use as concealment, while Officer Pence opened his door and crouched behind the engine block of his own patrol car as cover. (For the newbies out there, most parts of a car aren’t going to stop projectiles. It may hide you from a clear line of sight, which absolutely is a form of protection, but most bullets will cut right through a car like butter. However, an engine block will stop a large amount of gunfire and function as cover.)
Going back to my previous statement on how to use your own vehicle: Every car must come to a stop eventually, and when it does it becomes a transitional space. Knowing how to exit the vehicle properly and, if needed, use it as cover/concealment is vital. Also, I don’t know who needs to hear this but I know somebody does: lock your car doors.
Both officers began to lay down gunfire from their advantageous positions, as the suspects retreated back to their cars looking to get more firepower. During this, a shotgun blast from Officer Alleyn went through the rear window of the suspect vehicle and struck one in the head creating a superficial but painful wound. (Injuries to the area around the skull/forehead, as well as injuries to the hands, usually aren’t severe. But it tends to bleed like a son of a bitch.) This brings up a point I highly want to emphasize: Officer Alleyn is the only one of the four CHP officers in the shootout who actually scored any hits. While this is partially due to the officers’ training, or lackthereof, it also is due to Alleyn using a long gun. Anything you can mount from the shoulder will be a far easier platform to score fast, accurate hits with.
One suspect emerged with a sawed off shotgun, while Head Wound Suspect emerged with a 1911; both took cover behind the engine block of their Pontiac. Head Wound Suspect managed to get one shot off before his gun jammed
demonstrating the typical 1911 reliability. Sawed Off Shotgun Suspect however was able to fire at Officer Alleyn and hit him in the face with a round of 00 buck. This made Officer Alleyn drop his now empty shotgun and transition to his sidearm. At this same time, Officer Pence ran out of ammo for his Colt Python and began reloading from a dump pouch. As the gunfire from both officers tapered off at the same time, Sawed Off Shotgun Suspect used this opportunity to surge forwards unloading on Alleyn and hitting him the face. (Charge The Gun, Run From The Knife works both ways). Despite these grievous injuries, Officer Alleyn proceeded to continue shooting again with his revolver, while he bobbed and weaved behind the patrol car. This brings us to our 2nd lesson:
#2 – Terminal Ballistics
Officer Alleyn had soaked up two blasts in the face from a 12 gauge shotgun loaded with 00 buckshot, which has been renowned for its “knockdown power” and one shot stop capabilities. Yet despite being grievously wounded, Officer Alleyn was not immediately incapacitated. Alleyn knew that he was a goner, yet he still pressed the attack to buy his partner as much time as he could. In fact, Officer Alleyn was the only one not pronounced dead at the scene. (He would later die at the hospital.) Conversely, Officer Frago was killed instantaneously with a .38 Special — a caliber considered under-powered and not suitable for duty. Fights are extremely context specific and there are SO MANY VARIABLES that come into play, and no two fights are or ever will be the same. Which should be the biggest lesson that anybody gleans from The Newhall Incident.
At this time, Head Wound Suspect had retrieved another 1911 from the car and began firing at Officer Pence while the officer reloaded his Colt Python. Remember: Pence did not have any speedloaders or moon clips with him; he was reloading with loose rounds from a dump pouch. Seconds matter in a gunfight, and Head Wound Suspect managed to hit Officer Pence four times while he was reloading- including a shot into his femur which immobilized him–but Pence completed his reload.
It was at this time another individual happened upon the fight.
Gary Dean Kness, a former career soldier turned truck driver/delivery boy was on his way into work. He decided to get some coffee before his shift began, when he pulled into the parking lot and witnessed Officer Alleyn succumb to his wounds and collapse. At this time, Sawed Off Shotgun Suspect had ran out of ammo and picked up Officer Frago’s shotgun to use on the downed Officer Alleyn. Now, Gary Kness had his own gun, which he also had plenty of trigger time on. But due to California gun laws, he wasn’t legally allowed to carry it around in his car with him.
In spite of this, Gary Kness exited his vehicle and ran towards the gunfight where he reached the fallen Officer Alleyn. Kness grabbed the downed officer and attempted to drag him behind the relative safety of the patrol car. Officer Alleyn was big ol’ boy, standing over 6ft tall and weighing over 200lbs. And he was completely dead weight! Switching to Option B, Gary Kness then picked up Alleyn’s shotgun to lay down fire on the suspects.
Gary Kness didn’t know Alleyn’s shotgun had run empty, and when he lined it up on Sawed Off Shotgun Suspect he got a click instead of a bang. Gary Kness then went to the next available option, and picked up Officer Alleyn’s blood stained revolver. During this time, Sawed Off Shotgun Suspect was fumbling around with Officer Frago’s shotgun and accidentally discharged it into the air. Deciding to get a gun he was more familiar with to deal with this newly emerging threat, Shotgun Suspect returned to his Pontiac and chucked Frago’s shotgun inside. Shotgun Suspect then re-emerged with a handgun as Gary Kness lined up the sights on Officer Alleyn’s revolver. Gary Kness successfully put a shot into the suspect’s torso before discovering that this revolver, too, was out of ammo.
