SAN JOSE -- In the middle of a crisp January afternoon, with people walking around Fountain Alley in the heart of downtown San Jose, a man fired three shots at his rival.
The bullets sent everyone running.
Luckily in the Jan. 22 case, no one was hit. And thanks to a battery of officers from the San Jose Police Department, San Jose State police and the Santa Clara County Sheriff's Office, the suspected shooter was arrested about 20 minutes later after being spotted in a car near the downtown post office.
But two days later, Michael Anthony Robinson was milling around downtown as a free man after his case was kicked back to police for more investigation.
Officers Pete Urrutia and Steve Gibson channeled their frustration over the release to spend the time to build a stronger case, adding investigation work to their regular patrol duties. After nearly four months, they succeeded, in an arrest that demonstrated their initiative and doggedness on one hand and on the other shows how strained their jobs have become.
Officers like Urrutia and Gibson "are redefining the role of patrol officers," said Capt. Anthony Ciaburro, who oversees the department's Central Division that includes downtown.
Robinson was released because with ballistics evidence still being analyzed and witness memories fogged by adrenaline and panic, prosecutors decided they did not have the airtight case they needed to keep him behind bars.
Urrutia, one of the responding officers to the shooting, was dumbstruck: This was a man, he believed, who coldly fired into a crowded area at 2 in the afternoon.
"We felt we had more than sufficient evidence. We didn't quite know why," Urrutia said.
Urrutia and partner Gibson, both of them with a quarter-century logged with the force, refused to let the case die. On top of their duties patrolling downtown, they kept gathering evidence. They slowly chipped away until in May they built a strong enough case to take Robinson back into custody and spur a charge of assault with a deadly weapon. Robinson, now 20 and with a prior robbery conviction, faces a maximum of 28 years in prison.
Conducting an investigation while working patrol was not unfamiliar territory for the Urrutia and Gibson, both veteran investigators; when they were assigned to patrol neighborhoods in East San Jose, they helped lighten the burden on an understaffed investigative bureau by taking on burglary cases.
It's a success story and a sobering reflection of how San Jose police have to stretch their officers to fight crime with a force that has shrunk by a quarter in six years. In the shooting case, they were familiar with the suspect from their patrol work and were at the scene.
"We knew he was our guy," Gibson said. "Who better to work the case than us, who know it best?"
What's more, the Robinson case was in a holding pattern for two months before the two picked it back up. The first point of order for the pair was to obtain a search warrant to go through the contents of Robinson's cell phone. It revealed a bounty, including images of Robinson holding a handgun resembling one recovered after the shooting at a hotel room linked to the suspect, according to court records and the police report.
Other dominoes in the case started to fall. Ballistics analysis from a casing recovered at the shooting scene was matched with the handgun that had been recovered. Again, the cell phone contents factored in: the photos of Robinson with a gun were of such high resolution that they could actually read off the serial number of the weapon -- another match.
"It was pretty damning," Urrutia said.
Clothing they confiscated from Robinson matched those worn by the suspected shooter captured by surveillance cameras. Witnesses and Robinson himself -- in custody for an unrelated offense -- were interviewed again.
One of the final pieces was establishing a motive. That became clear soon enough: Robinson had been shot by a group of men in 2013 in Fountain Alley, which has been the backdrop of a long-running criminal power struggle. The man he was aiming at in January was an associate of his attackers, who had been arrested.
Robinson is in jail on a $310,000 bond. For Urrutia, the push toward the arrest was a last hurrah of sorts: he retired Thursday after reaching 25 years with San Jose police.
It was cause for relief for Johnny Gogo, who under the Santa Clara District Attorney's Office is the lone prosecutor whose focus is bridging the office with the communities it serves. He's also a downtown resident, who still freshly remembers the tragic death of 19-year-old nursing student Kimberly Chico, killed by a wayward bullet in a crossfire between gang rivals in August 2013. The January shooting was a half-mile away.
"When this occurred, there was the potential for another innocent victim to be injured or killed," Gogo said. "If someone's going to fire a gun downtown, somebody has to be apprehended."
Contact Robert Salonga at 408-920-5002. Follow him at Twitter.com/robertsalonga.