Wasn’t this a movie? A book, maybe? Two strangers from the same place move separately to a far-away city, seeking their dream jobs. Finally on the road to success, their paths fatefully cross, leaving one dead and the other charged with murder. Though the victim was killed in a hail of bullets, the accused killer had no gun.
Unfortunately, it’s not fiction, but the true story of two young Seattle-area men—similar in age and aspirations—who first met as neighbors in a Los Angeles apartment house. Their brief friendship ended suddenly one night last April in the kind of tragic timing and circumstance befitting a Hollywood script.
Thirty-year-old John Winkler, a Puyallup High School graduate and newly hired production assistant on Comedy Channel pop culture series Tosh.0, was killed. Alexander McDonald, a 28-year-old graphic artist and graduate of Meadowdale High in Lynnwood, was arrested and is being held on charges of murder, attempted murder, and torture.
Though Winkler’s Seattle connections were previously reported, McDonald’s local connections haven’t been revealed until now. Officials and family members confirmed to Seattle Weekly that the two never met until late 2013 after Winkler moved into the same condo building as McDonald.
Not that the story needed another twist. But it was Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department deputies who actually killed Winkler—while he reportedly held his hands over his head in surrender—and wounded a second man, McDonald’s roommate Liam Mulligan. Both were innocent victims shot by mistake.
“This is a journey to better understand how this nightmare happened,” says McDonald’s sister, Patricia McDonald of Seattle, about her quest to explain her brother’s actions. “But we hope focus is also given to the fact that the police entered the room shooting.”
She’s at a loss to say why her brother had an apparent psychotic break the night of April 7, 2014, stabbing several people at a sleek five-story condo on Palm Avenue in West Hollywood. “Alex is heartbroken about what happened to John Winkler and Liam Mulligan,” she says.
Heartbroken doesn’t begin to explain how John Winkler’s mother feels. “There are days I cry all day,” Lisa Ostegren of Gig Harbor said this week. “It’s like my heart has been torn in two.” She and former husband Mark Winkler, John’s father, are now suing the sheriff’s department for $25 million. Wounded roommate Mulligan has also filed a separate lawsuit.
Ostegren’s son was one of several hostages being held by McDonald during a standoff at the condo where they lived. “John did not know Alex here in Seattle,” says Ostegren, but they became friends, and fellow Seahawks fans, in L.A. “One of my brothers,” says Alex’s sister Patricia, “went to visit Alex a month prior to the event and got the impression that Alex and John often hung out together.”
Then came McDonald’s night of rage. According to police and court records, here’s how it unfolded:
Around 9 p.m., Winkler went to visit Mulligan, who was with two other people in apartment 201 where Mulligan and McDonald lived. McDonald, who was acting and speaking strangely, had pushed his way into an apartment down the hall, where he seized a large kitchen knife and began threatening the two female residents. One barricaded herself in the bathroom and called 911, while the other ran outside. She showed the first deputy to arrive a cell-phone picture of McDonald and explained what was happening. Attorneys for the Winkler family say that that information was never passed on to other deputies.
McDonald tried and failed to enter another apartment, then climbed out on a balcony to enter his own apartment, coming through the sliding doors with his knife. He sat on a couch next to a guest, Chris Potter, talking nonsensically, before stabbing him in the thigh.
In the hallway, deputies responding to the earlier 911 call were interviewing witnesses and discussing strategy. One condo resident showed a deputy cell pictures of both McDonald and Winkler. The deputy showed McDonald’s picture to another deputy and said “Alex is our guy,” according to the Winkler family lawsuit. Several deputies were allegedly also given a description of McDonald: “Tall, black hair, black shirt, black backpack, khaki shorts.” (Winkler, a balding blond, was wearing a white shirt.)
As deputies prepared to break into the apartment, Mulligan and Winkler rushed McDonald, but were driven back by his knife; Mulligan was cut on the neck. Winkler then grabbed Mulligan, applying pressure to the bloody wound, and pushed him to the condo door. Seconds after opening it and running out, both were shot by deputies. According to the lawsuit, “LASD Deputies Michael Fairbank, Byron Holloway and Gerardo Baldivia opened fire and shot Mr. Mulligan [once] in the thigh. Mr. Mulligan fell to the ground and Mr. Winkler jumped over him with his hands above his head. When Mr. Winkler jumped over the wounded Mr. Mulligan, he was shot” four times by the deputies and died immediately.
