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Peaceful ending: After nearly six hours, a woman identified as Janet Dolores Lucero emerged from her car and surrendered as a police negotiator (left) ordered her to raise her hands.

Standoff snarls North County

Armed woman gives up after 6 hours in officers' cross hairs on freeway

By Jeff McDonald, Kim Peterson and Elizabeth Wilberg UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITERS

July 2, 1999

SAN MARCOS -- Sparked by road rage and armed with a handgun, a woman forced much of North County to a standstill yesterday, refusing to leave her car for nearly six hours after officers surrounded her on state Route 78 following a morning freeway pursuit.

The woman sat rigidly behind the wheel of her Honda Civic coupe cornered by dozens of heavily armed officers -- their weapons trained on her -- and threatened more than once to shoot officers.

She was later identified as Janet Dolores Lucero, 58, of Ranchita, a hamlet in the northeast corner of San Diego County.

While SWAT team members and police negotiators labored for hours to coax Lucero from her car, the resulting standoff wreaked havoc for thousands of motorists and residents between Escondido and Oceanside.

Freeway traffic was backed up for miles in each direction after authorities closed both sides of Route 78 shortly after noon. Cars on Interstates 5 and 15 trying to get onto 78 were blocked and rerouted.

Many frustrated drivers waited hours under a hot sun, standing outside their vehicles, pacing and talking. Others gave up, parking their cars on the freeway and hiking off to nearby restaurants and other distractions.

"People were coming down the (shoulders) of the road and then hitting a bottleneck," said Kurk Rogers, who said it took him two hours to get from Camp Pendleton to San Marcos.

At the Hometown Buffet along nearby Rancheros Drive, "people were coming over to eat and go to the bathroom," said manager Tony Porter. "Everybody was eating and looking out the window, eating and looking out the window."

The delay was among the worst in San Diego County since a Clairemont plumber stole an Army tank in 1995 and rolled across the streets of Kearny Mesa. Then, authorities shut down miles of state Route 163 for nearly 24 hours while investigators pieced together the bizarre rampage.

Yesterday's incident -- which became the day-long talk of San Diego County -- began when Lucero apparently started an altercation with another driver outside Valley Center about 10 a.m., Escondido police Lt. Richard Bass said.

She was leading a trail of cars making its way down the Valley Grade and allegedly kept hitting her brakes on purpose to force the other cars to slow down behind her.

On East Valley Parkway, Lucero and the driver of the car immediately behind her pulled into a fast-food restaurant parking lot near Rose Street.

The driver, a 33-year-old woman whose name was not released, walked up to Lucero's dull blue vehicle and the two exchanged heated words.

The second driver "looked down and there's a gun pointed at her," Bass said. She ran into a nearby building and called police.

Officers soon spotted Lucero westbound on East Valley Parkway. She initially stopped for police, but when officers approached her car she took off again, Bass said.

She led officers on a slow pursuit north onto Interstate 15 and up to Deer Springs Road, where she turned around and headed back south on the freeway. The California Highway Patrol took over the chase minutes later.

Lucero sped south to the Kensington area of San Diego, where she exited at Adams Avenue and streamed through a usually quiet neighborhood.

Homeowners emerged from their houses as police and television news helicopters circled above.

"Go back inside your houses," a pilot in the police helicopter warned residents.

Julian Wulbern was at the Kensington Library when he heard the commotion and stepped outside in time to see Lucero pass by with eight CHP cruisers in pursuit.

"I could see her behind the wheel and she looked pretty well-composed," Wulbern said.

At Marlborough Drive, Lucero veered across the roadway to avoid spike strips laid down by the CHP. She weaved through construction cones and headed back north onto I-15 by way of an unfinished freeway on-ramp.

Three more spike strips were laid out along the freeway between Adams Avenue and Route 78, but either Lucero avoided them or they did not work.

"A spike strip is not a magic bullet for a pursuit," CHP spokesman Mark Gregg said.

