Jerry Davich: Valpo police chief regarding standoff: ‘Not much we should have done differently’
Jerry Davich email@example.com June 2, 2012 11:34PM
Officers take cover behind a Valparaiso police squad car during a standoff with an armed hostage taker Friday May 25. 2012. | Andy Lavalley~Sun-Times Media
Updated: July 6, 2012 10:08AM
The 911 call came in at 10:05 a.m. — shots fired by a gunman inside the Prudential Executive Group Real Estate office at the five-point intersection in Valparaiso.
Seconds earlier, a female employee of the business flagged down a Valparaiso Police patrol car, driven by an off-duty civilian-dressed police officer. He immediately responded by circling on foot around the gray, two-story building.
An on-duty officer then responded with lights and siren activated, followed by another patrol car and then another to the scene.
Valparaiso Police Chief Michael Brickner was in the station’s parking lot when this went down. Sgt. Mike Grennes, the department’s public information officer, was off that day, May 25, for the Memorial Day holiday. But he was shopping at a nearby grocery store when the patrol cars zoomed past.
Both officers dropped what they were doing and sped to the scene.
“It was instinctive,” said Brickner, who’s been in the department for 26 years.
This past Wednesday, I met with both men to learn more about their roles, their appraisal of the incident, and the behind-the-scenes law enforcement tactics employed in the hostage standoff ending with the suicide of the gunman, Roy L. Ferguson.
As we now know, the 48-year-old U.S. Army veteran from Fulshear, Texas, took his life with two gunshots to the head, but not before keeping police at bay for several hours with two hostages.
The case is under investigation by Indiana State Police, meaning certain details will not be released soon. But Grennes and Brickner were able to paint a more vivid picture of what happened that day, a rare scenario in the so-called Vale of Paradise.
“We have a safe city and this was certainly an isolated incident,” Brickner told me. “I’m very proud of how we handled this.”
Training came into play
When the first two officers responded to the scene, the door of the office building was locked. They motioned inside for a receptionist to unlock it, and then led her outside as they entered the building. Other employees fled behind her.
Inside, the officers saw Ferguson holding a handgun.
“Drop your weapon!” they yelled.
He instead grabbed a female employee around the neck and backed her into the nearest office of another employee. That employee, a man, became Ferguson’s incidental second hostage.
Shots were fired by the officers, one hitting Ferguson in the chest. It was not life-threatening.
“They did an excellent job containing him while allowing everybody else to escape,” Brickner said. “All of their training came into play.”
A veteran Valparaiso police detective, whose name is not being released during the ongoing investigation, served as the lead negotiator with Ferguson. In fact, he even knew Ferguson.
“Because of an investigation from years ago, our detective was familiar with the suspect,” Brickner said. “They established a rapport and he maintained communication with (Ferguson) throughout the entire ordeal.”
First, that rapport was through a closed door down a small hallway. Then it continued over the phone, late into the afternoon. It started with hot emotions, after the situation exploded, then cooled into a textbook negotiator-suspect scenario.
At various points, their discussion bordered on idle chit chat as the detective tried to develop a more casual, even personal relationship with Ferguson. This often leads to diffuse such a volatile situation. Often, but not always, as we later learned.
“It was hard for our detective with the way it ended,” Brickner said.
Textbook mutual aid
Other police negotiators from various law enforcement agencies — the FBI, Indiana State Police, and Porter County Sheriff’s Department — showed up during the exchange. But they served as backup, if needed, to the Valparaiso police detective.
“It’s very draining to continually talk with a suspect for six or more hours, to keep emotions down,” Brickner said. “He kept it monotone, and did outstanding work.”
Other officers worked the scene by establishing a perimeter around the building, evacuating nearby businesses, and escorting the building’s employees to a nearby fire station to be interviewed.
Coincidentally, a Fraternal Order of Police fundraiser was under way in the Kmart parking lot across the street, initially drawing other officers to that busy intersection.
A police command center was established. SWAT teams converged, including the state police Emergency Response Team. Some Valparaiso police officers showed up on their day off. Other officers arrived from various departments across the region. Even some of the city’s civilian workers showed up at the police station to offer help or answer phone calls.
“Citizens wanted to know what was going on,” Brickner explained.
Brickner talked twice with the superintendent of the school district, informing him of the situation, to help him decide whether the nearby schools should go on lock-down. And how to redirect bus routes around the scene.
“It’s ultimately his call, not mine,” Brickner said.
During the standoff, the company’s owner, Larry Hitz, drew rough blueprints of the building’s floor plan, doorways, and offices to help SWAT teams determine their strategy.
“He was drawing maps from memory,” Brickner said.
If you’ve ever been inside the building (I have, once), its layout is quite unconventional.
“At that point, the SWAT team commander was in charge regarding the tactical aspect of the situation,” replied Brickner, when asked who was the head point person.
Both men politely smiled when I asked if all the agencies involved had ever trained together for such a scenario. Obviously not.
“But we all know each other, and we all work with each other on a daily basis for mutual aid calls,” said Grennes, who quickly cordoned off a site for media that showed up.
‘He made a choice’
While the police negotiator conversed with Ferguson via phone, a growing number of gapers made themselves comfortable outside. Some, shamelessly, even brought lawn chairs and snacks as they watched the real-life drama unfold.
Around 4 p.m., during his media briefing, Grennes announced that both hostages were released earlier from the building. The woman first, then the man, an hour afterward.
“Time was on our side at that point,” Brickner said. “The conversation inside was still about trying to talk (Ferguson) into surrendering peacefully.”
A few minutes later, however, SWAT team personnel heard a shot fired from inside the office. Officers peeked inside a side window. Ferguson appeared injured but he still clutched his gun, which he again refused to drop by police order.
Another gunshot was heard, prompting the SWAT team to fire two “flash bang” explosions — making a loud noise to distract Ferguson. Officers stormed the office and found Ferguson with two gunshot wounds to the head. He was still breathing.
Ferguson, who was born in LaPorte, died two hours later at Porter hospital. His obituary states he enjoyed fishing, motorcycles, photography, ping pong, and darts. His body will be cremated.
“Roy will be dearly missed by all who were blessed to have known him,” his obit stated.
Several questions arise in the wake of this incident. But I asked the obvious one first: How did he get off two shots to his head? Grennes, who’s been in the department for 18 years, said a small-caliber handgun was used, which may have been a factor.
City police will review the entire case to learn from it and determine what could have been handled better.
“At this point, there’s not much I can say we should have done differently,” Brickner said. “Our people did the best they could, and they would have rather he surrendered.”
But, Brickner added, “he made a choice.”
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