Dramatic case instills career lessons for Westminster commander

By Jaimee Lynn Fletcher

Cameron Knauerhaze walks in to the dispatch center to offer coffee for those who will field 911 calls over the course of his 12-hour shift.

On the morning of Sept. 16, 2005, the call he hears stops him cold.

“What? You stabbed your children?” the dispatcher asks incredulously.

Knauerhaze, an officer at the time, looks at the screen, commits the address to memory and is in his car on his way to Starsia Street.

He gets there within two minutes. Sgt. Tom Finley arrives next.

They enter the house with guns drawn and Knauerhaze sees a 5-year-old girl lifeless in the family room, her pajamas soaked in blood.

The little girl had been stabbed in the chest.

Knauerhaze grabs her legs and starts to squeeze them, working to send blood to the little girl’s heart and return the flush to her cheeks.

“She looked like a porcelain doll,” he said. “You could just see how much blood she lost.”

Finley is talking and coaxing the little girl to wake up, breathe or show any signs of life.

Nothing.

Knauerhaze continues to squeeze, praying for a miracle.

***

As Knauerhaze recalls that September morning, he said he didn’t know then how much that call would impact his career.

The importance of response times, training, victim advocacy and support for officers when they see the unimaginable were things he took away that day.

They are lessons Knauerhaze still carries with him and will use in his new role as the

Westminster Police Department’s Westside Commander.

“That case alone changed the way I thought about how I do my job,” he said. “Now every time I hear the radio, and I hear of someone going to anything remotely like that, I’m a lot more keyed in to making sure that employee got through that event OK.”

There have been other calls and other experiences — too many to list — that helped Knauerhaze develop his career philosophy.

Those experiences started at age 14.

***

Knauerhaze joined the Laguna Beach Police Department as an Explorer after watching his friend get assaulted by a college student at a high school house party.

The officer who helped his friend was compassionate and proactive. Knauerhaze was intrigued — so intrigued that he purchased a police scanner, placed it next to his bed and listened for calls at night.

“Every time I heard a call go out in my area, I would go out and see if I could talk to the officers,” Knauerhaze said.

He liked walking the neighborhood and seeing officers at work. He also enjoyed having an impact on the community working as an Explorer.

Knauerhaze was on scene during the 1993 Laguna Beach fires, which devastated the community and destroyed more than 400 homes.

“I got a vivid look at people who needed the police,” he said. “Their house was on fire, they were in their greatest moment of despair and they were looking to police and fire for help.

“That spoke to me.”

He joined the Laguna Beach Police Department in 1996 and transferred to Westminster in 1997.

He worked in a variety of assignments including public information officer, homicide detective and a detective on a Department of Justice meth-lab task force — an assignment where he saw “more guns and more drugs in a week than most cops see in a lifetime.”

“It was exciting,” Knauerhaze said. “We had great arrests.

“I was never a good science student but getting up in a courtroom I could explain, from start to finish, how to manufacture methamphetamine. That experience changed me quite a bit.”

As a robbery-homicide detective, Knauerhaze saw another side of how crime affects victims, inspiring him to become a board member of the nonprofit Crime Survivors.

Throughout his career, amid meth-lab busts, murder investigations and supervising roles, he continued to make a point of walking neighborhoods, much like he did as an Explorer.

He wears black Sketchers, not heavy-duty police boots, and visits shopping centers, restaurants and retail stores.

“I like walking around a lot and making contacts in the community,” he said. “There isn’t a strip mall in this community that I can’t go in to and talk to people.”

As commander, he plans to continue his neighborhood walks.

“I keep my shoes on and I keep my belt on,” he said. “If any officer needed me right now, I’m there.

“I’m still a cop at heart.”

Cmdr. Cameron Knauerhaze shows his black Sketchers he wears instead of heavy-duty police boots. Even as commander, Knauerhaze said he'll continue to wear his sneakers  because he enjoys walking the community and meeting residents and business owners. Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC.

Cmdr. Cameron Knauerhaze shows the black Sketchers he wears instead of heavy-duty police boots. Even as commander, Knauerhaze said he’ll continue to wear his sneakers because he enjoys walking the community and meeting residents and business owners. Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC.

***

Knauerhaze was promoted in January and is adapting to his new position.

“I’ve really been learning from those that came before me before I go out and make any drastic changes,” he said.

Long-term goals include continuing to lower the crime rate on the city’s west side, launching more crime prevention campaigns, building better relationships with business owners and working to lower response times on priority calls.

While settling in to his new role, Knauerhaze was revisited by the case that changed his outlook on law enforcement nearly 10 years ago.

Just a week after his promotion, a memo from the District Attorney’s office brought him back to September 2005.

He is there pumping the legs of the little girl with the porcelain skin.

She is not breathing. She is not moving.

Then a gurgle. She takes a breath.

Knauerhaze calls it a miracle, but others say he saved that little girl’s life.

As firefighters take the 5-year-old girl, Knauerhaze sees a second little girl, this one 3 years old, exit the bedroom.

She, too, is draped in blood-soaked pajamas.  And she, too, had been stabbed in the chest.

Knauerhaze runs to the girl.

The mother, with 25 self-inflicted stab wounds on her body, tries to stop Knauerhaze from helping her daughter.

The officers notice the mother’s wounds almost as instantaneously as they realize she’s the suspect.

He focuses on helping the 3-year-old.

Both girls survived the incident and their mother was arrested and convicted of attempted murder.

On Jan. 23, Thuy Thi Le, 43, was sentenced to 11 years in prison.

“Is it justice? I don’t know,” he said. “Early on throughout my career I questioned where I was in my career and if I was doing the right thing.

“I think this job is really a calling and it’s cases like this that validate that.”

Knauerhaze wears a blue-and-white pin on his uniform — a constant reminder of those little girls. The pin is the Medal of Courage he received for his actions that day.

And the way Knauerhaze approaches his job every day is another, intangible, reminder of that mornings.

“That was a good turning point in my career,” he said. “How we do our job and the kind of service we provide to people needs to be special. It needs to be unique.

“We treat people as if it was happening to our own family.”