The furniture had to go. So did the electronics, the mattresses and the bedsheets. Even the Christmas presents, stashed in shopping bags, could not be saved.
In the dramatic climax to one of the biggest manhunts in Sacramento history, the yellow house at the end of this quiet dead-end street was bombed, shot up and invaded as police closed in on Luis Enrique Monroy-Bracamontes, the man accused of shooting four people and killing two law-enforcement officers in a crime spree that lasted six hours and spanned almost 30 miles.
Three weeks later, the interior of the 1,700-square-foot Auburn home is still coated in toxic chemicals. Pink dye splotches left by tear gas stain the walls and windows where gas canisters shattered glass and blew through plaster. The homeowners, Steve and Maureen Larson, have been living in a 25-foot trailer at the edge of their property, unable to re-enter their home for more than a few minutes because of the fumes that linger.
“Our home and our life have been destroyed,” said Maureen, 63. “All the memories, everything we own. We don’t know yet if family pictures are going to be salvageable, even the ones framed in glass.”
On Wednesday, cleaners armed with chemicals of their own went through boxes of the Larsons’ belongings. A man wearing turquoise gloves lifted a faded box to his nose and inhaled deeply. It was a ritual he would repeat with toys, clothes, jewelry boxes, photographs, books, letters – hundreds of possessions plucked from the wreckage.
All had been doused in tear gas. Now, each would have to pass the sniff test before it could be saved.
The cleaning technician gave a quick nod to the other members of the crew as Steve, 66, ambled up the front path to his home of seven years.
“Oh, thank goodness,” Steve called. “You’ve saved the Scrabble game!”
This is how the Larsons learn which of their belongings can be rescued from ruin: piece by piece, item by painstaking item.
They are among the many left to reassemble lives fractured that day. The families of Sacramento County sheriff’s Deputy Danny Oliver – the first to be killed, outside a Motel 6 at Arden Way – and Placer County sheriff’s Detective Michael Davis Jr. have buried their dead and continue to grieve. Shooting victim Anthony Holmes, who narrowly escaped death when Monroy-Bracamontes allegedly shot him in the head for refusing to turn over his car keys, was released from the hospital Nov. 3. Placer County sheriff’s Deputy Jeff Davis is recovering after being shot in the arm.
Monroy-Bracamontes and his wife, Janelle Monroy, sit behind bars in separate counties, awaiting hearings on charges of murder, attempted murder and carjacking. They have not yet entered pleas. Sacramento County District Attorney Jan Scully has said her office and Placer’s would follow their normal review process for determining whether to seek the death penalty against the accused gunman.
As Steve Larson stood overlooking his ruined home this week, he said he has found it difficult to feel like a victim.
“How can I? Not with two police officers dead,” he said. “Sure, we feel a little put out, but our hearts go out to the families of the officers. What happened here, it’s mind-boggling.”
A rattle at the door
Law-enforcement authorities say Monroy-Bracamontes was trying to evade capture as he ran, aimlessly, down Auburn’s nature trails and back roads on Oct. 24, away from the roadside where they say he shot Davis with an AR-15 rifle. His wife was arrested at the shooting scene, officials said, with a pistol in her purse.
Auburn resident Jennifer Towner said she spotted Monroy-Bracamontes that day, just after noon, on a wooded trail, out of breath and holding his left hand as if it had been injured, a black rifle clutched in his right hand.
As he came to a fork in the dirt path that Friday afternoon, police said, he continued up a hill toward the Larson home.
The path is faint, covered in yellow leaves and fallen pine needles, winding under tree branches and overgrown brush. The Larsons’ house is the first to come into view. On Oct. 24, Maureen’s brother, Brian Neal, was inside the home, in the basement apartment where he lives.
Neal, 55, was watching a broadcast of the ongoing hunt for a suspect police said had been on the run for hours. He heard the doorknob rattle, and peered through the window just long enough to catch a glimpse of a man who matched the suspect’s description ascending the wooden steps to the main level of the home.
He said he heard footsteps in the kitchen on the floor above and fled, running down the road to find police, who were already in the neighborhood, searching with dozens of heavily armed officers, armored vehicles and helicopters.
