LOS ANGELES – A burglary suspect who tried to evade police by hiding in a narrow storm drain for 12 hours Tuesday finally agreed to give himself up after talking to a local TV reporter on his cell phone.
The man resisted negotiators, a police dog, an improvised plunger, several doses of tear gas and even a professional urban search-and-rescue firefighter, authorities said. But police and fire officials credit KABC-TV reporter Leo Stallworth with opening the communication that led to the man's safe surrender.
The man shimmied up a diagonal storm drain about 18 inches across and 80 feet long, and wedged himself inside, evading efforts by the Fire Department's best-trained rescuers, said Deputy Police Chief Michel Moore.
"We applied tear gas on more than one occasion. We stopped because we thought he'd suffocate to death. Just the way he resisted the tear gas was amazing," Moore said.
The suspect, who Moore said was about 5 feet 8 inches tall and 140 pounds, crawled into the pipe after officers said they found him and another man attempting to steal copper wire from a nearby warehouse at around 2 a.m in the North Hills area of the San Fernando Valley.
Police SWAT teams and firefighters were confounded by working with someone who didn't want to be rescued in tight quarters, Moore said. But authorities could not simply give up on capturing the man because he was a danger to himself, the deputy chief said.
The man's determination to stay put challenged the creativity of the well-trained rescuers.
"These firefighters have a toy chest of equipment and gear that is the envy of every fire professional in America," Moore said. "It turned into a MacGyver moment."
Firefighters fashioned a plunger with a heavy climbing rope, a large plywood disk and several canvas bags, fire spokesman Capt. Steve Ruda said. But when they threaded the rope through the pipe and started to pull, the suspect produced a knife and cut the 1.5-inch-thick rope.
Just as firefighters were about to jerry-rig another plunger with a cable, the man called his girlfriend on his cell phone.
"He's 30-feet underground, and somehow he has cell coverage," Moore said. "The girlfriend calls the news media and he gets on the phone with Channel 7."
KABC-TV later broadcast the audio of the conversation between the reporter and the suspect.
"The question is, why won't you come out?" Stallworth asked.
"'Cause I hate leaving my freedom," the man said from inside the pipe.
"You're in a storm drain. Is there any freedom in there?" Stallworth asked. "Your girlfriend wants you to come out. She's called the station. Your children want you to come out. At some point you're going to have to face the music."
Stallworth worked with police negotiators to talk the man into surrendering himself, Ruda said. The suspect emerged from the bottom of the hole, dirty, shirtless and scratched after 12 hours of hiding. Police trained their guns on him until he gave up his knife, he said.
He was arrested on suspicion of burglary, Moore said.