The sheriff’s department later admitted Winkler and Mulligan were shot by mistake. Deputies were confused, said LASD Chief Bill McSweeney, because they saw Winkler “lunging at the back of the fleeing victim.” L.A. County Prosecutor spokesperson Ricardo Santiago says deputies fired their weapons believing Winkler was the attacker. McDonald was charged with the killing because, under state law, his actions led to the fatal outcome.
Still, says Winkler family attorney Sim Osborn in an interview, “If they thought John was attacking Mulligan, why did they shoot Mulligan, too?” He notes that in 2010, the rate of unarmed suspects shot by LASD officers began to increase sharply, and the department has failed to meet its own standards for scenario-based and firearm training. Deputies are also being sued for killing two other unarmed men in 2013 and 2014.
Alex McDonald is being held
on $4 million bail, and has pled not guilty. His sister Patricia and their family are anguishing over the charges. While conceding that McDonald bears responsibility for his actions, they question the fairness of charging him with the deputies’ mistake. “You wouldn’t think they’d shoot the first people out the door,” says Patricia.
Her brother, born in California but raised and schooled in Edmonds, took business courses at Shoreline College and ran a Student Painters franchise here before becoming a graphic and web designer, she says. He moved to L.A. around 2010 and studied design art at UCLA. He was head of product design at a firm called Pogoseat, and, his sister says, was finally making serious money. In a web portfolio, McDonald says of himself, “I’m at the point in my career where I just get it, and I’m starting to push the boundaries. I know what people want to see and I know what it takes to produce good, meaningful design.”
Alex is one of her four brothers, Patricia says, and “he’s never been in trouble, doesn’t get into fights, and is not violent in any way.” The family is hoping for answers from an expert who is conducting a psychiatric evaluation. “Alex never had any mental illness,” she says, “but there is some history of it within our family.” A toxicology report from the fatal night showed there were no drugs in his system that would explain his behavior. “At his arraignment, witnesses who knew Alex said they did not recognize my brother that night,” Patricia says. “They didn’t know who he was.”
Winkler’s aunt, Anne-Marie Van Wart, told the Hollywood website The Wrap that Winkler was a lovable guy with a breezy charm. She recalled the time his grandmother was dying, having reached the final stage in hospice care. “She was just pretty much asleep and Johnny walked into the room and said, ‘Hi, Grandma, how’s it hanging?’ He put out his hand and she just woke up, like, ‘Oh, Johnny, how are ya?’ ” Van Wart said. “I think he was there six or seven hours, just chatting with his grandma. That’s the kind of kid he was.”
Winkler, who graduated from the Seattle Film Institute in 2010, moved to L.A. last fall. “John dreamed of being a writer or producer of a TV show,” says his mother. “He had a true love for that. So he finally packed up and went for it, and in a short period of time, got his foot in the door. That was not very likely to happen, but he did it.”
It was a backstage job with Tosh.0, but he couldn’t have been more excited, says Ostegren. And he made a quick impression: After Winkler died, comedian Daniel Tosh and Comedy Channel extended “heartfelt sympathy to his family and friends during this tragic time.” Tosh and other comedians also put together a benefit honoring Winkler in May at the Hollywood Improv. On Facebook, comedian TK Kelly reported that they’d “sold the room out and had a great time thanks to Daniel Tosh, Matt Braunger, Owen Benjamin & Ahmed Bharoocha, and we managed to raise nearly $3000 for the Boys & Girls Club! John McKay and I sincerely thank you all for helping us honor our friend John Winkler with a night he would have absolutely loved.”
In recent months, L.A. County officials have scheduled three meetings to discuss a settlement in the Winkler case, then canceled all three, says Lisa Ostegren: “For me, that’s a kind of slap in the face.” The deputies in question were quickly returned to duty, she says, and results of an internal probe into the shooting remain unannounced. “My son was helping a wounded friend escape a dangerous situation,” Ostegren says, “but the greater threat was just outside the door in LASD uniforms.”
Rick Anderson writes about sex, crime, money, and politics, which tend to be the same thing. His latest book is Floating Feet: Irregular Dispatches From the Emerald City.