By Jim Walsh
One by one, Gilbert police officers tied blue ribbons on a pole supporting a sign that memorializes their slain colleague, Lt. Eric Shuhandler – only a few yards from where he was shot to death eight years ago.
They saluted in a demonstration of respect and honor as part of an annual ceremony near a shopping center at Baseline Road and Val Vista Drive, honoring an officer whose service sets a high standard for all Gilbert officers to emulate and sending a poignant message to his family that the man with a magnetic personality who loved his family and baseball will never be forgotten.
“He was larger than life in a lot of ways,’’ said Ken Fixel, a retired Gilbert police lieutenant and a friend of Shuhandler. “He made you feel important. He was a guy who everybody wanted to be around.’’
Police, friends and family members also are keenly aware that the convicted murderer who is accused of killing Shuhandler in cold blood during a traffic stop in January 2010 is still awaiting trial.
Since he and an accomplice were arrested after a dramatic shootout with police just hours after Shuhandler’s slaying, the case against the alleged assassin, Christopher Angel Redondo, 43, has been tangled in a legal battle over his competency to stand trial
That delay exacerbates the grief still felt today by the slain officer’s children and Gilbert police.
“It’s painful waiting this long,” said Gilbert Police Chief Mike Soelberg, who attended the annual memorial because “events like this celebrate Lt. Shuhandler’s sacrifices for the community.”
“It prolongs the agony of what happened,’’ he said. “Everyone wants closure. We will get it. We are patiently waiting.’’
In cold blood
Shuhandler’s slaying is one of the East Valley’s most notorious cases. For many, it is impossible to forget.
On the evening of Jan. 28, 2010, the 42-year-old divorced father of two had stopped a pickup truck driven by Daimen Irizarry because of a partially obscured license plate and asked Irizarry for his ID. Christopher Redondo was Irizarry’s passenger.
Shuhandler also had obtained Redondo’s identification. He went back to his patrol car and discovered Irizarry’s passenger had an outstanding warrant for his arrest.
As he was walking back toward the truck, Shuhandler was fatally shot in the face. Irizarry and Redondo sped away, prompting a wild 50-mile chase from the US 60 to Superior, where the truck ran out of gas.
Redondo took out several patrol cars by tossing debris into the roadway as police from Mesa and Gilbert and Department of Public Safety officers were in pursuit.
A gun battle ensued, ending when police shot the defendants’ legs out from under them, nearly severing Redondo’s ankle. Almost miraculously, there were no additional deaths and Redondo and Irizarry survived to have their day in court.
Irizarry was sentenced to 107 years in prison for his role in the case. But prosecutors are seeking the death penalty against Redondo, which is an inherently slower legal process.
The case has been stuck in sand for years.
No matter what happens with Redondo’s murder charge in Shuhandler’s slaying, he already has been sentenced to life in prison without parole in the unrelated March 2009 slaying of Ernie Singh in Miami.
A fallen hero’s farewell
Thousands of police officers from across the country gathered in the Valley for Shuhandler’s funeral. His fellow officers recalled how he would use his vacation time to fly back to New Jersey to visit his parents, or to Oregon to visit his sister.
His two daughters, Meredith and Nicole, ages 12 and 10, respectively, when he died, were paramount in his life.
“It does not go away, ever,’’ Fixel said about the wound the department has suffered as a result of Shuhandler’s slaying. “You try to drown out the bad feelings from the incident and think about the good times.’’
Shuhandler’s daughter Meredith has tattooed her father’s initials on her left hand, noting that he made her promise to never get a tattoo when she was 7.
“I really wanted something to honor him. Every time I look down at my hand, I remember him,’’ she said, recalling his “fun personality’’ and the inspiration he gave her. She remembers ski trips, outdoor activities and her father’s love for Chevrolet Corvettes.
When she was younger, she was bitter over his slaying. “I was angry and I thought it was unfair.’’
Now, Meredith focuses on living her life in manner that would make him proud.
“I’m very grateful for the 12 years I had with him. It shaped my life in so many ways,’’ said Meredith, an Arizona State University student and an equestrian. “I think he would want me doing exactly what I am doing right now.’’
“When I make a decision, I think about whether it would be something that would make him proud of me.’’
She said she does not dwell on her father’s death or on Redondo’s endless case, knowing it’s beyond her control.
