It may seem routine, but law enforcement officers and agents say serving warrants can also be among their most dangerous tasks — with the risk heightened by the uncertainty of who might lurk behind a closed door.
At dawn Tuesday in Sunrise, law enforcement sources say a man armed with an assault rifle blasted a group of FBI agents from a child-pornography task force after he spotted them through a doorbell ring camera. Special Agents Daniel Alfin and Laura Schwartzenberger, there to serve a search warrant aimed at seizing the still-unidentified man’s computers, were killed. Three others were wounded in one of the deadliest days for the FBI in decades.
There is a long history in South Florida alone of similar, seemingly everyday encounters turning violent — including the 2004 fatal shooting of a Broward Sheriff’s deputy, Todd Fatta, by a Fort Lauderdale man who opened fire on him and other deputies who also were serving a search warrant in a child-porn raid.
“You always face the uncertainty, the unknown.,” said retired BSO deputy Al Pollock. “A minor traffic warrant can turn dangerous because you don’t know the mindset. We learned our lessons for that from Fatta.”
Local police and federal agents, who are accustomed to serving court-approved warrants to gather evidence for a case, go through risk assessments before serving warrants — but they still sometimes find themselves blindly entering the lairs of suspected criminals who they have little information about. On Tuesday, the FBI child-porn task force did not bring along a SWAT team for extra protection — although that still may not have prevented the tragedy since sources told the Miami Herald that the suspect shot right through his unopened front door at the agents. After a standoff, he killed himself.
FBI Special Agent in Charge George Piro, in a statement read Tuesday evening at the FBI’s Miramar field office, did not address why the FBI’s tactical unit was not initially called in to assist before the raid. But even though there won’t be a criminal prosecution of the shooter, the FBI will exhaustively examine every detail of the deadly operation to figure out what went wrong — and what can be learned from it. Was there something they missed about the suspect? Did they know he had an assault rifle or perhaps a concealed weapons permit? Did the layout of the apartment complex expose agents? There will be a long list of questions.
“That’s why threat assessments are so important,” former Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel said, speaking generally about serving warrants and not about Tuesday’s shootout. “Do they have pit bulls? Are they prepared for a violent encounter with police?
“There are times when a SWAT team has to do a dynamic entry,” he said. “But I’ve always said entering a home should be an absolute last resort. Can you set up surveillance and get the person to leave the home? Any time you can take a person down outside a home, do it.”
Former Miami-Dade Police Director Juan Perez said police by their very nature are reactionary, almost always waiting for an action to occur before responding. “Facing that unknown puts us behind the eight ball,” Perez said.
Case in point: A decade ago, Miami-Dade police officers Roger Castillo and Amanda Haworth were part of a specially trained squad that had been criss-crossing Liberty City searching for Johnny Simms, wanted on a Miami murder warrant. Squad members, protected by body armor, had already visited several homes before they knocked on the door at Simms’ mother’s duplex. She let them inside, but Simms — armed with a pistol — popped out of an inside room, fatally shooting Haworth and Castillo before police shot him.
Suspects in their own homes always pose a danger for police.
Last October, Miami-Dade Police Detective Christopher Fernandez was shot in the ear as he entered a South Miami-Dade apartment during a narcotics investigation. In the gunfire, suspected shooter Julio Juan Garcia was wounded, and later surrendered after a standoff with the Special Response Team.
Even when tactical SWAT officers are involved, there’s danger. Last August, a fugitive shot a Miami-Dade SRT member in the vest after a standoff in South Miami-Dade. The officer was not wounded. The shooter, James Justin Munro, was shot dead.
Retired U.S. Marshal Deputy Barry Golden said that he arrested “hundreds and hundreds of guys” over his career, but he and his colleagues always trained to follow one rule of safety: Avoid going inside a home and instead try to set up surveillance and wait for the suspect to come out.
“My preference was always to arrest them outside,” Golden said. “Sometimes you have to go into a residence, but then you are going into the unknown. You never know if the suspect is going to be carrying a weapon.”
Several law enforcement sources said that the public may not understand how risky it is for police and agents to serve search warrants, even on child-porn suspects who may not seem as threatening because of the lack of information about their criminal history. They are typically not like drug traffickers, for example, who often have prior arrests involving weapons that show a predisposition for violence.
“The FBI always puts a great deal of thought and planning into these operations,” said Ben Greenberg, a former U.S. attorney in South Florida and partner with the Miami law firm Greenberg Traurig. “The public doesn’t realize how dangerous it is to execute search warrants and arrest warrants, sometimes with the absolutely horrifying consequences we saw [Tuesday].”
