SUNRISE – Everything that cops do is supposed to prevent the kind of tragedy that struck Tuesday.
FBI agents serve search warrants almost every day, planning every meticulous detail to avoid bloodshed. Where will agents be stationed? Is the suspect armed? Is he aware they’re coming? Is he likely to become violent?
What became clear Tuesday, in conversations with former federal agents and retired law enforcement officers, is that whatever plan the FBI had for serving a child pornography warrant in Sunrise must have gone terribly awry.
The FBI has released very little information about the shootings, but evidence suggests a number of possibilities that led to the agency’s most deadly day since 9/11. Agents may have lost the element of surprise that gives them an upper hand, sources said. They may have miscalculated the suspect’s response. Or they may have been forced to react aggressively because someone else was in danger.
Whatever the reason, a spray of bullets erupted at the Water Trace Apartments in Sunrise an hour before dawn. When the shooting stopped, FBI agents Laura Schwartzenberger and Daniel Alfin were dead. Two other agents were hospitalized with bullet wounds, and a third had been treated for bullet wounds on the scene. The shooter also was dead.
Whether the agents announced their presence at the door is unknown. But Barry Golden, a former U.S. marshal who now works as a private investigator, said law enforcement generally tries to catch suspects by surprise and uses superior numbers to overwhelm them.
The element of surprise has been harder to come by recently, he said, with the widespread adoption of home security systems and doorbell cameras — the type that sources said this gunman employed to ambush the FBI agents.
“More people these days have cameras outside their home, so chances are that the element of surprise might be out the window, if someone is sitting there watching or getting a text alert,” Golden said.
Still, agents likely expected that this suspect was armed, experts say. It is FBI policy to consider suspects in child sex crimes as armed and dangerous, said Paul Miller, a former FBI special agent.
“It’s so horrendous (a crime) that someone may do something out of the ordinary,” he said.
That’s one reason that Carl Hannold, a former Fort Lauderdale police officer and SWAT team member, calls warrants “the most dangerous thing you’ll do in your entire life.”
Five of the 48 law enforcement officers murdered last year while on duty in the United States were killed while trying to serve warrants, according to the FBI’s database. Only traffic stops — which killed six officers — were deadlier for police officers.
Officers and government agents deflect the dangers by gathering as much intelligence on the suspect as possible.
Police are trained to quietly establish a perimeter around a suspect’s home in a process they call containment. If they are looking to arrest a suspect, they may just wait for him to step outside in order to gain the element of surprise, or they might announce their presence and ask the suspect to exit.
Violently entering somebody’s house is a tactic now reserved for hostage situations, Hannold said. “Our SWAT teams have dialed it back.”
But there are circumstances in which agents may need to enter the home, said Tom Rafanello, a former DEA special agent in charge.
“If you feel that you have to go in there because evidence is being destroyed, or a child’s welfare is on the line, or somebody’s life is on the line, you are duty-bound to go in there,” he said.
In 2004, Broward Sheriff’s Detective Todd Fatta, 33, was shot in the chest while trying to serve search and arrest warrants in a child pornography case. Kenneth Wilk, 45, was sentenced to life in prison without parole in August 2007 for the murder.
In that police action, which involved federal agents, officers knocked on Wilk’s door and announced themselves. When Wilk refused to come out, the officers broke in. That’s when Wilk killed Fatta and wounded another cop.
“It’s a very dangerous thing to do, to knock and announce,” Rafanello said. “You go in, and you try to isolate threats as best you can.”
“Its just horrifying. The public doesn’t realize how dangerous it is to execute search warrants and arrest warrants,” said Benjamin Greenberg, former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida.
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