Lancaster mourns well-known deputy killed while responding to home burglary

He had been a junior in high school, a kid residing with friends, living without guidance.

When he found himself in a squad car for marijuana possession, Randy Johnson Jr. told his story: that he struggled when he moved with his family to Utah, that he insisted on returning to Lancaster, that he was 16 and felt terribly alone.

And then, from the front seat, Sgt. Steve Owen, a bear of a man with a memorable grin and a thick mustache, offered to help.

“He let me know he'd take care of me," Johnson recalled Thursday. "He said he could take me to school every day and bring me lunch if I needed.”

The relationship was unexpected, but not surprising. Not for Owen. During his nearly three-decade career, the 53-year-old had managed to connect with an Antelope Valley community often at odds with law enforcement and where sheriff’s officials faced federal allegations of racial profiling.

Owen was a local resident who knew the players in the rough neighborhoods and had a knack for merging tough talk with acts of kindness. “One of the good ones,” as one resident recalled.

His death Wednesday while responding to a burglary has pushed a city into mourning, with flags at half-staff and leaders in tears.

“We all knew Steve,” City Manager Mark Bozigian said. “The community is grieving.”

The hundreds who huddled at a Wednesday night vigil outside the Lancaster sheriff’s station had the same intentions as the new crowd that arrived in the morning: Cry, pray, replay memories and pay respects.

Among them: a 4-year-old with a card that read “you are my hero;” a cook who worked at a restaurant Owen patronized; a retired deputy from another county; a woman who met Owen at a local event known as “coffee with a deputy.”

Owen, called “Mr. Lancaster” by some, was well-known both in and out of uniform.

"Steve was just the most hands-on, motivated field sergeant that ever worked for me," said Lt. Derrick Alfred, who supervised Owen. 

There were even those whose first encounters with Owen were less than ideal.

Bishop Vaughn met Owen about eight years ago, when the sergeant arrested him.

“That’s how long we’ve been together, partners,” Vaughn said. “He brought me a long way.”

Vaughn now stays at a mental health facility not far from the station. He thinks often of Owen, who he said served as a mentor and a father figure.

“This guy, when I was in trouble, kept me straight,” Vaughn said.

Just a day before, Owen had responded to a seemingly routine burglary call at an apartment building in the 3200 block of West Avenue J-7.

Maria Azuela, 33, had called officers to her home after a loud noise drew her downstairs, where she spotted a broken glass door.

She ran back upstairs to her bedroom where she waited with her 7-month-old baby. Moments later, she heard gunshots. From her bedroom window, Azuela saw a deputy lying on his stomach, motionless. It was Owen.

The gunman, after shooting the sergeant, then stood over him and shot four more rounds into his body, Sheriff Jim McDonnell said Thursday.

“This was a calculated execution,” he said.

The gunman then searched Owen for his weapon with the intent to use it to kill another deputy, McDonnell said. 

The gunman jumped into Owen’s patrol car, where he was fired upon by another deputy. That deputy was injured when  he was struck by another patrol car rammed into by the gunman, identified later by authorities as Trenton Lovell, a 27-year-old Lancaster resident who is on parole. Authorities said Lovell was shot and wounded in the upper torso.

A friend of Owen’s listening to a police scanner frantically sent the sergeant a text. “Owen????” He sent another one. “Please text back and say ur OK.”

Fleeing the scene, Lovell entered a home and took two teenagers hostage for about an hour, according to the teens’ mother.

Her 17-year-old son “befriended” Lovell, helping the wounded gunman out of his blood-soaked shirt and cleaning him up, even providing a change of clothes, said the woman, who asked only to be identified by her first name, Sara.

With the man showing no signs of leaving, Sara’s 19-year-old daughter faked a panic attack. Then her teenage son told Lovell he needed to go upstairs to get his sister some medicine. Once he’d put some distance between himself and Lovell, he texted his mother, who notified authorities.

Lovell was eventually taken into custody. A weapon was recovered, though authorities did not give a description of it.

A woman who identified herself as Lovell’s mother spoke briefly at the apartment where he had been staying, saying she was praying for the sergeant’s family. She said the shooting has devastated her own family, especially Lovell’s sister, with whom he had been living.

“You can’t control another person’s actions,” the mother said.

Nevertheless, she said she would not turn her back on Lovell.

“He’s still my son, and I love him regardless,” she said shortly before closing the door.

The killing startled the neighborhood, where the sound of gunshots sent some people running while others holed up in their homes, clinging to family members.

Laura Hernandez was walking to her car at nearby Antelope Valley College when she ran for cover.

The 32-year-old criminal-justice student learned later that the target was the same man who smiled often during her volunteer shifts at the sheriff’s station as well as at the courthouse.

Employees at the Lemon Leaf cafe in downtown Lancaster saw the flashing lights of sheriff’s cruisers hurrying by and soon began receiving calls and text messages.

A deputy had been shot.

Later, a name. One of their own customers. 

The restaurant hosts the monthly “coffee with a deputy.” At the last meeting, the discussion turned to how safe the area had become in recent years.

"I think that's why it was so soul-penetrating," the restaurant’s owner, Maria Elena Grado, said of the shooting.

By Thursday afternoon, the sheriff’s station continued to serve as a memorial, a place to lay flowers and light candles.

Anthony Cheval, a friend of Owen’s, arrived wearing a T-shirt he had designed. It bore the late sergeant’s likeness with the words “Super Cop.”

“This is the love Owen had,” Cheval, 39, explained.

Johnson, the former troubled teenager, showed up too. Now a 29-year-old married father of two, he works at an auto body shop. 

Owen’s promise of help in that patrol car held true over the years, he said.

Sitting on a bench, Johnson was emotional remembering the day Owen arrived one day as school was getting out.

Owen had glanced down at Johnson’s sneakers. “You got some pretty ratty shoes,” he remarked.

Johnson was used to being ridiculed for his shabby shoes.

Owen walked to the trunk of his car and pulled out a pair of brand-new Nikes, size 10.5.

The moment altered both Johnson’s view of law enforcement officers and his perception of himself. Someone cared.

“I'm only here because of him,” Johnson said. “He’d do anything for you, your community and your kids. A damn good man.”

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