Years ago I was shopping at McKays’ Used Bookstore when it was near Lee Highway and Highway 153 in Chattanooga, TN. This was back in the days of “beepers” or pagers and my pager went off. It was a “484” or SWAT call. My pulse rate shot up as I got an adrenaline rush. The location of the call was very near my location. The problem was I was off duty and in my personal car. At the time I was employed by the Chattanooga Police Department. I was a Detective and was on the CPD Special Weapons and Tactics Team so I had an unmarked police car. If I went home to get my police car and my SWAT gear it would take me a half hour or more to get home and back. This was an active hostage situation. There was fleeting deliberation and I peeled out of McKays’ lot in my Corvette.
I flew down Lee Highway and got close to what was then a “BP” station. I could see police cars on the lot and officers hunkered down for cover near the police cars. I tried to assess the situation as best as I could as I parked my ‘Vette near the store. A police officer started towards my car as if to tell me I couldn’t park there. It was an Academy classmate of mine, the late Steve Garrison, who recognized me and knew I was assigned to SWAT. He asked me what I needed and I replied “A gun and maybe a vest”. I only had a small off duty gun with me and no bulletproof vest. He quickly went to his car and brought me one of each. Thanks Steve. I threw the vest on and took off around the store to try to gather as much information as I could. My uniform of the day was to be short sleeved button down shirt, shorts and tennis shoes. At least I was going to be comfortable. I was the first SWAT officer on scene and I knew the Commander and Team leaders would want whatever information I could give them as soon as possible.
I ran across the parking lot and found the ranking officer on scene, a sergeant. He seemed very relieved to see me. I knew he was thinking that now the responsibility for this scene was going to be mine as SWAT was in charge once we got there. We were huddled behind s police car near the edge of the building. I could clearly see a black male holding a pistol with a white female very close to him. The sergeant advised me that this subject had murdered his girlfriend in another state and had fled to Tennessee. He had carjacked someone and been pursued by Chattanooga officers to this business where he had ran inside and taken the clerk hostage. So he was wanted for murder and several other felony charges. I remember being struck by the calm feel of the scene as I watched people walking through the parking lot as if nothing were going on. Meanwhile some cars attempted pulling in as officers tried to flag them away. It was very surreal.
The supervisor looked at the hostage taker and asked me “Can you hit him from here?” I said yes. In the “surrealness” of the moment I thought he was just asking an offhand question. He then said ”Go ahead and take him out: ”I thought this is kind of like a Dirty Harry movie. I told him we should wait. I wanted to get more SWAT team members on the scene and begin negotiations. The sergeant asked what they could do for me. I replied they could clear the lot of the civilians and establish a perimeter. He got the lot cleared and moved some police cars back from near the store.
As the lot was being cleared and I was waiting for more SWAT members a bizarre request came from the hostage-taker. He asked me to trade guns with him. I could see had a revolver and I had a semiautomatic. I guess he wanted to “trade up”. Needless to say I refused the trade.
My SWAT teammates started to get there and began filled in the positions occupied by patrol officers around the perimeter. Lee highway was blocked off to stop traffic from going by the store and keeping vehicles from trying to turn into the parking lot. Negotiations were proceeding. Then strange things began to happen. At one point a person on a bicycle leisurely pedaled through the perimeter. Our snipers were reporting on his breach of the perimeter and his progress but either everyone had eyes on the building where the hostage drama was playing out or no one wanted to break cover to go after the cyclist. Our explosives expert finally left cover and snatched the cyclist off the bike and dragged him behind a police car. Little did we know that would not be the only strange diversion of the day.
A detective was on the phone most of the day negotiating with the hostage taker. At one point we were all amazed to see an unmarked Crown Victoria driven by one of our Police Chiefs cruising leisurely past the store on Lee Highway. This road was supposed to be closed to all traffic. We were dumbfounded. We could not believe the Chief was nonchalantly driving by the active hostage holding scene. We never found out how the Chief got past the outer perimeter and was allowed to drive past the store. If anyone ever investigated I never heard about it.
I had noticed a Keebler delivery truck parked near a rear door. I asked about the whereabouts of the delivery truck driver. No one seemed very concerned and it was apparently assumed he had fled the store. What happens when you assume? An entry team had been assembled near the rear of the store. They were there to make an entry if it appeared the hostage taker was getting ready to harm or was harming the hostage. A patrol car had been pulled up against a rear delivery door. To their surprise the entry team saw the door banging against the patrol cars bumper. They radioed inquiring if we still had eyes on the perpetrator, which we did. More on the “eyes” later The car was backed up and with guns trained on the door the entry team saw a frightened Keebler delivery man emerge from the storage room. He related he had seen the man run into the store brandishing the gun had managed to climb over an interior wall to get into the storage room. Needless to say he was relieved to escape the situation. Hey, I tried to tell them.
The day wore on. The murderer requested to talk to his child but as I recall his request was denied. At that time cell phones were not in widespread use. The negotiations were by either the store phone or a land line our negotiations unit could deploy. This kept the perpetrator in one spot most of the time. At one point he was engaged on the phone and momentarily forgot about the hostage. She made eye contact with me and I waved frantically for her to come to us. She made a dash for the door and got out then veered erratically away from me and another officer. Evidently she was so panicked she did not realize we were her rescuers. Finally an officer grabbed her and got her to cover.
After the officer had grabbed the hostage I had recovered his 12 gauge semiautomatic shotgun. I was using a metal support on the gas pump island for cover so I was fairly close to the store. Our team leader radioed me that the subject wanted me to move back as I “had killers’ eyes”. This was the only time I had ever heard that about me before or since. I think he was just worried about the 12 gauge.
The day was starting to wane. The windows in the store were “fogging” up due to condensation caused by the air-conditioning and the hot, humid day. The decision was made to effect an entry. A ”flash-bang” distraction device (like a huge firecracker) would be deployed on one side of the building while the entry team rushed in the other side door. The offender had laid his gun down on the counter and was leaning out the door talking to negotiators when the distraction device was deployed. Unfortunately the door closed prior to it going off. This lessened the effects of the device. He had time to reach over the counter and grab his handgun. The entry team rapidly approached him ordering him to drop his weapon. He did not comply and pointed his gun at one of the entry team members. Suddenly there were several bursts of automatic weapons fire and the killer fell mortally wounded from numerous bullet wounds. Medical personnel responded and attempted to treat the fugitive. He was rapidly transported by ambulance to a hospital but succumbed from his injuries.
It had been a long, hot, tiring and very stressful day. The negotiator had tried hard to effect a different outcome. In the end the criminal had brought about his own demise. The hostage had been rescued and no civilians or police officers had been injured. The police and SWAT had done their jobs.
This story is dedicated to the memory of Charles “Charlie” Russell. Charlie was one of the members of the entry team who deployed that fateful day. Charlie was a great cop, Detective and one hell of a shot. Charlie, SWAT call sign Rooster , you will be missed.
– Mark Haskins
P.S. I have a story about when Charlie and I “surprised” the F.B.I. But that’s for another time.