A year after her death family members and friends wonder how Shanna Dreiling could have ended up in the crosshairs of a SWAT team.
The Aros family lives on a quiet suburban cul-de-sac several turns off H Street in the Eastlake area of Chula Vista. The front entrance to their home is an unambitious alcove on the right side, concealed from the street and indicated only by a long sidewalk. On May 2, 2002, only one car was in the Aros driveway, where normally there are three or four. Neighbors had their garages open. Some were out doing the standard suburban chores. Others took after-dinner walks.
Inside the Aros house, Tom and his wife Mari were beginning a late dinner with their 16-year-old daughter, Michelle. Michelle's twin, Paul, was at a friend's house, and 19-year-old Christine was away at college.
The doorbell rang. Michelle opened the door to a young blonde girl in a white shirt. The girl asked if she and her partner, an older Latino man with longish brown hair standing a few feet behind, could use the phone-their car had broken down, she said.
Michelle closed and locked the door and went to get her father. When Tom Aros opened the door, the girl was close, with one foot leaning on the step into the house. She was attractive and thin-probably 18 to 21 years old, Aros thought-and she had a black eye that could have been a few days old. But there was something suspicious, something familiar in the girl's desperate insistence. Aros is a musician who has played in clubs the world over and considers himself streetwise for it. He's seen that look before on a drug user's face.
“They looked haggard. I could tell they were on something,” he said.
As she confidently tried to persuade Aros to let her in, the girl looked past him into the house. Her partner stood quietly behind with his head down, trading glances from the ground at his feet to the street in front of the house. The girl said their car broke down, but when Aros asked her where it was, she was vague. Aros said he would grab his cell phone and go out to the car with them. He shut and locked the door to get his cell phone and, before he went outside, pulled his wallet out and left it behind.
“I opened the door and they're already like two doors down.... They're already on the corner walking really fast,” Aros said. “So, then I just start following them and as I follow them, they start walking faster. And then the guy finally said, ‘We'll be OK. Just call us a cab.' I came home and called the cops.”
Friday morning, Dr. Grant Carr, a British biochemist living in Escondido, stayed home from work to wrestle with a migraine. His wife, Penelope, was in the shower. When Grant answered the doorbell, there stood a young blonde with a black eye, looking disheveled and confused. She and her boyfriend were lost, she said, and could she use the phone? Grant agreed and let her in.
That night, Tom Aros was in a recording session when the police called, saying they found a couple matching the description he'd given and they had gotten into some serious trouble, beginning with the kidnapping and attempted murder of a 19-year-old SDSU student who lived in his neighborhood. Then Aros saw the girl's picture on the nightly news.
The news told of a modern-day Bonnie and Clyde whose 14-hour, drug-fueled crime spree ended in front of Grant Carr's Escondido home. After a three-hour standoff with police, 16-year-old Shanna Lynn Dreiling was dead-cut down by SWAT gunfire-and her unnamed accomplice, later identified as 25-year-old Aaron Palacios, was in custody.
The one-year anniversary of Shanna's death passed on May 3 with a memoriam in the San Diego Union-Tribune that read, “We will never forget.” Just weeks later, on May 25, Palacios was sentenced to five consecutive life terms and an additional 92 years for 13 charges, including attempted murder, assault with a firearm and carjacking. Defense attorney Scott Schlegel is appealing the sentence.
For Palacios, it was only a step further than he had been before. He'd been in and out of institutions since 1989, when he stole his grandfather's car and credit cards. But for Shanna, it was a first offense-and the sentence was stiff.
Kelly Mynott, Shanna's mother, believes the situation could have been handled differently, but Shanna's grandmother, Linda Dreiling, thinks things may have turned out for the best.
“They told me my granddaughter would have been tried as an adult and would have spent the rest of her life in jail,” Linda said in an interview with the U-T just a month after the shooting, “Frankly, we would rather have seen her dead than spend the rest of her life in jail. We are Christians, and in an odd way, we do believe it was a blessing. That's how we try to make some sense of why she was killed.”
A year later, Shanna's family members are still trying to make sense of what happened-they're looking for closure, but more than anything they're holding on to their memories of the young and vibrant Shanna they knew, before her rapid decline into methamphetamine use.
Friends and family remember Shanna as an outgoing and nurturing teenager who loved shopping and clothes. She was boy-crazy and creative and liked being the center of attention. She wanted to grow up to be a writer or a school teacher; she loved kids and her last job was at Pirate's Cove, an indoor never-never land for children in Mission Beach, where she hosted activities for her youthful patrons.
