Two deputies killed in Butte County cabin responding to call

STIRLING CITY, Calif. (AP) -- Butte County sheriff's investigators tried Friday to piece together what happened inside a tiny mountain cabin where two deputies and a suspected gunman were found shot to death.

Meanwhile, members of the rural department mourned two officers -- one young and recently married and the other a 30-year veteran who had volunteered to help on the call that apparently led to the shooting.

The deputies are identified as Lt. Larry Estes, 61, and Deputy Bill Hunter, 26, the sheriffO's department said.

"They will be sorely missed," said Butte County Sheriff Scott Mackenzie. He called the shooting "the worst tragedy" in the history of the close-knit department that employs 101 sworn officers.

Investigators identified the gunman as Richard Gerald Bracklow, 46.

Estes and Hunter responded to a complaint that a man made threats and stole one or more weapons about 7 p.m. Thursday from an inn near Bracklow's cabin.

Estes was in the area doing administrative work, and volunteered to help out on the call, Mackenzie said.

Mackenzie said Estes and Hunter confronted Bracklow.

"There was a gun battle that ensued and details are extremely sketchy at this time," Mackenzie said. "We know that a lot of rounds were fired."

When additional officers arrived 45 minutes later, the two deputies didn't respond to dispatchers' calls, authorities said.

Deputies were warned that Bracklow was heavily armed. Shortly after 10:30 p.m., deputies fired tear gas into the cabin and went inside, where they found the three bodies.

Investigators believe all three men fired weapons and that most, if not all, of the gunfire took place inside the 600- to 850-square-foot cabin. Forensics tests were underway Friday to confirm that.

The three men were found relatively close to each other on the ground floor, Mackenzie said.

"We're talking very close range," Mackenzie said, describing the cabin as "cramped and cluttered" with a living room, bathroom and loft.

Authorities said they didn't know if Bracklow was shot by the deputies or committed suicide.

Mackenzie said authorities did not know if Bracklow had any criminal history. Authorities said they were looking for leads about what triggered the event, adding they don't believe it involved domestic violence or drugs.

Mike Van Winkle, a Justice Department spokesman, said the department's Chico-based crime lab and fingerprint analysts from Sacramento are working on the case.

Friends of Bracklow told the Chico Enterprise-Record he was a survivalist who was often seen carrying weapons in public. The newspaper also reported that Bracklow had been seen recently with a woman who may have been his girlfriend.

"If in fact there was a girlfriend, we would want to talk to her," Mackenzie said, but he said police do not believe anyone witnessed the shooting.

The cabin is near the Inskip Inn in Stirling City, a small town in eastern Butte County. Stirling City is about 110 miles north of Sacramento.

Bob Duffey, owner of the inn, called authorities Thursday after Bracklow threatened him, said his son, David Duffey.

That, David Duffey said, was "unusual behavior" for Bracklow, who had lived in the cabin for "nearly four years and has been a model tenant until then."

Estes, known for his dry sense of humor and penchant for practical jokes, "was one who stood behind his men," said undersheriff Terry Korton.

Mackenzie described Hunter as "a very quiet individual, a Christian man, a dedicated law enforcement law officer, a dedicated husband."

Hunter was married within the past year and was a canine officer, Mackenzie said. His dog was in training and did not accompany him on the call.

In May 1997, deputy Randy Jennings was killed by a gunman after responding to a domestic dispute. That was the only other fatal shooting of a Butte County deputy.


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