Oct. 3 2012 10:39 AM

Auto-theft victim learns the back story behind an officer-involved shooting in Vista

Billy Culbertson has been reunited with his traumatized ride.
Photo by Dave Maass

    Billy Culbertson had just finished a long, overnight shift at the emergency room. The trauma nurse parked his car in his assigned spot at an Escondido apartment complex, then performed his ritual—always locking the door as he swings it open, reaching behind him to pull the handle as he swings it shut.

    He spent the next 18 hours crashed on the couch. When it was time to leave for the night shift again, the spot was empty.

    The next time Culbertson saw his 1998 Nissan Sentra it was covered in fingerprinting dust as part of a homicide / officer-involved-shooting investigation. The car thief, a 31-year-old drug addict from Indiana, was shot to death by a sheriff's deputy on Sept. 19 at an apartment complex in Vista.

    "I learned a lesson about my town," Culbertson tells CityBeat. "I felt like I was in a pretty safe area, surrounded by Barnes & Nobles and Starbucks. I really am surrounded by criminals."

    But he also learned what happens when your car is caught up in a crime spree.

    Culbertson is only a few months younger than Christopher "Critter" Hannowsky, the man who jacked his car. He's a talkative EMT-turned-nurse from Tempe, Ariz., temporarily in Escondido on assignment, and this isn't the first time his car was stolen. The last time, though, it didn't bother him. The timing belt on his Accord had broken, and he had enough momentum to cruise off the freeway into a "crummy" neighborhood in downtown Phoenix.

    "Because it was the timing belt, I knew that meant my engine was pretty much totaled, and I wasn't going to be able to have it repaired," he says. "I parked it knowing it was probably going to disappear, which for me would've meant free towing…. When I went back to check on it, it was gone. So, I reported it stolen. I knew there was no chance of recovering it and I never heard back from that police officer about it, either."

    But when he met with an Escondido police officer at the hospital the night of the theft, she said he could expect to see it again.

    "She told me pretty much statistically in Escondido, the cars aren't stolen and chopped and sold for parts," Culbertson says. "They're usually used in some sort of activity, like joy riding, and there's a good chance that they'll find it—maybe in bad condition, but they'll find it."

    And find it they did—20 minutes away in Vista. Culbertson was contacted by the San Diego County Sheriff's Department several days later and told to collect it from an evidence garage in Clairemont. They told him it was involved in a homicide, and he should bring a screwdriver—in case he needed to hotwire it—and a gallon of gas.

    The car was in better condition than he was expecting, especially compared with another vehicle in the garage, a torched BMW. The first thing the sheriff needed was for Culbertson to sort out what property was his and what might've belonged to, or been stolen property possessed by, Hannowsky.

    Culbertson's: a pool cue, a pair of golf shoes and a coffee can filled with emergency supplies such as duct tape, matches and a candle.

    Allegedly Hannowsky's: Laptops taken from either a school or library, a Kindle, stolen credit cards, a woman's purse, quantities of heroin and meth, cash, some beer cans and a case of Mountain Dew.

    The only property of Culbertson's that was missing was two device-charging cables and a little bag of tools. His stereo was intact.

    The sheriff's homicide department did not return CityBeat's calls.

    The story Culbertson pieced together, from what he was told by sheriff's homicide detectives and NBC San Diego reports, is that Hannowsky, after a string of thefts, was spotted by a gang officer with the Sheriff's Department walking around a Vista apartment complex. Deputy Carlos Canela approached the suspect, who was carrying a 10-inch file, and the confrontation escalated into a physical struggle. Hannowsky wrestled Canela's TASER away, prompting Canela to draw his weapon and fire. Hannowsky died at the scene.

    "A side note there: Apparently, my hospital received the call from EMS on that," Culbertson says. "We're the trauma center that serves North County. That would've been pretty ironic. I might've been able to save him."

    As City News Service and NBC would later report, Hannowsky had a string of criminal charges against him, ranging from drug possession to burglary to armed robbery. His Facebook page includes mobile phone images of large amounts of cash and what appears to be a pile of bricks of crystal meth. Initial reports suggested that Hannowsky was a white supremacist (his Facebook page also includes images of a cat dressed as a Nazi), but his family disputes this, and his page includes images of Hannowsky partying in hotel rooms with a racially diverse group of friends.

    Culbertson consented to fingerprinting and a DNA swab so the sheriff could establish who'd touched what in the vehicle.

    "My car was covered in finger-print dust all along the outside and including the cloth interior," Culbertson says. "They told me, ‘That'll come right out,' but they didn't tell me that soon enough, before my mom sat in it. They gave us some butcher paper to lay down on the seats."

    Other than the dust and the empty gas tank, there were no problems with the car. He says there weren't any weird smells—other than what he'd left in the car already. He says it's actually better-looking now, because he had to run it through the car wash twice to clear off all the fingerprint dust. On Facebook, he bemoaned the absence of battle damage.

    "You know, if I'm going to have a fun story behind my vehicle, I'd like to have a couple marks on it to prove it," Culbertson says. "It would've been morbidly funny to have a bullet hole or two in the vehicle."

    Culbertson doesn't think he could've done much to prevent the theft—neither he nor sheriff's deputies could figure out how Hannowsky got in—and he won't be beefing up security precautions any time soon.

    "I'm not going to LoJack my turd of a car," he says. 

    Email davem@sdcitybeat.com or follow him on Twitter @DaveMaass.


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