Shanna was born in San Francisco in 1986, but was moved to El Dorado County, just outside of Placerville, at age 4 to live with her grandparents on their ranch. There she learned how to ride a horse and did ranch chores, such as feeding the animals and collecting eggs from the chickens. She took a particular liking to one chicken named Missy, and Linda often found Shanna sitting in the pen with Missy on her lap.
Shanna's first crush was on an uncle, Scott Reeves, whom she called her boyfriend. The other man in Shanna's life was her grandfather, Leroy Dreiling, and between the two men, they filled the empty shoes her father left behind. Shanna's mother, Kelly Mynott, wasn't exactly there all the time, either. Though Kelly stayed with Shanna's half-sister, Casey, in a cottage on the ranch, she was fresh from a divorce and rarely came around. And when she did, she and Shanna often butted heads. The two once had a loving mother-daughter relationship, Kelly said, evidenced by their many family vacations, but as Shanna entered her teens, they drifted apart.
At school, the little girl with pigtails was popular, and by the fourth grade she had gained her first best friend, Deneé Gurnard. Deneé remembers the two of them dressing up as the Spice Girls-Deneé as Ginger Spice, Shanna as Baby Spice-and videotaping themselves singing and dancing. They built forts together and went tubing on the lake.
Deneé's mother, Betsy Lewis, was equally close to Shanna and has a hard time remembering her without crying. When things were rough at home, Shanna would fly to the Lewis home, where she was considered part of the family. “She was like a second daughter,” Betsy said. “She's in every photo album.”
Betsy remembers Shanna sitting with Deneé by the campfire in Lake Tahoe, pretending to smoke cigars with ember-tipped sticks. But Betsy most remembers Shanna for her compassion toward half-sister Casey. “Shanna was a caretaker,” Betsy said.
The self-destructive behavior that began in Shanna's teens seems to be rooted in a series of emotional set-backs that took place all within three years. When Shanna was 10 years old in 1995, Scott Reeves-the uncle she adored-died after a slow deterioration resulting from AIDS. Making things worse, Kelly left the ranch and her two girls behind, and when she returned a year later, she had a new beau and a set of twins on the way. The new guy left soon after. Then three years to the day after Scott died, Shanna lost her grandfather, Leroy, to lymphoma. That same year, Shanna's birth father found her through an agency and contacted her by phone. She eventually went to visit him at his home in Washington, but Linda said Shanna got very little from the experience.
For family and friends reflecting on Shanna's life, El Dorado County itself was a TV movie waiting to happen. Betsy Lewis worked as a group counselor at a nonprofit specializing in adolescent behavior and high-risk teens. Betsy said El Dorado County has the highest rate of teen suicide in California, along with high rates of alcohol and drug abuse, as well as teen pregnancy. Betsy has long since taken her family out of the rural country to live in the city-Sacramento-where it's safer.
“You move [out to the country] for the quality of life,” Betsy said, “but you don't think about the effect it has on the children. There is absolutely nothing for them to do,” she said. So they found things to do: high-schoolers were caught with moonshine at school, raves took place in just about every available empty barn and warehouse and methamphetamine labs abounded, Betsy said. Shanna had fallen in with the meth crowd by her freshman year. Deneé, too, had to be sent to a school in Mexico to get back on track.
Shanna's family wasn't blind to the problem and caught it quick enough to get her counseling. Then the family-three girls, a boy, Grandma and Mom, plus Kelly's newest man-decided to move down to San Diego for a change.
“First, Shanna moved down there with me because I found a job right away and I rented an apartment in Pacific Beach,” said Linda, adding that exposing Shanna to P.B. was the first mistake. “Her mother got there and bought a house in Point Loma and Shanna went to live with her.”
Shanna didn't like Point Loma, Linda said. She loved the MTV-Spring Break atmosphere of Pacific Beach and already had friends at Mission Bay High School, so she asked to move back in with her grandmother. Some ground rules were set and it was decided Shanna would finish her sophomore year at Mission Bay High.
“That wasn't a good idea, either,” Linda said. “She kind of got mixed up with the wrong kids, and Shanna got into drugs.”
