In 1985 the Sheriff’s Office realized that an organized, planned approach to high-risk, hostage, and barricaded suspect situations was needed. The frequency of these types of incidents was increasing, and traditional law enforcement responses were inadequate.
In September of 1985, the department established a Critical Incident Management Team. The team consisted of two components: The Hostage Negotiating Team, and the tactical, or SWAT Team. The selection and training process for each team continued on into the next year.
One of the original members of the SWAT team was Deputy Dighton Lewis Little. Dighton was a ten year veteran of the department. A very energetic person, he was involved in a number of community organizations and activities. Dighton had the type of personality that when he was anywhere near, everyone knew it. He worked hard and played hard, living life to its fullest.
The message on Dighton’s answering machine said a lot about him. “Hi, this is Dighton. I can’t come to the phone right now. I’m out fighting for truth, justice, and the American way!” Although his message was done tongue-in-cheek, he truly believed it. He had a passion for his job, and he had a passion for people.
Dighton had served on the board of directors for the Big Brothers, Big Sisters of San Joaquin County, and had been a big brother himself. He also served on the board of directors for the “Bacon Bash”, an annual football game between the Sheriff’s Office and the Stockton Police Department, played for charity. An avid athlete, Dighton played in all of the games.
Deputy Little joined the Sheriff’s Office in April of 1979 and had advanced quickly. Starting his career in the Custody Division, he soon moved to Patrol: He worked in a special narcotics section in 1982 and advanced to the Detective Division in 1984. As a detective, he worked in the burglary and child-abuse units before being transferred to robbery/homicide. When the SWAT team was formed in 1986, Dighton volunteered and became a charter member.
During the early morning hours of Friday, October 20, 1989, the 17 members of the SWAT team were preparing to serve a search warrant at Bob’s Truck Stop, located at 23066 S. Highway 99, in Ripon. A narcotics task force from Stanislaus County had obtained a warrant to search the premises.
Experience had shown that serving narcotics search warrants was exceptionally dangerous. People who dealt in narcotics were usually armed and very often under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Two officers in San Joaquin County had been slain while attempting to serve narcotics search warrants in the previous eleven years. Because of this, Stanislaus County officers had requested the SWAT team serve the warrant as a courtesy.
At the three-acre truck stop, San Joaquin County deputies divided into three teams and were searching several buildings. One of the structures on the property was a travel trailer, occupied by the manager of the property.
Deputy Little’s team had finished searching a building, and finding no one, he went to the trailer to assist other deputies who were pounding on the front door and announcing themselves. Inside the trailer, deputies heard someone saying, “Just a minute. Just a minute.”
Dighton went to the rear of the trailer, and as a diversionary tactic he smashed out a window with his flashlight. At this point, Dighton apparently saw the man inside, because he told the man several times to put down his gun and show his hands. The man responded by firing a shot from a hunting rifle, striking Deputy Little in the forehead. A backup officer immediately returned fire into the trailer, striking the man and killing him.
Team members then moved Deputy Little from the area and began life-saving measures. He was transported to the County Hospital, where he was dead on arrival at 7:29 a.m.
After hearing of Deputy Little’s death, an eleven-year-old boy for whom Dighton had served as a big brother, remembered the times they had together. “We had a lot of fun times together, and I will miss him a lot,” the boy said. He remembered, too, the time they had gone out on a picnic and got rained out. And, he remembered the time that Dighton had presented him with an autographed baseball from his favorite player, Mark McGuire of the Oakland A’s.
Dighton Little was laid to rest in the San Joaquin Catholic Cemetery in Stockton. Single at the time of his death, he was 35 years old.
Dighton’s death deeply affected members of the department. When the Sheriff’s headquarters was moved into a new building, the patrol briefing room was dedicated in his name. A plaque bearing Dighton’s badge reads: “Through these doors pass the finest warriors.”