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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 aorlando@tampabay.com or (727) 869-6247.

Three SWAT members put on leave 04/04/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 4, 2012 8:05pm]
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