MARY ANN SMITH
Shanna found a mentor in 17-year-old senior Mary Ann Smith, who's now 20 and works at a chiropractic office in La Jolla. She eats healthy food, and even avoids coffee for the effects it has on her body and mind. She smiles a lot, and possesses an astute intuition to back up the smart look her dark-rimmed eyeglasses give her. She was a junior when Shanna came in for her first campus orientation in 2001. The two stopped by the office of the student paper, The Beachcomber, where Smith was the editor of the editorial section. Shanna signed up for journalism courses and began writing sports features, as well as some editorial pieces for Smith.
A little sloppy on grammar, Shanna was nonetheless a good writer, Smith said, possessing all the observational instincts that many writers say cannot be taught. The paper was such a relief from school that Shanna also took all the little chores and assignments no one else wanted. “Anything to get out of school,” Smith said, “but no high-schooler liked school.”
Smith, like the other women in Shanna's life, was drawn to Shanna for her compassion, and they forged a positive relationship almost immediately. While Smith was on the clock at Soul Grind Skate Shop, Shanna passed the hours with her, running errands and getting food, usually Jack In The Box, and the two spent countless hours on the beach. “She had her bitch moments,” Smith said, “but she was always caring about people less fortunate. You always see bums bumming cigarettes and it gets really old on the beach. Well, she smoked like a chimney, and she would give her cigarettes to anyone who wanted one.”
To escape the restrictions of home, Shanna spent a lot of time at Smith's house. After Shanna's death, Smith remembers, local newspapers touted Shanna's history with drugs as a sure sign of her regression, but Smith thinks the press exaggerated. “If she was doing meth, it wasn't around me. If my parents had had any clue that she was into that, I would have been banned from the house. But, I know she did coke with her friends in Mission Beach. I can even point out her dealer.”
When her grandmother found out about the cocaine, Shanna was sent to live with her father in Washington, but that didn't work out, because Shanna got into it with her father's wife. “[Shanna] caused a scene there so she could get home, I guess,” Smith said. “When she got home, she said, ‘I just wanted to be back home.'”
Shanna returned to her mother's house and attended Point Loma High School. Then it was back to Grandma's and Mission Bay High, before two stints at the Twain alternative school. They finally agreed to home schooling, and things seemed to even out for a while.
Shanna hooked up with a boy who her grandmother liked. She was doing her homework and she found a job at Pirate's Cove. At the same time, however, she was surreptitiously hanging out with an older crowd and getting back into drugs. “They shouldn't have let her do home school,” Smith said. “There is too much free time. My sister is home schooling and she has all day to do what she wants. She spends it surfing. [Shanna's] mother couldn't make her stay home and do her work. They shouldn't have let her out of their sight.”
It is unclear exactly when or where Shanna met Aaron Palacios, though Smith said they met through an ex-boyfriend of Shanna's. Smith never met Aaron, but she guesses-by the span of time during which Shanna disappeared from her life-that they had been dating five or six weeks before Shanna's death.
“Any guy she was with,” Smith said, “he'd take precedence. She got into whatever the guy was into. She knew I didn't like coke, and [Aaron] was a big coke head, and so she didn't bring him around.”
One night in late April 2002, police brought Shanna home after arresting Aaron for allegedly beating someone up in a park. “I laid into her,” Linda said, “because the deal was ‘If you're going to live with me, Shanna, you're going to toe the line.' And I said ‘You're not going to live with me anymore.'” The two had a “great big, huge fight” because Shanna did not want to go back to live with her mother. “And the next day she said to me “Grandma, I'm going to get a sandwich at Safeway-which she did regularly-and I said, ‘OK,' and I never saw her again.”
By May 2, Aaron and Shanna were in Mexico at an ex-boyfriend's home getting high on meth, according to Aaron's attorney, Scott Schlegel. They crossed the border back into the U.S. and knocked on the Aros' front door by 7 p.m.
No one knows what happened over the next several hours except for Palacios, and he's in Richard J. Donovan Reception Center where only his lawyer can visit. Court documents from Palacios' trial indicate that the next time the couple surfaced was at 2 a.m., when they arrived on foot to a Mobil Gas Station on Otay Lakes Road in Chula Vista.
Brian Jones, a 19-year-old San Diego State student, was buying fuel and cigarettes on his way home from the late shift at Taco Bell. He was walking back to his red Nissan from the station kiosk when Shanna approached him and asked for a ride. He declined, so she asked him for change, and that's when Palacios appeared, telling Jones he had a gun. Get in the car, he told the young man.
