Gunman who killed Riverside County deputy should have been jailed on 'three strikes,' sheriff says

For the record:
10:53 p.m. Dec. 29, 2022: A previous version of this story said McKay stabbed a California Highway Patrol dog. He was arrested in the assault on the dog, but it was a passenger in his vehicle who stabbed the animal.

A Riverside County sheriff's deputy was fatally shot Thursday afternoon during a traffic stop in Jurupa Valley, sparking a high-speed chase across multiple freeways that ended with deputies killing the gunman in a shootout.

The shooter was a violent felon who should have been incarcerated under California's "three strikes" law after a recent conviction but was released on bail while his case was pending, Sheriff Chad Bianco said at a news conference Thursday night.

Deputy Isaiah Cordero, 32, was conducting a traffic stop just before 2 p.m. near the 3900 block of Golden West Avenue when the suspect pulled out a gun and shot him as he approached the vehicle, Bianco said.

As a witness called 911, the gunman drove off, drawing a sweeping manhunt that spanned two counties.

Spotted in San Bernardino County, the gunman fled back to Jurupa Valley, where his truck ran over a spike strip on the 60 Freeway but continued driving. As many as 30 police vehicles followed the gunman's truck south on Interstate 15 to Norco.

By the time the gunman reached the 6th Street exit of the 15 in Norco, the vehicle was smoking, its tires had been stripped away, and an axle had given way, rendering it disabled.

The stage was set for a final confrontation that ended in a hail of bullets.

The gunman shot at the deputies pursuing him, prompting them to return fire and kill him, Bianco said. More than 10 officers opened fire in the gun battle, according to sources familiar with the investigation.

The pickup truck driven by the gunman was rammed and pinned by a SWAT armored vehicle on the side of the 15. TV coverage showed multiple gunshot holes in the windshield.

Bianco identified the gunman as William Shea McKay, 44, who most recently lived in San Bernardino County.

It was not immediately clear why Cordero had pulled over McKay, the sheriff said. Investigators will review footage from the deputy’s body camera.

The southbound 15 was shut down due to large numbers of police vehicles on the highway where the pursuit ended.

The deputy was pronounced dead at Riverside Community Hospital after he was taken there from the shooting scene, a law enforcement source told The Times.

Bianco laid blame for Cordero's death on failures of the criminal justice system.

McKay's criminal history dated to the 1990s and included kidnapping, robbery and multiple assaults with deadly weapons, Bianco said.

"This terrible tragedy should have been prevented by the legal system," Bianco said. "McKay has an extensive, violent past and was convicted of his third strike in November of 2021."

Two sheriff's deputies in uniform embrace in a parking lot.
Deputies embrace outside Riverside Community Hospital after one of their fellow lawmen was shot and killed during a traffic stop. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

That case involved kidnapping and assault with a deadly weapon, the sheriff said.

"Instead of sentencing him to 25 years to life, which should have happened, the judge lowered his bail, allowing him to be released," Bianco said.

The sheriff declined to name the judge.

McKay was arrested again for failing to appear at his sentencing "and additional criminal charges," but he was released by the same judge, Bianco said.

A Times review of San Bernardino County court records showed that McKay was convicted Nov. 8, 2021, of false imprisonment, evading a peace officer, criminal threats likely to result in death or great bodily injury and receiving stolen property. Evidence included zip ties, duct tape, an ax and gang paraphernalia, according to a court filing.

In that case, McKay was found not guilty of kidnapping and kidnapping to commit robbery or rape. He was also found to be a felon who had serious prior convictions.

After his conviction, McKay’s lawyers sought to strike one of his prior strikes, the records show.

Judge Cara D. Hutson delayed sentencing at least two times after a motion was entered for a new trial. Another judge conducted a custody status hearing Oct. 22 without McKay present.

McKay's original bail was set at $950,000 in June 2021, court records show. After the verdicts, including his acquittal on kidnapping charges, Hutson reduced his bail to $500,000.

The union that represents the department's deputies said in a statement Thursday night that Cordero was "a ray of sunshine" and dedicated to protecting others.

"Deputy Cordero's death leaves a tremendous hole in the hearts of so many people who had the chance to know him personally," the Riverside Sheriffs' Assn. said. "Today, [he] made the ultimate sacrifice in the line of duty — a debt that can never be repaid. ... Our heart goes out to his family, friends, and fellow deputies through this difficult time."

Deputies wheeled his coffin past ranks of saluting law enforcement officials and into a hearse outside the hospital. A procession of sheriff's cruisers escorted Cordero's body to the county coroner's bureau, passing under a large U.S. flag that hung off a fire department ladder truck.

Riverside County deputies sent a message among their ranks. A copy obtained by The Times reads: "Our fallen hero just graduated from motor school a few months ago. He was shot and murdered on a traffic stop. ... [The suspect] fled but was observed by an off-duty officer who communicated his location. A pursuit ensued" and the suspect was killed. The message closed with, "Rest easy deputy."

A large U.S. flag hangs from a firetruck as motorcycle officers form a procession around a hearse.
A law enforcement procession escorts the hearse carrying the body of Deputy Isaiah Cordero on Thursday night in Riverside. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Cordero was hired by the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department in 2014 to work in the county jails.

He was assigned to the Robert Presley Detention Center, Smith Correctional Facility and Indio jail before enrolling at the sheriff’s academy in 2018, Bianco said.

At the time of his death, Cordero was assigned to the Jurupa Valley station as a motorcycle deputy, a coveted position within the department.

Applicants must show “a strong desire to get on a motorcycle,” Bianco said. “We don’t just put them there. There is a list of deputies waiting.”

At the station, Cordero was known as a “jokester,” and “all of our deputies considered him a younger brother,” Bianco said.

He was the first Riverside County deputy to be killed in the line of duty in more than 10 years, according to the sheriff.

Deputies had cordoned off a stretch of Golden West Avenue on Thursday night as investigators worked the scene near Rustic Lane Elementary School, whose entrances were also blocked with police tape. A single votive candle flickered at the base of the school's marquee.

Nancy Padilla, who lives across the street from the school, told The Times that she heard sirens shortly after 2 p.m. The noise was nothing unusual for the neighborhood where she's lived for 10 years, she said.

But Padilla became concerned as the commotion mounted.

"I told my daughter, 'It doesn’t sound normal. It’s been going for 10 minutes,'" she said.

Padilla, who had been listening to music and heard no gunshots, looked outside and saw several dozen police cruisers and motorcycles crowding Golden West and the school’s parking lot. Two helicopters clattered overhead.

She said a neighbor told her the shooter had fled in a truck with a tarp covering the bed.

"I know we don’t live in the best neighborhood," Padilla said, "but nothing like this has ever happened."

Times staff writer Summer Lin contributed to this report.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.