“I would not say it’s a burden, but it’s very frustrating,’’ she said. “It makes me mad when I think about it. Closure would be nice.’’
Shuhandler’s sister, Joyce Mendelsohn of Portland, Oregon, commemorates the sad anniversary every year by writing about how much she misses her brother.
Their mother, Dara Shuhandler, passed away before seeing justice for her son’s slaying. For several years before her death, she maintained close contact with Gilbert police from her New Jersey home, eager to see her son’s accused killer have his day in court.
Shuhandler’s memory also is enshrined in the hearts of many of the officers he worked with.
“We remember him every year,’’ said Sgt. Darrell Krueger, a Gilbert police spokesman. “We have people who were extremely close to Eric who feel the pain every day.’’
For other officers, who did not know Shuhandler, it is important to remember how he died.
“We face the same dangers everyday,’’ he said.
Slowing the wheels of justice
Redondo has been found competent three times, with experts generally finding that he understands the charges he faces and the court proceedings.
But Redondo’s defense attorney argues that he has not been properly examined to determine if he is capable of assisting his attorney, the second prong of competency.
The issue could potentially decide whether Redondo faces trial or is sent to a state psychiatric hospital until doctors decide he is competent.
In eight years, Redondo has been represented by eight different defense attorneys. He has been examined by at least 10 psychologists and psychiatrists who have reached different conclusions on whether he is competent.
Finally, his most recent defense attorneys, Dan Raynak and David Lockhart, commissioned Marisa Menchola, a Tucson psychologist affiliated with the University of Arizona, to examine Redondo and to review the evaluations of all the other mental health experts.
Raynak said he was seeking an independent opinion from Menchola on a matter that has hung up the case for years.
“I think the problem is that the doctors who did the evaluations did not properly evaluate Mr. Redondo’s ability to communicate with his attorney,’’ Raynak said.
But Redondo treated Menchola with the same level of indifference he had demonstrated to other psychologists and attorneys.
“Mr. Redondo refused to come to a private room to complete the evaluation,’’ Menchola wrote in a report. “I came to his cell door and spoke to him through the trap. He was sitting on the floor with a pink towel on his head. He did not acknowledge my presence and only made minimal, fleeting eye contact. He did not answer any of my questions.’’
Menchola noted Redondo’s long history of mental illness, including diagnoses of schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, manic depression and polysubstance abuse. She noted that several psychologists determined he was capable of understanding the legal proceedings but it is difficult to determine if he can assist his attorneys.
Raynak and Lockhart requested a Daubert hearing, a more exhaustive review using recognized scientific methods, to determine if he can assist his attorneys.
“In this instance, Mr. Redondo’s mental illness cannot improve, and his situation will continue to deteriorate,” they wrote to the judge, saying they “can’t be expected to go to trial with an individual who is unable to assist his attorneys, even in the most basic way, at the time of trial.’’
But Deputy County Attorney Juli Warzynski argued that Redondo has been found competent for trial three times and is not entitled to yet another competency hearing.
“Defendant has not cooperated with anyone concerning his case for four years,’’ she wrote. “This refusal has been found to be volitional.’’
She said that Menchola provided no new evidence that hadn’t been considered at the previous hearings.
Pending the judge’s ruling, a trial date is now set for Sept. 5.
But if Redondo were to be ruled incompetent, “in that situation, he would be sent to the Arizona State Hospital,’’ Raynak said, where he would be held until doctors determine he is competent.
At that point – no one knows when that might be – he would be scheduled for trial.
Rights and frustration
Although the delays in the case against Redondo are frustrating, Krueger said it’s important for everyone’s constitutional rights to be protected.
He said the last thing police want to see is the outcome of trial reversed or an order to retry the case because of a legal error, putting extra strain on everyone.
“We certainly would like to see it reach its natural conclusion,’’ Krueger said. “We want the proper course to lead to an outcome.’’
Former Gilbert Mayor John Lewis said he knew Shuhandler well and will never forget him. He said a hush fell over Gilbert Town Hall the day after the slaying.
His slaying had shaken the town, especially since he was only the second officer in Gilbert’s history to die on duty. The other had been an accident.
“We were very close. When I got the phone call, I was torn apart,’’ Lewis said. “He is one that the community continues to cherish and thank.’’
Lewis said he also is looking forward to seeing justice served.
“That’s frustrating and upsetting,’’ he said. “It’s sad it’s taken so long.’’