Palacios jumped in the Nissan's back seat and bragged that he had “Black Rhino” bullets and that the gun was pointed at the back of Jones' head. Once they'd driven to an isolated spot, Palacios made Jones pull over and demanded he switch seats with Shanna. Jones tried to get out of the car to switch, but Aaron yelled, “Close the fucking door,” and told Brian to crawl over the center console instead.
Palacios said they would drop Jones off at home, but Jones instead led them to a brightly lit apartment parking lot near his parents' house that was too exposed for Palacios' liking, and they ended up going northbound on Interstate 15 to Mira Mesa. Sometime between 3 and 4 p.m., they arrived at Scripps Ranch Park near Lake Miramar, where they parked the car. Palacios, pointing the pistol, told Jones to get out.
Shanna walked ahead as Palacios intimidated Jones until they reached the far end of the park and Jones was forced down a hill into the brush. Palacios asked his captive if he thought he was going to die. When Jones answered “yes,” Palacios laughed, then told him to strip. Shanna took his clothes to the top of the hill and waited. Jones was lying on the ground and counting to 100, as he had been ordered, but before he had counted six, Palacios shot him through the arm, six inches away from his head.
Jones played dead until he was sure he could not hear any voices or movement. He then scurried off and found his way to a nearby neighborhood, where he knocked on doors until he got an answer.
When the San Diego Police Department arrived, officers doubted Jones' story that he had been arbitrarily singled out, shot and had his car stolen, until a bank security camera showed Shanna trying to use Jones' ATM card, and his car was found in Escondido at the site of Shanna's death.
By 9 a.m. May 3, Shanna and Aaron were in southwest Escondido and had found their way onto Sonrisa Glen, a short drive from the Felicita exit off I-15. The street is narrow, and on the opposite side of the row of houses is a short brick wall overshadowed by a hill.
When Sheila Damerow's doorbell rang, she quietly looked through the peephole at a young blonde girl with a black eye, holding a purse. She thought the situation suspicious, so she didn't answer, and when the girl finally left, Damerow saw a small red car, later identified as Brian Jones' Nissan, backing up.
The man inside yelled, “Go back, I think I see someone in the house. Try again.” The girl rang the doorbell and knocked again, before finally giving up and moving on to the next house.
Dr. Grant Carr was home from work with a migraine and wife Penelope was in the master bathroom taking a shower. According to court documents, the doorbell rang around 9 a.m. Carr opened the door to Shanna, who claimed she was lost and looking for Carnitas Street. Carr walked down the driveway with Shanna and saw Palacios parked partially across the driveway in the red Nissan.
After talking to Palacios, Shanna returned with a black handbag and asked Carr if she could use the bathroom. He led her into the house to the second bathroom. Penelope Carr came out of the bathroom and asked what was going on. Her husband handed her the portable phone and told her to lock herself in the master bedroom; he had looked up Carnitas Street in the Thomas Guide and the street was in the city of San Diego.
When Shanna came out of the bathroom, she was holding a large pistol and she pointed it at Carr's head, telling him “get down on the floor now, or I'll blow your fucking brains all over the carpet.” Shanna let Palacios in the front door, while Penelope snuck out the back door with the portable phone, hid behind a rosebush and called the police.
Palacios took the gun from Shanna and ordered Carr to lay facedown on the dining room floor. He told Carr the pistol had “Rhino” bullets that would explode his brain all over the carpet. He asked about Carr's wife. She had walked to work already, the doctor responded.
The young robbers then ransacked the Carrs' home, emptying drawers and gathering valuables in the living room. They had a satellite dish, laptop computer, credit cards, electronics and a checkbook for the Carrs' home equity account. Out of one of the drawers fell a paring knife, which Palacios used to threaten Carr, saying he would carve the doctor's face off unless he disclosed the location of the pink slips to the two cars in the garage. Carr was forced to load the cars with his own belongings.
From the spare bedroom, where they were busily raiding a computer desk, Palacios heard a loud sound outside. He gave Shanna the gun and told her to watch Carr, according to court documents. When he returned, Palacios told Carr, “You're going to get shot.”
They moved to the garage where Palacios looked out the window-the police had taken a position on the hill across the street. The robbers began to panic, and the three moved to the family room patio door, where Palacios poked his head out the door and said, “Hey guys, what's up?” He shut the door and spoke to Shanna. “There's a whole fucking SWAT team out there,” he said, turning to Carr. “You're going to get us out of here,” he told the doctor. “You're going to drive the car.”
