Bravery under fire: Deputy Robert French provided cover for fellow officers after being shot in the heart
Heavily armed suspect fired nearly 50 rounds while attempting to escape auto theft task force at Sacramento motel
The Bay Area fugitive who killed Sacramento County sheriff’s Deputy Robert French unloaded 34 rounds from an automatic rifle and blasted nine more shots from a handgun before authorities stopped him last week, sheriff’s officials revealed on Tuesday.
And while an autopsy was pending at the time of this report, Sheriff Scott Jones said he believes the shot that may have ended Thomas Daniel Littlecloud’s reign of terror came from the sidearm of the deputy who gave his life to the job.
“There is a possibility that the round that ultimately caused the suspect’s demise was fired by Deputy French,” Jones told reporters on Tuesday.
The September 5 press conference offered the clearest picture yet of the chain of events that culminated in a deadly series of gun battles at a motel near the Arden Arcade neighborhood of Sacramento on August 30.
The dead suspect’s self-described girlfriend is in custody on vehicle theft charges and two undercover California Highway Patrol officers are on the mend. But it was the intersecting paths of a veteran patrolman and a career criminal that Jones said revealed the true character of an officer who continued to fight even after he absorbed a bullet to the heart.
“Even though he was mortally wounded, he continued to engage and pin down the suspect as best he could,” Jones said. “More than we ever could have asked of any officer.”
Law enforcement officers didn’t expect a firefight when they tracked a stolen BMW to a Ramada Inn parking lot last Wednesday. Sheriff’s Sgt. Paul Belli of the Homicide Bureau said that members of the Sacramento County Auto Theft Task Force were investigating a car theft reported earlier that morning. The CHP-led task force is made up of investigators from the CHP and county Sheriff’s and Probation departments.
Chief Probation Officer Lee Seale said he believes members of the task force were at the Ramada Inn because they had “identified one or more targets at that location in advance.”
“The motel was the original site of their attention,” added Seale, who has one deputy probation officer assigned to the task force. “They were watching it. The hotel is where they began.”
When investigators saw two women enter the stolen car, the task force decided to split up, with some members tailing the BMW while others stayed behind, Seale told SN&R.
Officers attempted to stop the stolen vehicle at the motel, said sheriff’s spokesman Sgt. Tony Turnbull, but were led on a roughly 20-mile pursuit that ended in Elk Grove, where officers arrested Priscilla Prendez, 23, of Oakland, and questioned and released another woman. Prendez was on probation for auto theft out of the Bay Area and registered to a second-floor room on the south side of the motel. She later told investigators she was Littlecloud’s girlfriend, Belli said.
When members of the task force announced themselves outside of Prendez’s room, gunfire punched through the walls and door into the internal hallway, injuring two undercover CHP officers, who returned fire. The suspect, later identified as Littlecloud, stole to the room’s rear balcony, and fired on a deputy who was positioned on the ground below. Littlecloud then dropped from the balcony onto a back lot, went around the side and positioned himself behind a planter, where he opened fire for the third time on an arriving officer, the 52-year-old French.
Jones said French took cover behind his vehicle with a CHP officer and returned fire, laying down cover for his fellow officers. It was during this exchange that Jones said a round from the suspect’s weapon pierced the back of French’s patrol car, deflecting a piece into the deputy’s shoulder, bypassing his vest and sinking through soft tissue until it reached his heart. “Even though it was a fatal round, Deputy French, exhibiting extraordinary and conspicuous bravery, still continued to engage the suspect,” Jones said.
Littlecloud attempted to flee in a nearby Dodge Challenger that authorities say was stolen from a Bay Area car rental business, driving through a barrage of officer gunfire onto Fulton Avenue, where he drew officers on a brief chase. When Littlecloud was slowed by traffic on Watt and El Camino avenues, Belli said a deputy exited his vehicle and fired on the suspect.
The stolen Challenger then jumped the curb and proceeded toward El Camino High School, but Belli said it was clear by the suspect’s erratic driving that he was injured. The car soon thumped over a median and crashed into a telephone pole, where officers surrounded the vehicle and eventually took the suspect into custody. Littlecloud died from his injuries on September 2.
Methamphetamine and a second nine-millimeter pistol were found back at the motel room.
Asked Tuesday how French’s family was doing, Jones replied, “As you would expect.”
“We’ll never quite get over it, as you can see,” he added in a room adorned with the faces of other fallen officers. “It never gets any easier, but we honor our own and we heal as a community.”