Meanwhile, the intruder made himself at home, the Larsons said. He ate their food, drank their limoncello liqueur and found his way to their bedroom.
Neal drew a floor plan of the home and showed deputies where he believed the man was. Soon, they had the house surrounded. Officers fired nearly 30 canisters of tear gas into the house, taking out windows and puncturing walls.
As their home was under siege, the Larsons were miles from Belmont Drive, unaware anything was amiss. They’re both retired – Steve from PG&E and Maureen from her years teaching kindergarten – and were spending the weekend with their son in Eureka.
Just before 4 p.m., an announcement rang out over the police scanner: “He’s cuffed,” a dispatcher said. Officers said Monroy-Bracamontes surrendered meekly and without a struggle, sickened by tear gas.
The Larsons didn’t find out what happened until hours later, when their 18-year-old grandson called to say “don’t come back.” The neighborhood was a crime scene, he said. Their house was ground zero.
“I was in a total panic; I wanted to come home,” Maureen said.
But they decided to heed the warnings from family. They spent two nights in Eureka, and the following Sunday, returned to Auburn.
Steve said the first thing he noticed was the police tape lining his neighbors’ yards as they drove up Belmont Drive. On their door and mailbox were notices from the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department: “Warning,” they read. “On October 24, 2014, the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department deployed chemical agent commonly known as tear gas inside and around the property. … The location has been ventilated, but the Sheriff’s Department is not responsible for cleaning up the residual chemical agent left on the property.”
The document listed potential health problems associated with the chemicals lingering in their home: lung, nose and throat pain, difficulty breathing, profuse tearing, coughing and skin irritation.
“I remember thinking, ‘No way.’ Look where I live, huh? How in the hell could the guy even find the house?” Steve said. “Because if you don’t know how to get here, it’s awful difficult to even find this place, you know?”
Eight windows were shot to pieces. They tried to go inside to see the extent of the damage, Maureen said, but couldn’t make it past the front room. Tear gas hung in the air. It tugged at their noses, burned their eyes and skin. In a matter of minutes, they were coughing, stumbling out of their house, wondering what to do.
Blessings and relief
The Larsons said they called their insurance company and initially were told the damage would not be covered. They said they went to the Placer County Sheriff’s Office, where they were told it was Sacramento County’s case. When they called the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department, they were sent back to Placer County.
“All we were really looking for was a place to start,” Steve said. “Because, believe it or not, I’m 66 years of age, and it’s the first time anything like this has ever happened to me.”
It was overwhelming at first, the Larsons said. They felt adrift and alone.
In the weeks since, the insurance company has said the couple will be compensated, at least in part, and Placer County has said it can help with expenses. Strangers have reached out. A neighborhood potluck collected meals that fed them for a week. Local companies have offered goods and services, free of charge.
As the damage-restoration company continues to decontaminate the couple’s possessions, an agent will assess what portion of the cleanup and replacement costs their insurance will cover. After that, they can apply for help with the Placer County Division of Risk Management, which will take the claim to county officials.
Meanwhile, friends have set up online fundraisers at GoFundMe.com that, as of Friday, had collected more than $8,000.
“I get real emotional when I start thinking about that,” Steve said, his voice catching in his throat. “It’s amazing. Absolutely amazing. The community, the country, everybody’s been so supportive.”
There are several items the Larsons will never be able to replace if they can’t be saved. Among them: the shawl that belonged to Maureen’s great-grandmother; Steve’s collection of the Great Works of the Western World, purchased from an Army buddy during the Vietnam War.
“We can cry a little over the things we’ve lost, but we’ll start fresh,” Maureen said. “Even the stuff it hurts the most to lose – it is just stuff, so we’ll be fine. And with all the people who are reaching out to us and helping us, I’ve been so overwhelmed by their kindness. It’s such a relief and such a blessing.”
They feel lucky every time they see Neal and their three cats, who made it out from the home unscathed. And they feel lucky that, while it may take time, someday they’ll be able to go home.
Call The Bee’s Marissa Lang at (916) 321-1038. Follow her on Twitter at @Marissa_Jae.