Sunday, May 27, 2018
Public safety

A New Port Richey police SWAT team shoots and kills a man — but did he take his life, or did they?

Manchano Plaza sat in his Tampa home Friday afternoon and remembered his only son — the little boy who wanted to be a priest; the young man who went to war for his country. How could things have gone so wrong, he wondered. He packed away pictures of Justin Plaza, those taken in his Army uniform with his fellow soldiers during two tours in Afghanistan. The images are too painful. So are the images of what happened in the first hours of Monday morning on the front porch of a small house on Morgan Street in Dade City. The blood, the bullet holes.

Justin Plaza, who just two years earlier had earned an honorable discharge from the military, died in a hail of bullets. Police said he pointed a pistol. A SWAT team opened fire.

The State Attorney's office is investigating. Police said Plaza gave them no choice. His father doesn't get it.

"The guy is 23 years old,'' the father said. "He spent almost four years in the Army. They treated him like a terrorist.''

• • •

Police had plenty of reason to respond Sunday night. They had met Justin a week before, after he emptied a .45-caliber pistol into trees and bushes in the back yard. He told officers he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression. He said he had smoked K2, an herbal incense often called synthetic marijuana. They checked him into the Veterans' Hospital in Tampa under the Baker Act.

He was released two days later. His father said he was diagnosed with a brain tumor. He had an appointment to go back April 17.

But late Sunday, police got a 911 call from the house where Justin was staying with his mother and aunt. He was holding a gun on them, police reported.

After the shooting, Manchano Plaza went to Dade City. He and Sharon, originally from Trinidad, divorced 18 years ago, but they stayed in touch. He described what she said happened that night.

Justin was agitated again. He opened a Bible and started reading from it, reciting chapters from Leviticus — louder and louder. His mother told him to stop or she would call police. Justin kept reading. She went outside with the phone.

Justin waved a gun, but he didn't point it at anyone, his father said. "Nobody is taking me from my house!" he shouted.

The next time Sharon opened the door, police and SWAT cars lined the sides of Morgan Street.

An officer came to the door.

Manchano related what his ex-wife said to police: "I'm going to trust you. Do not kill my son. Do not hurt my son."

Manchano said officers took Sharon to a patrol car to protect her. They evacuated Justin's aunt, Adlin Aguillera, who owns the house, from her bedroom window.

Police said Justin came out of the house eight minutes later, leveled the gun at a group of SWAT team members — and died on the porch.

New Port Richey Police Chief James Steffens, who heads the SWAT team, said last week it was Justin's choice.

"There's no doubt that he had every understanding that he was forcing law enforcement to attempt to negotiate with him," Steffens said, "and he was forcing law enforcement to take his life."

• • •

Justin Plaza's last moments were thoroughly documented in reports, but his 23-year history remained a mystery until his father called the Tampa Bay Times on Friday.

Justin had been a top student in elementary school after the family moved to Tampa. In high school, he told his family he wanted to make a difference.

"He wanted to become an important person," his father said.

He was quiet and slim. Pool and basketball were his favorite games. He listened to hip-hop and read the Bible. At Robinson High School in Tampa, kids picked on him because of the heavy accent he carried from Trinidad. One day, he brought a 3-inch knife to school and got arrested. He told his father it was for protection.

Justin switched to Jefferson High, where he graduated. When he turned 18, he joined the Army. After two tours in Afghanistan, he took an honorable discharge in 2010.

He attended classes at Pasco-Hernando Community College. He wanted to go to dental school. Or maybe return to the Army.

• • •

Since the shooting, Manchano and his wife, Denise, have taken down all the photos of Justin.

One shows Justin just out of high school, standing in a kitchen wearing a long red shirt and a gold chain. Sunglasses. Big grin.

Another shows him gathered with other troops on deployment. He reclines on a backpack, again with shades and a smile. His fatigues blend into the gray Afghanistan dirt.

Bare nails stick from the walls where the pictures hung.

His father talks about the last time he saw his son — Christmas. How he seemed normal; how he was happy to receive gifts of Gucci and Polo cologne. They made him feel important, his father said, and he liked that.

   
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