As Lucero swerved to avoid one set of spikes near the Camino del Norte overpass, she veered toward an officer standing nearby, the CHP said. No one was hurt.

By 11:45, Lucero was traveling north on I-15 -- never going more than 65 mph -- and suddenly turned west onto Route 78. Within minutes, she slowed to a crawl and attempted a U-turn. One CHP vehicle bumped into her car head-on and cruisers boxed her in just east of Twin Oaks Valley Road.

But it was nearly six hours before Lucero emerged from the car, hands pushed upright and wearing a tank top and shorts. She was surrounded by a half-dozen SWAT team members in full gear and quickly hustled away.

"We'd like to think that time is on our side," said Lt. Ronald VanRaaphorst of the Sheriff's Department. "We do not want to rush into anything."

Before the surrender, negotiators rolled a remote control robot holding a camera toward Lucero's car and were able to use the camera to see that she held at least one weapon.

At one point, Lucero lifted her handgun, without her finger on the trigger, to show the officers she was armed. After that, she alternately flashed her handgun at the officers, then laid it in her lap, then gripped it with her finger on the trigger.

Throughout the standoff, Lucero was largely nonresponsive and emotionless, said Dave Corn, a member of the sheriff's crisis negotiating team. She seemed confused and disoriented much of the time, Corn said.

"It was very difficult to make a connection with her emotionally," he said.

Negotiators tried several tactics to get Lucero to leave her car. They played tape-recorded messages from her father and two friends, which seemed to get through to her, Corn said.

Even at the end, Lucero opened her car and stepped out with little emotion. She sat still, hands cuffed behind her, in the back of a CHP car watching officers search her vehicle.

She was taken to the Vista sheriff's station for initial processing, VanRaaphorst said.

Hours into the standoff, frustrated drivers trapped on Route 78 ditched their cars, jumped freeway fences and made their way to the nearby restaurants and other businesses.

Spectators climbed on top of hillsides and buildings to get a better view of the confrontation. Two television news vans parked just yards away from the idled Honda beamed live coverage across the county.

"All we saw was a SWAT team moving down the freeway, and then police helicopters and TV helicopters," said Porter, the restaurant manager.

At the San Marcos Civic Center, most of the staff in the City Clerk's Office was caught in traffic flowing off the freeway and onto surface streets, City Clerk Sheila Kennedy said.

"We didn't realize what was going on and then we turned on the radio," Kennedy said.

One staff member in Kennedy's office was heading to work from Santee and was diverted with traffic to Deer Springs Road, off I-15 north of San Marcos. A 40-minute drive was extended to an hour and a half, Kennedy said.

Other drivers who stumbled upon the massive backup along eastbound 78 threw their cars into reverse, trying to exit at Sycamore Avenue. Some steered backward down the on-ramp to avoid the pileup.

Police poured manpower to the scene because the situation was unique: She was holed up on a busy freeway, rather than in a confined structure, so officers had to get close to establish contact while also worrying about many nearby spectators, authorities said.

The hours of negotiation drained many of the drivers stuck on the freeway.

"Why not lift her (car) up with a helicopter and drop it in a field somewhere?" one Oregon man said. "Or put a black tarp over the car. She'd get upset soon enough and come out."

Lucero is no stranger to San Diego County law enforcement. Neighbors said deputies have often been called to her single-story wood home at the end of Old Mine Road.

Sheriff's deputies arrested her Feb. 1, 1995, on suspicion of making a terrorist threat, but the District Attorney's Office declined to file charges. Records say she has an outstanding $1,500 bench warrant issued by an El Cajon judge in January 1996 for an unspecified offense.

Lucero is well-known for her collection of guns, neighbors said.

"She is a loner," nearby resident Pam Witherow said. "She really didn't have anything to do with anybody."

Neighbor Kathryn Richardson said Lucero moved in about 15 years ago, building a house in the relatively isolated community and mostly keeping to herself.

"As far as I know, she lives alone," she said. "She's got a passel of dogs; they wake me up every morning. But you get used to those things in the country."

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