An earlier version of this story from the Miami Herald follows:
In the bloodiest day for the FBI in decades, two veteran agents were shot to death and three others wounded Tuesday morning when a gunman opened fire from inside his home as they attempted to serve a search warrant at an apartment in Sunrise as part of a child-pornography probe.
The gunman, not yet identified by the FBI, is believed to have monitored the approach of the agents with a doorbell camera and ambushed them through the unopened door with a hail of bullets from an assault-style rifle, law enforcement sources told the Miami Herald.
“There are several huge holes in the door going outward,” one law-enforcement official said.
The murders of agents Daniel Alfin and Laura Schwartzenberger left the FBI reeling, as investigators began piecing together what went wrong in the type of raid that usually unfolds with little attention but is also fraught with danger for law enforcement.
Gunfire explored just before 6 a.m. on Tuesday at the Water Terrace apartment complex in Sunrise in a neighborhood about five miles northeast of the Sawgrass Mills mall.
The FBI had not provided details of the case against the gunman, other than to say he was suspected of possessing illegal graphic images of children. The case was being investigated by the FBI’s Internet Crimes against Children task force, and supervised by prosecutors based in Fort Lauderdale.
The FBI obtained the internet protocol address for the suspect’s computer from an internet service provider and then matched that with the suspect’s physical address. Depending on the evidence found in the suspect’s home, the FBI and federal prosecutors would have likely filed a criminal complaint charging him with some type of child pornography offense, sources said.
After the shooting the agents, the suspect barricaded himself inside the apartment, while the FBI agents called for back-up help from a heavily-armed tactical SWAT unit. Coincidentally, there was a Broward Sheriff’s office SWAT unit in the area Tuesday morning assisting in the arrest of another child-porn suspect — but one not targeted in the FBI operation. The unit rushed to the scene, sources said, and were able to extract at least one of the wounded agents.
Officers and agents, along with paramedics swarmed the scene, as traffic was shut down on nearby Nob Hill Road in both directions. The gunman is believed to have killed himself after several hours of stand-off.
One agent who was wounded was not hospitalized. Two others were “transported to the hospital and are in stable condition,” the FBI said in a statement.
The victims were taken to the trauma unit at Broward Health Medical Center in Fort Lauderdale as dozen of police officers from area agencies gathered to pay their respects.
Television news footage showed the body of one agent arriving at the Broward Medical Examiner’s Office on a gurney, covered in an American flag, as a line of uniformed motorcycle and other officers stood at attention.
“Every day, FBI special agents put themselves in harm’s way to keep the American people safe. Special Agent Alfin and Special Agent Schwartzenberger exemplified heroism today in defense of their country. The FBI will always honor their ultimate sacrifice and will be forever grateful for their bravery,” FBI Director Christopher Wray wrote in a statement.
Tuesday’s shootings of the FBI agents may rival the deadliest in the bureau’s history — a bloody shootout between a group of agents and a pair of bank robbers in South Miami-Dade nearly 35 years ago.
Killed in that confrontation were special agents Ben Grogan and Jerry Dove. Grogan, 53, a two-decade veteran nicknamed The Doctor, was one year shy of retirement when he died. The “Miami Shootout” — which left five other agents wounded and the two suspects dead the morning of April 11,1986 — was a defining moment in the FBI’s history. It prompted the bureau to make sure all agents were better armed, replacing .38-caliber revolvers with 9mm semi-automatic handguns.
Tuesday morning’s raid was also reminiscent of the 2011 fatal shootings of two Miami-Dade police detectives while serving a warrant at a home in Miami. A murder suspect named Johnny Simms fatally shot detectives Amanda Haworth and Roger Castillo, before he was shot dead by another officer.
In 2004, Broward Sheriff’s Detective Todd Fatta was fatally shot when a task force of officers was attempting to serve a child-porn search warrant at a home in Fort Lauderdale. His family later sued the police agency, saying Fatta would not have been shot had the department deployed the better-armed tactical SWAT unit.
Tuesday’s shooting shocked law-enforcement officials at the highest levels.
“Our thoughts are with their families and loved ones and with their three colleagues who were shot in today’s devastating events,” Acting Attorney General Monty Wilkinson said in a statement. “On this dark day, we pay tribute to the brave men and women of the FBI who put their lives on the line every day in support of our mission. We will never forget the ultimate sacrifice made by these special agents.”
Larry Cosme, the national president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, said in a statement: “This horrible attack was a reflection of the violent individuals law enforcement officers encounter every day. However, the coordinated response and outpouring of support the news has brought, is also a reflection of the strength of our law enforcement community.”
By David J. Neal, Charles Rabin, Jay Weaver and David Ovalle