Slain Palos Verdes Estates police officers remembered 20 years later

An aerial view of Palos Verdes Peninsula
An aerial view of Palos Verdes Peninsula

Valentines Day in 1994 ended in tragedy for the Palos Verdes Estates Police Department after two of its veteran officers were killed in a shooting at the Torrance Holiday Inn during a police training session.

20 years after the shooting, fellow officers, friends and family will gather at the Neighborhood Church to remember PVE Sergeant Tom Vanderpool and Captain Mike Tracy.

The officers were killed after a masked gunman burst into a conference room of the hotel during a motivational training seminar. According to a 1994 Easy Reader story, the masked man, armed with a pair of pistols and wearing a bulletproof vest, ski mask and black gloves, entered the conference room on the hotel’s 12th floor where 13 police officers and city officials were meeting and shouted, “This is a robbery! Put your hands behind your heads.” When Vanderpool, 57, approached him, the gunman fired two bullets into the officer’s chest. Tracy, 50, went to Vanderpool’s aid after the shooting and was himself shot. Torrance officers said that he fired at least three more shots during the struggle.

The assailant, identified as Joseph Fukuto, 32, choked to death while being subdued by three or four other officers. He died of a broken neck and severe head injuries sustained in a violent struggle. The Los Angeles County Dist. Attorney Gil Garcetti said in a March 1994 Los Angeles Times article that the PVE officers used justifiable force in subduing Fukuto. His family did not file a wrongful death suit.

“The officers involved in subduing and disarming Mr. Fukuto did nothing wrong,” said Garcetti, holding the .22-caliber Ruger handgun and 9-millimeter Sig Sauer handgun used by Fukuto in the article. “They did in fact use reasonable force and there is no question that Mr. Fukuto was acting viciously and violently after he had shot and killed the two officers.”

Torrance police believe that Fukuto’s motive was financial, the LA Times article said, and that he simply entered that particular conference room unaware it was full of police.

Fukuto, a former insurance salesman, was financially strapped, his credit cards had been canceled and the state Franchise Tax Board had a lien against him, police said.

PVE Chief Gary Johansen told the New York Times that he was certain that Mr. Fukuto had no idea that the hotel’s penthouse meeting room was filled with police officers, none of whom were in uniform. “I’m convinced it was a robbery,” he said. “The suspect had a fanny pack with him that had a number of plastic handcuffs in it. He apparently planned to tie everybody up and then rob the people there.”

According to the Easy Reader article, Fukuto had no prior criminal record and was the son of a prominent Superior Court justice, Morio Fukuto of Torrance.

“I can not ever forget that day,” an unnamed former Goodhew Ambulance medic wrote on Tracy’s Officer Down Memorial page. “I was one of the Goodhew ambulance medics there that day, I remember…[the] Goodhew Ambulance medics fought hard to save Mike and Vernon’s lives that day… We did our best that day and it still haunts me what happened.”

“My fiancé, Dave Blitz worked with you [Tracy] at Palos Verdes Estates Police Department and I grew up in the South Bay and remember that horrible event, Kat Meredith wrote on the same wall in 2009. “To this day those that lived in the area are still impacted by your loss. You were so heroic in your actions. Dave often speaks about you and has such nice memories of his time working with you. I always think of you and Sergeant Vanderpool whenever I walk by your memorial plaque outside the front of the station and will visit that memorial this Saturday [Feb. 14, 2009] on the anniversary of your death to honor both of you for your service. Rest in Peace.”

Palos Verdes Estates Police Chief Gary Johansen said there was nothing officers could have done to prevent what happened.

“By the time we realized it was not part of a training exercise, it was too late to do anything about it,” he told the LA Times.

Vanderpool and Tracy were the first Palos Verdes Estates officers to die in the line of duty.

The memorial will be 11 a.m. on Feb. 14 at the Neighborhood Church at 415 Paseo Del Mar in Palos Verdes Estates. All are welcome to attend.ER



comments so far. Comments posted to may be reprinted in the Easy Reader print edition, which is published each Thursday.