In the high desert of California’s most northeastern corner, ‘Bad Jack’ Breiner met ‘Our Jack’ Hopkins on a deserted dirt road in October 2016.
Only one survived, forcing this remote county to rethink what law and order means in a place with thousands of empty acres but only a handful of deputies to patrol them.
It wasn’t yet noon when Jack Lee Breiner and Jack Hopkins crossed paths. Hopkins, 31, was new to the Modoc County Sheriff’s Office, a deputy in his first weeks of active duty.
Breiner was a felon and registered sex offender with a long history of trouble. “We’d deal with him frequently,” said Modoc County Sheriff Mike Poindexter, a barrel-necked ex-marine with a bald head and a walrus mustache. “Jack (Breiner) typically would be the type that would resist and want to fight until you got him handcuffed, and then he’d say, ‘The handcuffs are too tight. Please make them looser.’ ”
Breiner’s family had called 911 to say he’d beaten up his father a few minutes earlier, a not-uncommon occurrence according to Poindexter.
The sheriff was the sole man handling calls in the tiny department that day, but Hopkins heard the dispatcher and grabbed it anyway. He was eager to prove his worth. He had been let go by the local city police after crashing his patrol vehicle a few times, Poindexter said. The sheriff, who has a hard time finding deputies because his pay is bad and the county is isolated, gave Hopkins a second chance. He said Hopkins had learned to drive with one foot on each pedal when he was young, a fixable problem.
Before Hopkins got to the Breiner ranch, Breiner headed down the single lane in his pickup. They met at the gate of the property, a boundary surrounded by miles of nearly empty scrub land and backed by the nearby Warner Mountains, where wild horses roam. Breiner wheeled his truck to the right and allegedly fired an AK-47, shooting Hopkins in the face, too quickly for Hopkins to react. Breiner then walked to the deputy’s vehicle and turned off the engine before continuing down the road, Poindexter said.
In the confusion after the shooting, the Jacks have come to be known around Modoc as ‘Bad Jack’ and ‘Our Jack,’ a shorthand way of remembering two men whose seconds-long encounter has become a cautionary tale of policing in rural counties. The incident was a crisis for the tiny department and prompted a fundamental shift in what had been a maverick way of doing business. Deputies try not to respond to calls alone anymore, even if it means leaving residents waiting longer for help.
In some places in Modoc the nearest deputy can be three hours away. But the “Tombstone courage” that encouraged them to handle even serious situations without backup is being replaced with a “smarter” approach,” said Modoc Sgt. Mike Main.
“Now the call response time is going to take twice as long, (but) I’d rather go in there where it’s not a fair fight and I have two of my deputies against one person than mano-a-mano,” Main said. “Even though Modoc is where the west still lives, it’s not the good old west anymore.”
Hopkins’ death also highlighted a chronic problem for cash-strapped rural sheriff’s departments across California: They lack the money to provide adequate public safety in their communities, forcing both deputies and the public into dangerous situations because they don’t have enough personnel. In Modoc, a starting deputy can make as low as $13 an hour. The department has about a dozen deputies total, responsible for patrolling across the 4,203 square miles, though much of it is federal or state protected lands.
“I don’t know that we are every going to have the money to increase our staffing and then recruiting,” said Poindexter. “We have a heck of a problem here because we don’t pay. We don’t pay anything.”
Poindexter, who had followed Hopkins as soon as he heard the young deputy was on his own, came upon Breiner about a half mile from where he allegedly killed Hopkins, the tire of his truck stuck in the mud.
Like with Hopkins, Breiner allegedly fired on the sheriff before Poindexter got out of his sport-utility vehicle, shooting out the passenger window as Poindexter ducked down and tried to reverse.
Poindexter grabbed his own rifle from the back seat and jumped out. He returned fire, crouched down by the bumper, he said.
“It went back and forth for a while,” before Poindexter heard a sound that he knew from hunting, the particular thunk of ammo hitting flesh, he said. Breiner “kept shooting a bullet or two,” but Poindexter was “pretty sure I hit him.”
More law enforcement arrived and they took Breiner alive.
“One of the most challenging moments of my life by far was after I put the handcuffs on ‘Bad Jack,’ ” said Main, who helped train Hopkins. Main guarded Breiner on an airlift to Mercy Medical Center in Redding, where he was treated for injuries, including a bullet in the leg.
“I just sat there and looked at the man who killed my friend, my partner, and it was the biggest check in my mind that I’ve ever had to go through because my ultimate urge was just to quickly end his life,” said Main. “But at the same time, that’s not the right thing to do, that’s (not) what I’m sworn to do. But I wanted to kill that man. It was tough not to.
“He was conscious and he kept asking me, ‘Why are you looking at me, don’t look at me like that.’ It’s like he, I don’t know, it’s like he didn’t care about what he had done, but he knew what he did. He knew he killed a man.”
Last week, Breiner changed a not guilty plea to not guilty by reason of insanity. The trial will take place in Sacramento, and is expected to begin this fall, according to local media reports.
No verdict will appease Poindexter. The guilt of ‘Our Jack’ being alone in a situation that should have been his to handle is part of what pushed Poindexter to put down his badge after 18 years as sheriff, he said. He didn’t run for another term, and will retire at the end of the year.
“There is nothing anybody can say or do. You know, for me, it should have been my call,” said Poindexter.
“Would I have seen something, would I have had a chance that Jack didn’t have?” he wondered. “That is just something that I will have to ask myself forever, I guess, and never answer.”