Wednesday, May 23, 2018
Public safety

Troubled veteran dies in Dade City standoff

DADE CITY — On a street where everybody seemed to know each other, Justin Johnathan Plaza stood out as a stranger.

"He wasn't the kind that's friendly," said Earleane Morgan, 69.

Neighbors driving by Plaza's house at 14022 Morgan St. described a regular scene: Plaza and two women squatting between potted dieffenbachia, their heads bowed, eyes closed.

They appeared to be praying, said Beverly Hives, another neighbor.

Neighbors said window shades were always drawn at the small, pale yellow concrete block house. Plaza, 23, occasionally came out to walk a dog but didn't have much to say.

On March 25, a week ago Sunday, Plaza walked to the end of his dirt driveway and emptied a .45-caliber handgun into a tree. Police came and took him into custody under the Baker Act. Officers said he was argumentative, combative and paranoid, saying people were out to get him, Dade City police Capt. David Duff said.

Later that day, Morgan said, a woman who said her name was Sharon and that she was Plaza's mother came across the street to apologize.

The neighborhood was quiet for a week. Then at 11 p.m. Sunday, somebody called 911 and said Plaza was back in the house and holding a handgun on a relative.

When police arrived, a woman ran from the house, Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco said.

Plaza had just put a gun to her head and said, "We need to pray."

Another woman was still in the home, but officers got her out through a back window.

Morgan said she had almost drifted off to sleep when she heard a woman crying. She peeked out her bedroom window where she saw a woman in tears standing with officers.

Plaza refused to speak with officers and shut himself inside the home. A joint Sheriff's Office and New Port Richey police SWAT team arrived around 12:45 a.m. Monday and began evacuating the neighborhood.

As Morgan stood at the end of the street with neighbors, she could hear officers using a bullhorn.

"Justin, come on out," they said. "Nobody's trying to hurt you. We're trying to help you."

At some point, he came out of the home with a gun by his side, Nocco said. Authorities tried to get him to drop the weapon, but he retreated inside.

Eight minutes later, he came outside again and pointed his handgun at a group of deputies near an armored vehicle, Nocco said. Deputies opened fire. Plaza never fired his weapon, Nocco said.

Plaza died at the scene. It was unclear late Monday how many officers fired and how many times Plaza was hit as he stood just outside his front door.

"The suspect, he chose the actions that we had to do," Nocco later told the Tampa Bay Times. "There was no choice for our law enforcement officers but to fire at the suspect. Mr. Plaza is the one who decided the outcome.''

Records indicate Plaza moved to Tampa from Trinidad. His only previous run-in with the law in Florida occurred while he was a student at Robinson High School. In 2005, he was arrested after bringing a 3-inch knife to school.

He served in the Army, according to Denise Plaza, who is married to Justin Plaza's father, Manchano Plaza in Tampa. She said Justin was stationed in Afghanistan but declined to provide additional information late Monday.

Dade City police Chief Ray Velboom said that when Plaza was arrested last week, he told officers he suffered from depression and post traumatic stress disorder.

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