Tuesday, January 23, 2018
Public safety

Three SWAT members put on leave

DADE CITY — Three SWAT team members have been suspended after a standoff early Monday morning ended in the shooting death of 23-year-old Army veteran Justin Plaza.

Pasco County Sheriff's Deputy Robert Wilkins and Cpl. Marc Erickson and New Port Richey police Officer Aaron Eck were placed on administrative leave with pay while the State Attorney's Office reviews the incident. Such suspensions are routine in shooting investigations.

Assistant State Attorney Manny Garcia said autopsy and toxicology reports will take weeks.

Wilkins and Erickson have been with the Sheriff's Office for about 11 years. Eck was hired by the Police Department 3 ½ years ago.

They were among 35 to 40 law enforcement officers on the scene, Dade City police Chief Ray Velboom said. Ten were Dade City police, he said. The rest were part of a joint SWAT team of Pasco Sheriff's deputies and New Port Richey police officers.

After a 911 call late Sunday night, police responded to 14022 Morgan Ave., where the caller said Plaza was in the house holding a gun to a relative's head. About 12:45 Monday morning, SWAT team members arrived, evacuated neighbors and surrounded the house.

Plaza's aunt, Adlin Aguillera, who owns the house, and his mother, Sharon Karim, were helped out of the house by officers. Plaza remained inside. SWAT members tried to coax him out over a public announcement system and by phone.

He appeared at the door, holding a handgun at his side, Sheriff Chris Nocco said. When officers told him to drop it, he disappeared inside. Eight minutes later, he emerged again. This time, he raised the gun at a group of deputies. Wilkins, Erickson and Eck opened fire. Nocco said Plaza never fired the gun. He died at the scene.

Officers knew he was an Army veteran, said New Port Richey police Chief James Steffens, who heads the SWAT team. A week earlier, on March 25, Dade City officers responded to a call that Plaza was in his driveway, firing a .45-caliber Taurus handgun into trees and bushes.

When the officers arrived, Plaza answered the door, gun in hand. When they told him to drop it, he did. A police report says he became hostile with officers and shouted profanities at them.

Aguillera said her nephew hadn't been acting "right" lately.

Plaza said he was an Army veteran and had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression. He said he had smoked K2, an herbal blend marketed as incense but better known as synthetic marijuana. He told officers it helped him "cope," a report states.

Records indicate Plaza was stationed at Fort Sill, Okla., in 2007 and Fort Campbell, Ky., in 2008. Denise Plaza, who is married to Justin's father, said Justin served in Afghanistan. She did not give any other details.

Justin Plaza attended Tampa's Robinson High School.

Steffens said this is the first time Pasco SWAT members have had to use deadly force. Since it formed last summer, the team had 44 missions without any injuries involved — before the Plaza shooting.

"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."

Alex Orlando can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6247.

Comments

Male bicyclist struck, killed by vehicle in Pinellas Park

PINELLAS PARK — A male bicyclist was struck and killed by a vehicle on U.S. 19 on Monday night, according to Pinellas Park police.The incident took place at about 8:30 p.m. along the 8000 block of U.S. 19 N, near the Walmart Supercenter.The driver wa...
Updated: 7 hours ago

Baby, 11 months, dies in reported drowning at Brandon apartments’ pool

BRANDON — An 11-month-old girl’s parents said their daughter drowned in an apartment complex pond Monday, according to the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office.The infant and her parents were not publicly identified by the Sheriff’s Office. The paren...
Updated: 10 hours ago
Police release photos of men sought for questioning in Florida mall blast

Police release photos of men sought for questioning in Florida mall blast

LAKE WALES — Police say two devices ignited inside a mall in central Florida on Sunday do not appear to be an act of terrorism.According to the FBI, bomb technicians examining the contents of a backpack found at Eagle Ridge Mall in Lake Wales on Sund...
Published: 01/22/18
Something new for Gasparilla — your own private boat captain

Something new for Gasparilla — your own private boat captain

TAMPA — The Gasparilla Parade of Pirates may be this city’s most festive event, but law enforcement maintains its zero-tolerance policy for drinking and driving, whether on land or on water.So if you plan on consuming alcohol at the parade, get home ...
Published: 01/22/18
Clearwater police arrest man in taxi jacking near Crest Lake Park

Clearwater police arrest man in taxi jacking near Crest Lake Park

CLEARWATER — Police officers arrested a 38-year-old man they say robbed a taxi driver at knifepoint Monday morning near Crest Lake Park.According to Clearwater police, Samuel Eric Brown, of Clearwater, stole cash from a driver for United Cab, took th...
Published: 01/22/18
Police: Driver rear-ends school bus in Clearwater

Police: Driver rear-ends school bus in Clearwater

CLEARWATER — A driver rear-ended Monday a school bus on the way to Safety Harbor Middle. None of the 38 students on board were hurt in the crash in the eastbound lanes of NE Coachman Road just west of U.S. 19, according to Clearwater police. Most boa...
Published: 01/22/18
Deputies seek hit-and-run driver who seriously injured bicyclist in Plant City

Deputies seek hit-and-run driver who seriously injured bicyclist in Plant City

Hillsborough County deputies are searching for the driver who seriously injured a bicyclist in a hit-and-run crash in Dover on Monday morning.Deputies say the suspect was driving a Toyota Camry that is now missing part of its right front air dam afte...
Published: 01/22/18

Woman, 35, struck and killed while walking across SR 60 in Valrico

VALRICO — A 35-year-old Thonotosassa woman was struck and killed by a car while walking across State Road 60 west of Mount Carmel Road on Sunday night, the Florida Highway Patrol said.Brandi Eckelstafer was walking south across SR 60 just after 8 p....
Published: 01/22/18

Hillsborough diver who died in Eagle’s Nest Cave was adventurous but experienced

Davin Brannon was a pilot, a spearfisherman, an avid cave and open-water diver and an experienced all-around adventurer, said those close to him ."I guess you could say he died doing what he loved," his cousin Pam Kirven said. "But I also know he’d n...
Published: 01/21/18

Deputies: 18-year-old speeding on U.S. 19 faces charges of DUI, fleeing scene

PALM HARBOR — A speeding driver on U.S. 19 refused to stop for deputies and took off, later rear-ending a car and injuring three people early Sunday morning, according to the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office.A little after 1:30 a.m., Kingzig Montanez...
Published: 01/21/18