Shots in the dark: Witnesses saw swordsman fall to ground

Two gunshots, muzzle flashes, then the silhouette melted to the ground.

A witness to Sunday morning's shooting of a man with a sword by a Modesto police officer revisited the area Tuesday afternoon to describe what he saw.

Wayne Harvey, 31, of Modesto was working maintenance downtown early Sunday when three gunshots startled him enough to make him jump "half a foot" off the ground.

"I jumped," he said. "I told my friend, 'Those are gunshots.' "

The two men were working in the Modesto Centre Plaza parking lot at K and 11th streets. They ran into the street to see more.

In the darkness, Harvey said, he could make out a figure standing on the north side of K Street on the sidewalk or in the grass. The person was more than half a block away.

Seconds later, Harvey heard two more gunshots and saw flashes from a gun close to the person's left. The figure dropped to the ground.

"It all happened in seconds," he said.

Minutes before the shooting, Harvey and his co-worker had driven north on 11th Street to turn left into the parking lot that the men clean toward the end of each overnight shift. As they crossed K Street, he said, he looked west and noticed a police car with its spotlight shining on a vehicle close to the DoubleTree Hotel.

By the time he parked his truck minutes later, Harvey said, he'd forgotten about the officer.

The men emptied one garbage bin in the lot, then drove to the second bin. As they prepared to walk the lot to collect more litter, they heard the first set of gunshots, he said.

His first concern when he ran to the street, he said, was that someone had shot the officer, later identified by police as Latisha Leap, a three-year veteran of the Modesto Police Department.

Then two more shots echoed in the darkness. As he stood watching, a dark silhouette backlit by moonlight, later identified as Richard Robles Jr., dropped slowly to the ground.

"He didn't fall on his back. He didn't fall on his side. He just melted," Harvey said. "Then he was camouflaged in the darkness."

Harvey couldn't see a second person until the muzzle flash revealed someone standing nearby. Then the figure turned slightly, and Harvey saw someone standing near where Robles had gone down.

Moments later, "cops were just flying everywhere," he said. Two officers turned left onto K from 11th. A sheriff's deputy blocked off the street. And at least four police cars came in from Ninth Street, Harvey said.

Harvey and his co-worker waited about a half-hour until an officer approached to find out what they saw. As he stood watching, he started to question himself.

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"It was almost like, did it really happen?" he said. "Funny things start turning in your mind. 'Is that really what I saw?' Yes. There were two shots and a person just melted into the ground."

Messages left for Harvey's co-worker were not returned Tuesday.

Fog hadn't yet rolled in

On Sunday afternoon, Harvey said, he spent about an hour at the police station talking with a detective, going over aerial photographs to describe what he saw.

Harvey will be the first to make disclaimers.

About 5 a.m., downtown was still dark, "pitch black," he said. But the heavy fog that settled about 5:30 a.m. hadn't yet rolled in, and his view to where the shooting happened was clear, he said.

Harvey didn't see Robles with a weapon, but even if the man had been waving a sword around, Harvey said, he wouldn't have been able to see it because of the distance and the darkness.

There are several streetlights near the spot where the shooting happened, Harvey said, but they weren't very bright.

He was too far away to hear voices, he said. If anyone was shouting or talking, the sound didn't make it to Harvey.

And he was spared any gruesome details -- he didn't see blood, and he was too far away for any of the scene's emotions to reach him.

"I just want to say, 'We saw what we saw,' " he said. "I don't want to add to it. I don't want to blow it up. Just be accurate, keep it simple."

The shooting happened just east of a blue Dodge pickup, registered to Robles, that was parked on the north side of K Street close to the DoubleTree entrance. The sword police say Robles was carrying was found on the sidewalk west of the Dodge.

Police have not released information about what Robles was doing with the sword, when he may have dropped it or how it ended up behind the Dodge.

Robles' mother has said her son, who is 45, struggled with mental illness but was not violent.

The coroner's office performed an autopsy on Robles on Monday. Officials said more information about his death should be available later this week.

Police would not confirm Harvey's account or that he was a witness who had been interviewed.

"It would be irresponsible at this point to comment on this ongoing investigation. Ultimately, we are fact finders," said Sgt. Brian Findlen, Modesto police spokesman. "Give us some time to complete the investigation. At that point in time, we would be more likely to comment."

Bee staff writer Emilie Raguso can be reached at or 578-2235.