Both of the cars in the garage were packed full of the Carrs' belongings, so Palacios began to throw stuff out of the Subaru until he made enough room for all three of them. He yelled at Carr to drive. Carr began to back out when SWAT officers shot out the tires and clipped the under area of the car. The doctor's captors shouted at him to keep driving, but Carr insisted that he couldn't-they were caught, he said, and they should give up.
An armored police vehicle blocked the exit, and amid Palacios' yelling, Shanna put the handgun on the floor and leaned back in her seat. Carr saw his opportunity and ran out of the car. SWAT officers yelled at him to get down and doused him in pepper spray before realizing he was the victim.
Palacios crawled into the driver's seat, rolled up the window and refused to come out. Shanna didn't move.
After three motionless hours, Palacios asked for a cellular phone to call his mother, and the couple accepted cigarettes from police officers. They said they would come out when they were done with the cigarettes.
But without explanation, Shanna picked up the pistol and raised the gun. SWAT team members yelled at Shanna to lower the weapon, but when officer Al Estrada saw the pistol tip touch Palacios' head, he fired. Detective Ted Henson and officer David Cramer followed Estrada's lead, and shot Shanna five times in the neck and shoulder area.
Shanna was still alive and holding the pistol when they approached. Paramedics were summoned, but she died before anything could be done.
The county Medical Examiner's Office determined that a total of six bullets hit Shanna, damaging her left shoulder, lower back, spine, spinal cord and puncturing her right lung. The gun had been stolen from Palacios' uncle in a burglary the week before. The coroner's report also stated that Shanna had significant amounts of methamphetamine, amphetamine and ephedrine in her system.
Kelly Mynott, Shanna's mother, filed a $10 million claim against the Escondido Police Department in November for her daughter's death. The claim was denied, and family members say they will probably not pursue a lawsuit. Then-District Attorney Paul Pfingst cleared the officers of wrongdoing.
Whether they decide to sue or not, the family places most of the blame for Shanna's death on Palacios. “I heard he was a charmer,” Linda said, “and he charmed her. My granddaughter didn't like guns. She hated them. I know she had to be willing to take the drugs, but that was not her.”
Indeed, at Palacios' preliminary hearing, Dr. Carr said Palacios was without a doubt the one in charge. “He was enjoying it,” Carr said. “He was calling the shots, directing her,” he said, “but she was a very active participant.”
Palacios' case file, culled from the court record, is about as thick as Shakespeare's complete unabridged works. He came from a broken home in Mira Mesa where he suffered under the abusive hands of his alcoholic father. He has a scar from a bullet wound on his chest, which he told one psychologist he received, courtesy of an unidentified young assailant, for not selling pot. He became a ward of the state for the first time at age 14, for methamphetamine use among other things, and has been in and out since for a range of felonies.
A psychological report on a 24-year-old Palacios done by the California Youth Authority in 2000 says, “He makes great effort to maintain smooth emotional control and manage his feelings. It is likely he expends great amounts of energy in this attempt.” Just months before he met Shanna, Palacios was arrested for beating and falsely imprisoning his ex-girlfriend, who was pregnant with his child.
The last time Tom Aros saw Palacios was when he went to testify at the latter's trial in Vista. Palacios seemed a much cleaner, more placid human being, Aros said. And after all his effort to conceal his face in front of Aros' home, Palacios looked Aros in the eye, and the two exchanged a look of recognition.
Aros sat in the courtroom, waiting for his turn to testify, when a projector cast an enlarged image of Shanna Dreiling on the screen. Palacios suddenly seemed to disappear, Aros said.
“He stared and stared at her picture.”
Aros often thinks how close his family came to being victims, and he believes they were targeted because their house looked so quiet. And when he saw pictures of Shanna at the trial, he barely recognized her, but what he could see was the baby-fat face and vivacious youth of his own daughters, and, full of despair, he wondered how she got herself into such a mess.
Shanna's family is still trying to figure it out. “There are too many things I won't understand,” said Linda Dreiling, who now lives in Sacramento, as does Kelly Mynott. “I'll always remember what one of the detectives told me when they saw her. They said that that girl that they saw laying there was not the same girl that I showed them a picture of. I don't think Shanna was different from any other teenager, and I think the drugs just got the best of her.”