Deputy Wounded in Third Shootout in Four Months

Written by Neil Farrell

Neil has been a journalist covering the Estero Bay Area for over 27 years. He’s won numerous journalism awards in several different categories over his career.

October 9, 2020

A San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s deputy was wounded in a shootout with a wanted ex-felon, marking the third time Sheriff’s deputies have shot by a gunman in just the past 4 months.

On Friday, Sept. 24 at about 10:20 a.m. a Sheriff’s deputy patrolling on Theater Drive in Templeton came across a broken down vehicle he reportedly recognized as belonging to a local gang member who had an active warrant.

According to Sheriff’s spokesman, Tony Cipolla, “Upon pulling over, the suspect fled from his vehicle on foot and the deputy gave chase and was joined by a second deputy in the search. The suspect ran through the vineyards to the cemetery, hid and then ambushed the deputies.”

Cipolla said the suspect fired multiple shots from a handgun at the deputies, and hit one of them in the leg. 

“The deputies returned fire,” Cipolla said. “The suspect continued to flee and attempted to return to his vehicle through the vineyard.” 

But by then backup had arrived on scene and intercepted the man trying to get back inside his vehicle, which was locked.

“He was still armed with a handgun,” Cipolla said, “at which point a second officer-involved shooting took place on Theatre Drive. The suspect was pronounced deceased at the scene.”

The wounded deputy, later identified as Richard “Ted” Lehnhoff, 34, was airlifted to a local hospital via Highway Patrol helicopter, where he was treated for a gunshot wound in his lower left leg, spent a few days in the hospital and was released. He is anticipated to make a full recovery.

The dead suspect was identified as Christopher Michael Straub, 38 of Templeton, whom Cipolla said had a criminal record.

“Straub had a significant criminal history,” Cipolla said, “having been booked 28 times into jails all across California including two incarcerations in State prison. Straub was a known member of a white supremacist gang, and a criminal investigation had already been initiated by the Sheriff’s Gang Task Force when this incident occurred.” The Sheriff’s Office has not identified the gang.

Straub was loaded for bear and was believed to be trying to access the weapons in the car when he was killed.

“Multiple weapons were discovered afterwards in Straub’s vehicle,” Cipolla said, “including four assault rifles, one bolt action hunting rifle, one shotgun, two handguns, plus the handgun he used to shoot at deputies. After a search warrant was served on his residence, it was discovered he was illegally manufacturing parts for weapons.”

Deputy Lehnhoff, according to Cipolla, started with the Sheriff’s Office in 2008 as a correctional deputy. “He left for a job in law enforcement in Riverside County,” Cipolla said. “In 2015, he returned to the Sheriff’s Office to work as a patrol deputy.”

The officer-involved shooting, which is rare in SLO County, was the third in the past 4 months.

Back on June 10, Mason James Lira, 26, a transient from Monterey with a long, violent criminal history, fired a handgun into the Paso Robles Police Station at about 3:45 a.m. and then fled into the night.

Paso Robles police officers were inside the building at the time. Sheriff’s deputies and the Highway Patrol responded to their call for assistance. 

When they arrived on scene, the gunman was gone so they started to search Downtown Paso Robles when about 4:19 a.m. the gunman started shooting at them.

“One of the deputies was shot in the face by the suspect,” Cipolla said. “The second deputy returned fire at the suspect. This Deputy then grabbed his wounded partner and removed him to a position of relative safety where he rendered medical aid.”

The wounded deputy, Nicholas Dreyfus, 28, was flown to an out-of-area hospital where he underwent surgery and has since been released and is recuperating.

A massive manhunt was launched for Lira, who had vanished again, involving several law enforcement agencies.

Meanwhile at 7 a.m. that morning, someone reported finding a dead body lying near the train tracks. That person was identified as a 58-year-old transient man and Coroner’s Investigators determined that he had been murdered, Cipolla said. Lira is suspected of killing him.

At about 2:10 p.m. June 11, with officers on Ramada Drive staging for a search of the nearby Salinas Riverbed, Lira resurfaced and another shootout ensued with a second deputy being hit and rushed to the hospital.

“Officers arrived at the scene and conducted a search for the suspect,” Cipolla said, “when the suspect opened fire on the officers, wounding two of them. These officers were also evacuated and transported to local area hospitals for treatment. Officers continued their search for the suspect along the Salinas River when they encountered Lira, who had been hiding in the riverbed.”

Lira had now allegedly killed one man, and wounded four law enforcement officers, in possibly the worst shootout this county has ever seen.

Officers found Lira and he reportedly ran towards Hwy 101, fleeing through a vineyard when he was shot and killed by officers. He too was heavily armed.

“Officers found Lira in possession of two handguns that are believed to have been stolen from a commercial burglary in the City of San Luis Obispo a few days before the shooting of the Sheriff’s deputy on June 10,” Cipolla said.

Lira reportedly had a box of ammo with him when he met his demise, and Sheriff Ian Parkinson said they found more ammunition in a hidey-hole under a Downtown theater, where he was believed to have been camping for up to a week.

It’s unknown why Lira, who had a history of mental illness, went on the shooting spree but authorities said he had a long history with the law. 

Lira was arrested several times in at least three counties — Monterey, Santa Cruz and Tulare, according to Cipolla. He’d been released from Monterey County custody June 3.

And on Aug. 21 in Nipomo, Sheriff’s deputies killed a Bakersfield man who opened fire at the Vons gas station in the 500 block of Tefft St. Scott Huffman, 42 of Bakersfield was firing randomly into the store and at a passing fire engine responding to a completely unrelated call. Huffman reportedly fired at officers and was killed when they fired back.

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