Monday, January 22, 2018
Public safety

Three Pasco SWAT team members cleared in fatal shooting

DADE CITY — Justin Plaza, 20 years old and serving his second tour as a soldier in Afghanistan, wrote home to his mother in Dade City.

Sharon Karim shared his words through her tears on Thursday: "I'm scared. I want to come home.''

Early in 2010, after an honorable discharge from the Army, Plaza did come home. His mother didn't detect any dramatic changes.

But around Christmas 2011, he started smoking K2, an incense sometimes called synthetic marijuana. Karim said she would open the front door at 14022 Morgan St. and see him on the porch smoking. He became aggressive and hallucinated. He snapped at her for singing in the kitchen. He said the government was after him.

Karim pleaded with him to stop smoking the K2, which was legally available at local convenience stores.

"Justin," she said, "this stuff will kill you."

On March 25, he fired 12 shots from a pistol into shrubs and trees next to the house. Neighbors called police, who impounded the gun and sent him for psychiatric treatment.

In the next week, Plaza was allowed to return home. He got another gun. He smoked more K2. And in the early morning hours of April 2, he stood on the front porch of that same house. Police say the last thing he did was point the gun at them.

They shot and killed him.

He was 23.

On Thursday, the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office released the results of its investigation. It said the three Pasco SWAT team members who fired the fatal shots were justified.

Karim had witnessed her son's agitation that night. She had called the police before they moved her to a safe location.

"Maybe if I hadn't called for help,'' she said Thursday, "he would be alive.''

• • •

The State Attorney's report is six pages and gives chilling detail of the night of the shooting. It clears the SWAT team members who fired the shots: Pasco Sheriff's Cpl. Marc Erickson and Deputy Robert Wilkins, both snipers, and New Port Richey Officer Aaron Eck.

Police arrived at the house that night to find Karim in the yard, crying uncontrollably. They evacuated Adlin Aguillera, Plaza's aunt, from her bedroom window. The report says Plaza came outside but immediately went back in. He turned off the front porch and inside lights.

The report says officers could hear him inside.

"I can't believe they called the f------ cops," he said. "If anyone comes in I will kill them!"

SWAT team members arrived in a BearCat armored truck and squad cars, 35 to 40 officers from the New Port Richey Police Department and Pasco County Sheriff's Office.

At 1:39 a.m., Detective Chet Cougill called Plaza's phone.

"It's about time," Plaza told him and hung up. He didn't pick up the phone again.

He opened the door, still holding the gun in his right hand. He extended a middle finger toward police and told them to leave, the report says. Then he closed the door. Police used a bullhorn to implore him to surrender.

At 2:07 a.m., he opened the door once more.

"Get the f--- out of here!" he yelled. Then, the report says, he raised his gun.

Eck, Erickson and Wilkins fired at the same time. They hit him twice in the head and once in the upper left back. Other bullets plugged into the front door and punched through walls in the house. Officers found the Smith & Wesson .45-caliber pistol next to him, fully loaded.

Seven rounds in the clip, one in the chamber.

• • •

Plaza was born in Trinidad. He graduated from Jefferson High School in Tampa.

His father, Manchano Plaza, still lives in Tampa. He said he doesn't believe the report.

Karim said the incident that night didn't have to end with a shooting.

"I would expect them to go inside and talk with him,'' she said. "All Justin wanted was somebody to talk to.''

She said she's reminded of her son every day by three bullet holes in the wall.

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