Armed Civilian Praised for Shooting Undocumented Suspect Who Attacked Trooper

Leonard Penuelas-Escobar, 37, attacked a state trooper on January 12 and was shot dead by an armed civilian who stopped to help.
Leonard Penuelas-Escobar, 37, attacked a state trooper on January 12 and was shot dead by an armed civilian who stopped to help. Arizona Department of Public Safety
The state Department of Public Safety director on Monday heaped praised on the still-unnamed hero who used his firearm to stop a suspect from attacking a state trooper last week.

Director Frank Milstead also revealed more details about the case, which made international headlines.

As DPS released last week, the "Good Samaritan" had been traveling on Interstate 10 west of Tonopah before dawn on January 12 when he spotted the suspect pummeling Trooper Edward Andersson on the side of the highway. He stopped his car, retrieved his handgun, then shot and killed the suspect.

Director Frank Milstead told reporters at the news conference Monday that if the "Good Samaritan" didn't save the Trooper Edward Andersson's life last Thursday, he prevented the officer from suffering "much more severe neurological injuries from this beating that he was taking, helplessly at the time."

As revealed in Milstead's version of the dramatic events:

Suspect Leonard Penuelas-Escobar was a 37-year-old Mexican national and former Mexican police officer who was in the United States without authorization. He and his girlfriend, Phoenix native Vanessa Lopez-Ruiz, 23, were a couple of meth users who'd recently been kicked out of an apartment for dealing drugs. He'd been turned back during an attempted border crossing, but later came to the United States and lived in Glendale for about a year and a half with no reported contact by authorities.

Lopez-Ruiz had a warrant out for her arrest since failing to show up to court on shoplifting and drug-possession charges. She and Penuelas-Escobar had apparently been racing down the highway at about 4 a.m. that Thursday morning when the vehicle lost control and flipped at about milepost 89, roughly 50 miles west of Phoenix.

Lopez-Ruiz was ejected from the vehicle and killed; Penuelas-Escobar survived.

click to enlarge DPS Director Frank Milstead - ARIZONA DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC SAFETY
DPS Director Frank Milstead
Arizona Department of Public Safety
A call soon came in to 911: A motorist reported that he believed a man with a gun on the side of the road had shot his car. The motorist said he’d heard a "loud bang," and then his car suddenly lost power. More 911 calls came in, with motorists reporting a man with a gun "dragging a body out of the roadway."

Before that, though, emergency dispatch had begun receiving calls about the rollover accident.

Andersson, a commercial vehicle inspector, headed over to the crash site. When he got there, he saw a Hispanic man hunched down with a woman in his arms. The officer put out some flares to direct traffic around the site and approached the couple. He could see the woman was injured – the man was saying something to him, but the trooper couldn't make it out.

At this time, Milstead related, the trooper was still in rescue mode, thinking he was about to provide first aid to crash victims.

Penuelas-Escobar pointed a handgun at Andersson and fired. The bullet penetrated the officer's shoulder and exited through his torso. His arm immediately grew limp and numb from the impact. Then the suspect tackled him to the ground.

The Good Samaritan then approached the scene while on his way to California, slowed to about 20 or 30 mph.

"He sees the Hispanic male straddling the trooper and taking big blows at him, and trying to bang his head into the ground while striking him," Milstead said.

The motorist stopped his vehicle. While his fiancé called 911, he pulled his 9mm handgun from his car’s center console. He walked to within five feet of the brawl and ordered the suspect to stop striking the officer. Penuelas-Escobar responded with profanity and continued beating Andersson.

The motorist lined up for a clean shot, then fired at the attacker, with at least two bullets hitting the Penuelas-Escobar.

By this time, backup help including a helicopter were already on the way because of the vehicle collision. Another man, previously identified as Brian Schober, stopped and used the radio in Andersson’s patrol car to report the ambush and injured officer. The armed Good Samaritan attended to the officer.

But Penuelas-Escobar wasn’t finished – he got up and began attacking "them," Milstead said.
As the suspect approached, the Good Samaritan fired another round, striking Penuelas-Escobar in the head and killing him.

Milstead said he hasn't met the hero yet, but talked to him briefly when he called to thank him on behalf of the DPS and Arizona.

click to enlarge Vanessa Lopez-Ruiz, 23, was killed in the I-10 rollover crash on January 12. - ARIZONA DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC SAFETY
Vanessa Lopez-Ruiz, 23, was killed in the I-10 rollover crash on January 12.
Arizona Department of Public Safety
"He's a very humble guy," Milstead said. "A very spiritual guy. He believes God put him there that morning so he could save Trooper Andersson's life."

The Good Samaritan knows he did the right thing, but he's still trying to "reconcile" the events in his mind, the director said.

Milstead added that he believes the man will speak to the media at some point. The Good Samaritan has asked authorities not to reveal his identity to the public.

Many questions remain about the incident.

For instance, it's unclear what happened to Penuelas-Escobar's handgun during the fight and why he didn’t make further use of it. Also unknown – what led to the rollover crash, and why Penuelas-Escobar made the choice to attack Andersson.

Andersson went through several surgeries before being released from the hospital, and has been on painkillers. While the preliminary story has become clearer, Milstead said, what happened that day may never be fully known because both suspects are dead.

As much as the DPS appreciates the Good Samaritan's actions, Milstead warned the public that if they want to help a law officer, they’d better take care to find out of the officer really needs help and not become part of the problem.
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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.