It was at this time that Head Wound Suspect had approached Officer Pence and executed him point blank while shouting something along the lines of “I got you now you dumb son of a bitch!” Gary Kness, now outnumbered and having expended all viable options, chose to retreat and flung himself into a drainage ditch. This brings us to our third lesson:
#3 The Infinite Variables Of The Real World
You can do everything right and still fail, as Gary Kness shows. You can also goof up majorly and come out alive. Indeed, all four officers were killed that night, yet Kness emerged completely unscathed. To say that Gary Kness failed is not to downplay his tremendous courage. This man ran towards a vicious gunfight, completely unarmed, to try to save the lives of men he never even exchanged words with. It’s even rumored that the industrial strength titanium used to make NASA space shuttles is the same material that Gary Kness’s testicles are made out of.
At this point, both suspects fled in different directions which concluded the shootout. A manhunt was started for them. Gary Kness was able to give more arriving officers directions on which way the suspects went. One of the suspects would carjack a man and eventually get captured. The other would take a family hostage in their own home, eventually killing himself to avoid capture. This leads to the fourth lesson:
#4 Spiritual Fitness
As mentioned in lesson #1, if you wear that uniform you gotta be brave. Up to and including staring down certain death like Officer Alleyn did. I have maintained that “I was in fear for my life” should never be a reason officers of any stripes use to justify a shooting. (You shot them because you assessed the threat and had to respond accordingly.) Officers ought to be prepared, and that doesn’t just mean your gear- every single one of those slain CHP officers left wives and children behind. Make sure you’ve said everything you needed to the important people in your life, that you have set up means of support, and that you’ve made peace with whichever god you choose. And this will especially be hammered home to you as a first responder. At some point in your career, you will be the last person someone ever talks to as they die. It’s truly saddening when their loved ones are completely unprepared both emotionally and financially for a death.
Aftermath of the Newhall Incident
Police all over the country were shocked by these events, especially since the CHP was and still is considered to be some of the finest training for police in America. Some serious changes were made to the world of duty/defense oriented shooting in the wake of this incident.
For example: All of those officers were not very used to firing full power .357 Magnum loads. They had trained on .38 Special loads meant for plinking. For the cylinder/magazine or two that makes up a gunfight, recoil isn’t a huge deal. But for training and competition shooting, when you’re going to be firing hundreds of rounds, recoil sensitivity absolutely comes into play. This is also a huge reason why many police, military, detectives, security/private contractors, and self defenders have switched back to 9mm in the current year. The hidden advantage of 9mm is that you can train on it more than any other duty caliber. (Although I have mentioned in my other articles on caliber debates and selecting your own handgun that you absolutely can make a case for running something else.)
Another example: it was those CHP officers’ first time ever shooting at a human silhouette (they had previously only trained on bullseye targets). Nowadays, the FBI uses limited silhouette targets for their training. And the FBI basically sets the standards which all police and security in America conform to in some way or another. Furthermore, some of the best ways you can improve your firearms skills is by taking up competition shooting that focuses on duty/defense oriented drills such as IPSC, IDPA, 3Gun, or USPSA. All of these use human silhouette shaped targets for a good reason, and run you through various shoot/no shoot scenarios on top of it. There are plenty of quality targets available on top of the competition shooting and FBI targets, such as Threat/No Threat Targets and the VTAC Anatomy Target. (VTAC is one of the gold standards of duty/defense gear, right up there alongside Safariland.)
Gary Kness’s heroism hasn’t diminished either. 10 years ago, he met the children and families of some of those officers who he tried to help including the son and daughter of Officer Alleyn. They are glad that Alleyn did not die in vain, and that law enforcement all over the country have learned from that dark day.
Of course there is the book written by Mike Wood I mentioned earlier. If you want illustrations of the gunfight + another perspective, this blog post here is absolutely worth looking at. Of course I’m going to include PoliceOne article, as PoliceOne is excellent reading for anybody who is currently active, retired from, or looking to go into the line of duty.
As usual, I am promoting charity. One started right here in Texas is Warrior’s Heart which helps former military and first responders struggling with PTSD, brain injuries, and addiction. Tom Spooner is doing the good work. If you want a quick way to support them, as well as getting something out of it for yourself, Black Rifle Coffee Company’s Warriors Heart blend is a good one. 100% of the profits go towards Warrior’s Heart and you get some delicious coffee as well.
I’m slowing down my articles for KommandoBlog. For the past several years, I have been making painstaking efforts to create a new identity for myself so that I can get on with my life. New name, new phone number, new address, new email, new everything. The final step to this, getting my name legally changed, was signed off and recognized officially by the court. Now, I am removing all bloat and distractions. This includes deleting my social media and slowing down the articles I write. I have removed links from my previous articles and, honestly, I miss nothing about social media. I have zero intention to return and my only regret was not deleting sooner.
Thank you for reading. Hopefully you found my content helpful and informative.