Top Stories of 2012: No. 2—RSM's First Officer Involved Shooting

A high-speed chase ended with several shots fired, a suspect with multiple wounds, and a law enforcement agency asking questions. Very little about Rancho Santa Margarita's first OIS was normal.

Dennis Mitchell Mueller had a rap sheet as long as his heavily tattooed arms. Individually, they were mostly small stands against authority—he clearly liked to drive fast—but as a whole, Mueller's transgressions had been growing in severity to include involvement with a stolen vehicle and allegedly being under the influence of a controlled substance.

According to the Orange County District Attorney's office, the 20-year-old Mueller sped down Santa Margarita Parkway at up to 100 mph when he was spotted by Orange County Sheriff's deputy Manuel Cruz near Alma Aldea.

The D.A.'s story goes that Cruz was familiar with Mueller and his motorcycle from previous contact. Running red lights and speeding through the streets, Mueller's Suzuki left the motorcycle cop far behind as he headed toward his Robinson Ranch home. Cruz, a 10-year veteran of the OCSD, knew the vicinity where Mueller lived and went there.

In events corroborated by witnesses, according to the D.A., Cruz encountered Mueller in front of his home on Meadow Park Lane and, gun drawn, told him to not move. Instead, Mueller advanced toward the officer and reached for the inside of his jacket toward his waistband.

Cruz fired his gun seven times, although not in rapid succession, and struck Mueller five times. Mueller received two bullets to the abdomen, one in the right side, and two in the left arm. Mueller, it turned out, was unarmed.

The March 10 encounter lasted less than a minute, ending at 12:57 p.m.

What made Rancho Santa Margarita's first officer-involved shooting so notable was the timing.

The March 10 incident came a month after the controversial Feb. 7 shooting by deputy Darren Sandberg, who killed Marine Sgt. Manuel Loggins at San Clemente High while Loggins' children watched from the backseat of his car, and eight months after the beating death of Kelly Thomas by Fullerton Police.  Excessive force was on the public conscience, and shooting a speeding motorcyclist did nothing to allay those concerns.

Mueller was charged with two misdemeanor traffic violations and an infraction. He pleaded not guilty in April at a preliminary hearing but guilty in October to one felony count of evading while driving recklessly.

Since March 7, 2011, Mueller had been cited eight times by three agencies, the OCSD, California Highway Patrol and Newport Beach Police. Among them were charges of being under the influence of a controlled substance, and two months later with receiving stolen property.

Yet Mueller's team of attorneys indicated it was Cruz who would ultimately be on trial. Joel Baruch accused the officer of "lying in wait." Mueller filed a claim against the county for damages he suffered at the hands of a so-called rogue cop, a story that will play out in the future.

Authorities have not yet released findings into the investigation of the shooting.


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