Davis police Officer Natalie Corona died as the result of a chilling, resolute ambush by a city resident on a bicycle who rode up to an accident scene she was investigating Thursday night, then opened fire with a hail of bullets from a semiautomatic handgun, police said.
Chief Darren Pytel described an inexplicable attack that began just before 7 p.m. near 5th and D streets as Corona responded to a minor three-car collision.
As she stood talking to one of the motorists, the gunman glided up on a bicycle, stopping in the shadows on a sidewalk, then walked toward the 22-year-old rookie police officer and began firing.
“The suspect basically just opened up firing, shot her once and she went down to the ground, and he ended up shooting her multiple times,” Pytel said at a news conference Friday night at police headquarters. “At that point, he unloaded a magazine, reloaded and started shooting in another direction.”
The shooting 24 hours before was indiscriminate, Pytel said: Corona, who was wearing a protective vest, was shot in the neck and went down, then shot numerous more times.
“This clearly, to us, looks like an ambush,” the chief said, adding, “At this point, we’re speculating that she never saw him.”
After shooting Corona, the gunman opened up on the surrounding scene, striking a nearby fire engine, a house, a passing bus, shooting through a backpack worn by a young woman who was saved when the round lodged in a textbook, and firing at a firefighter running away who was struck in his boot but uninjured.
Somehow, Corona was the only casualty of the shooting spree, which ended when the gunman ran toward a rental home he shared with a roommate at 501 E St., Pytel said.
“It appeared that he basically circled the block,” Pytel said, leaving behind a backpack and going inside his home. Once there, Pytel said, the gunman met up with his roommate but gave no hint of the rampage he had just conducted outside.
Police from throughout the region rushed to the normally quiet college town, eventually surrounding the home.
But even that show of force seemed to have little impact as the gunman emerged from the house.
“At one point he did come out,” Pytel said. “It appeared to officers that he was wearing a ballistic vest, a bulletproof vest. He shouted some stuff, went back in and came back out with a firearm, then went back inside, pushed a couch in front of the door and officers heard a gunshot.”
The gunman had shot himself in the head inside the home, Pytel said, leaving a complete mystery for now about what might have set him off.
Authorities still have not released the gunman’s name, saying they may not do so before next week, but Pytel said he had no known history of violence or threats. His only prior contact with Davis police came last year when he reported being a victim of a crime, “nothing that was extraordinary at all,” the chief said.
Despite the rampage, police responding to the scene never fired a single shot, Pytel said, and much of the initial shooting apparently was captured by the in-car camera in Corona’s SUV.
“It sounds like the video kept running, and it hadn’t even downloaded into the system because the video was so long from the in-car camera,” he said.
Corona also was wearing a body camera, but Pytel said he was not certain whether that had been activated; given that she was investigating a minor traffic mishap, she may not have turned it on, he said.
Corona, who graduated from the Sacramento Police Department’s training academy in July and completed her field training just before Christmas, responded to the accident scene alone.
Christian Pascual, a 25-year-old UC Davis graduate, was driving a 1996 Infiniti on Fifth Street just before 7 p.m. when another vehicle hit his car and sent Pascual out of control and crashing into a third vehicle, he told The Sacramento Bee Friday morning.
Pascual got out of his vehicle to exchange information with the other drivers as Corona arrived and began talking to the drivers.
“I gave her my license and she was just about to give it to me,” Pascual said. “That’s when I heard the shots.”
He said the shots came from directly behind him, with the gunman firing over his right shoulder so close to his ear that he was suffering from hearing loss Friday morning.
“The person was behind me and all of a sudden I heard gunshots,” he said.
Pascual added that he did not believe the gunman was one of the drivers involved in the collision and appeared to be a bystander.
He said that when he heard the shots he instinctively ducked down.
“When I looked up and I saw the officer on the ground he was already walking due west toward C Street, like just shooting at what looked like random people to me,” Pascual said, adding that he knew then he had to flee.
“I just knew that I had to get out of there once I saw the gun and what was happening,” he said. “I count myself pretty lucky that he didn’t think of me.”
Pascual, now a graduate student at Columbia University in New York, said he was on his way to the UC Davis campus to visit friends when the incident began, and that after he saw Corona shot he ran down D Street and hid in some bushes.
Another witness told police that she had been walking about 15 feet from the shooter when she saw him open fire. The woman, who was upset and did not want to be named, arrived at Davis police headquarters Friday afternoon accompanied by two friends to report that she had found a bullet inside the backpack she was wearing Thursday night.
Their harrowing tales came as authorities continued to investigate why the gunman opened fire. Pytel said he did not know if any notes or possible explanations for the rampage were left behind, and said he could not yet release the suspect’s identity without authorization from the Yolo County coroner.
Corona’s death was the first line-of-duty slaying for the department in nearly 60 years, and left its officers and civilian staffers “absolutely devastated,” the chief said.
“She was a rising star in the department,” Pytel said. “She just worked like you can’t believe.”
Officers from throughout the region and the Bay Area swarmed into Davis following the shooting, forcing shelter-in-place warnings for UC Davis students and prompting a flurry of text, phone and email alerts to the community.
The Davis department is relatively small, with 61 sworn officers and 34 civilian staffers, and Davis police spokesman Lt. Paul Doroshov described it as a family, saying officers were “all pretty shocked” by the shooting.
The department’s 2017 annual report said violent and property crimes had decreased steadily in recent years, with one homicide reported in 2017 and none in 2016.
The department has not had an officer killed in the line of duty since Douglas Cantrill was gunned down Sept. 7, 1959.
According to the previous reporting by The Sacramento Bee, the 23-year-old patrolman was found shot to death in his cruiser along H Street. Cantrill had stopped a man and woman acting suspicious in a residential neighbor when a struggle ensued and the killer had shot him with his service pistol.
Two suspects were caught but never charged with the officer’s slaying, according to the Yolo County District Attorney’s Office.
Cantrill, who had only served on the Davis force for a month after two years in law enforcement, was survived by a wife and infant child, the District Attorney’s Office said. His name is one of 11 inscribed on Yolo County’s Fallen Officer Memorial in Woodland.
Davis police turned the Corona shooting investigation over to the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department, which by Friday morning had 14 homicide detectives and crime scene investigators at the scene of Corona’s slaying and the home where the gunman shot himself.
Sheriff’s Sgt. Shaun Hampton said Sacramento was called in to help because the department is much larger than the Davis Police Department and because of its experience with officer-involved shootings.
“Unfortunately, we’re no strangers to officers getting killed in the line of duty,” Hampton said, referring to the fact that three Sacramento deputies have been shot to death on duty since 2014.
Some downtown Davis streets remained closed off Friday as investigators tried to piece together what sparked the shooting.
Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a statement Friday mourning her loss.
“Jennifer and I are terribly saddened to learn of the death of Officer Corona,” the governor’s statement said. “Officer Corona was protecting her community from harm when she was tragically shot in the line of duty.
“Despite the valiant efforts of paramedics who rushed her to the hospital, and UC Davis Medical Center personnel, she succumbed to her injuries.”
A candlelight vigil is scheduled in Davis for Saturday from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. at Central Park, and Pytel said an honor guard of officers will remain watching over Corona until she is buried.
The slain officer was highly regarded by her co-workers for her exuberance and love of the job, Pytel said.
“I don’t think I’ve ever worked with anybody quite like her,” the chief said.