FORT LAUDERDALE — He had just stepped from the shower and was settling in for the night when he caught a glimpse of a figure outside his window.
Seventy-year-old Bill Norkunas, a childhood polio survivor, headed over to the light and flicked it on hoping to scare away whoever was there. Instead, the light was a beacon drawing a young man to his front door, a door made of glass.
And then for the next 15 minutes, Norkunas stood there, barefoot and unclothed, with his crutches, on one side of the glass pane trying to steady a gun in his trembling hand while the stranger stood on the other side, pounding on the door, banging it with his hip or gnawing at the thick hurricane-grade glass with a garden paver.
Norkunas, who suffered minor injuries from the glass digging into his foot, has no idea why the man, later identified as 23-year-old Timothy Johnson of Fort Lauderdale, tried to break down his door on Nov. 7.
And as bewildering, and just as terrifying to him, is the knowledge that a squad of Broward sheriff’s deputies responded to his Tamarac neighborhood, but none came close to his home to stop the man. Instead, they waited down the street until he walked over to them and surrendered, witnesses told the South Florida Sun Sentinel.
The result is a palpable sense of outrage toward the Sheriff’s Office with many in the neighborhood questioning why deputies would leave a terrified, disabled man to fend for himself for as long as they did.
The Sheriff’s Office refused to answer questions about the response, including why no one showed up at Norkunas’ home, whether policy was followed or broken, and whether the situation could have been handled better. Instead, the department released this statement:
“Within days of the incident in Tamarac, the Broward Sheriff’s Office began a thorough review into how the deputies on scene handled the response to this fluid and rapidly evolving situation. The review into this incident is ongoing.
“The Broward Sheriff’s Office responds to tens of thousands of calls for service each year. The vast majority of these calls are handled appropriately with satisfactory outcomes. (The Broward Sheriff’s Office) constantly reviews and assesses its responses to emergency calls in order to provide the highest level of service to the public.”
Neighbors would not call the response “the highest level.” Instead of stopping the would-be-intruder at Norkunas’ door, witnesses said, the deputies stayed down the street and around a corner, some 500 yards away while Norkunas and his neighbors flooded the 911 emergency communications system begging for help for almost 15 minutes.
“If he opens the door can I shoot him?” Norkunas asks the 911 dispatcher about two minutes into his phone call for help.
By the third minute, Norkunas is telling the dispatcher that the stranger is trying to kick the door in, according to a recording of the call. While still on the phone with the dispatcher, Norkunas can be heard warning the stranger that he better leave or he is going to get shot. Until this point in his life, Norkunas had never pointed a gun at anyone before.
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“Get the cops here quick,” he barks into the phone at minute four.
Three minutes later, Norkunas’ voice is weary: “Sheriff, hurry up please.”
Three more minutes pass. “Where the hell are the cruisers? ... They are still not here. Jesus Christ. There’s still no cruisers. Come to my house, please please.”
He tells the dispatcher his glass door is smashed in and he doesn’t know what to do. The dispatcher tells him the deputies are canvassing the area to “make sure no one else gets hurt.”
A dispatcher hears the glass breaking and alerts the 18 deputies who had been assigned to go to Norkunas’ home, according to a dispatcher’s log that documents the call and response. The Sheriff’s Office initially refused to release those public records, as well as the 911 call and police report, until the Sun Sentinel’s attorney got involved.
Still, the breaking glass did not seem to be enough to get deputies to move in on the man outside Norkunas’ door.
Norkunas continues to plead with the dispatcher on the 911 call, saying his home is at the end of the cul-de-sac. He says there are two cars in the driveway and there’s a light on.
“If he gets inside this house, I don’t know what I am going to do. I’ve never shot anybody,” he tells the dispatcher.
Norkunas stayed on the phone with a dispatcher from the time he made the call at 9:26 p.m. until Johnson, the suspected intruder, walked directly to the deputies and was detained 15 minutes later, according to witnesses and the dispatcher’s log.
Where were the sirens? The whirling blue lights? The men and women who put on the uniform each day ready to serve? What were they waiting for?
“I’ve been on this earth 70 years, and I have never seen anything like this,” Norkunas said in an interview. “No officer came to my house. None.”
While law enforcement officers take an oath to serve and protect, they are not bound to do so legally, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled.
“The law doesn’t require law enforcement officers to protect you from other people,” said Rodney Jacobs, assistant director of the Civil Investigative Panel, a police oversight committee for the city of Miami.
Julio Fuentes initially dismissed the loud noises as someone putting things into a trash bin at a nearby church. But then he had this nagging feeling that something wasn’t right. So he stepped outside and saw the stranger with the garden paver banging on his neighbor’s door.
Fuentes called 911 and while on the phone with a dispatcher, he can be heard yelling at the stranger to stop what he is doing. Nothing seemed to phase Johnson, Fuentes said.
Eventually, Johnson moved on from Norkunas’ house and Fuentes followed him, staying about 30 to 35 feet away — far enough for safety but close enough, he figured, to be able to pounce if the stranger was able to get inside one of his neighbor’s homes.
“Oh God, oh God, oh God he’s walking to my f--- house. Holy f---. Please help me....” cried out another neighbor, who spent several minutes on the phone with a dispatcher initially trying to get help for Norkunas and then for herself as Johnson headed toward her house.
With each minute that passes, the more incensed the woman becomes.
The dispatcher tries to assure her help is on the way.
With Fuentes still following the man, the man then goes to another neighbor’s house. The woman tells this to the dispatcher. “Oh my God this guy is f--- terrorizing everybody’s house and you guys are nowhere to be found.”
She lays into the dispatcher: “He could have gotten away and he could have hurt someone. My neighbor is disabled. My neighbor walks with a cane and you guys take your time. You guys take your f--- time.
The dispatcher replies: “They were not taking their time.”
Weeks later, Norkunas and his neighbors are still rattled and dumbfounded.
“Bottom line, my life could have ended that night. Or the attacker’s life could have ended, while more than a dozen well-armed deputies did not respond to my house,” Norkunas said.
He’s haunted that he couldn’t pull the trigger when he was left to fend for himself. He says almost everyone he shares his story with says they now want to buy a gun.
These days he brings his gun along when he walks his little dog and he scans the bushes for would-be intruders.
“Things have just changed,” he said.
A woman who lives down the street has since installed a security camera on her home but says she is still living in fear.
Alba Vileja lives at the corner where the deputies were staged on Nov. 7. She and her husband stepped outside their home to try to figure out why there were so many deputies, mostly in unmarked cars, she said.
“I know now that I cannot count on police,” she said. “I’m very afraid. I was always thinking I’m very safe with the police, but after what happened with Bill, I am not safe.
“I think this is totally unacceptable. ... If you know there is a problem, why didn’t you go and rescue that man?”
His door saved his life, she said, not the deputies.
Norkunas said he called Tamarac Mayor Michelle Gomez, a longtime acquaintance, to tell her what happened — or, as he puts it, what didn’t happen.
Gomez declined to comment for this story.
Shortly after he spoke with the mayor, Norkunas said he got a call inviting him to the Sheriff’s Office substation in Tamarac.
Norkunas said a sergeant explained procedures for setting up a perimeter so that Johnson could not escape, but also admitted they could have done better. Norkunas said he was offered $500 from a victim’s fund. He said he turned it down.
Johnson was arrested on two burglary charges, battery on a person over 65 and throwing a missile into a building. He is out of jail on a $14,100 bail. He does not have voicemail set up on his phone and he did not return repeated text messages.