In a head-spinning standoff Wednesday night that made national news, Gwinnett County officers stormed a home and killed a gunman who’d taken four firefighters hostage.
Police used “flash bang” concussion grenades to stun the gunman, who had lured firefighters to the residence by faking a heart attack hours earlier.
Officers with Gwinnett County’s SWAT team then killed the man in a shootout.
It was a violent end to a harrowing day for public safety officials and people in the community, dozens of whom watched the standoff unfold over four hours.
It started after firefighters responded to the medical call at 2440 Walnut Grove Way just after 3 p.m. The gunman initially took five firefighters hostage, but let one leave to move a firetruck in front of the house, Ritter said.
One police officer was wounded in the exchange of gunfire, but his injuries were not thought to be life-threatening. The firefighters suffered minor injuries. All were transported to a local hospital.
Police negotiated with the man, whom they did not identify, for about four hours before storming the house in Suwanee. Gwinnett Police Cpl. Ed Ritter said the suspect demanded that his utilities and cable service be restored. They apparently had been shut off because he was having financial problems.
“It’s a very bold act,” Gwinnett fire Capt. Thomas Rutledge said. “People can often be desperate. We don’t know what the situation could be. It’s an incident people in public safety train for but hope never comes.
“Tonight it did.”
Gwinnett County Sheriff’s Sgt. Tracy Lee said the gunman was also upset because his house was being foreclosed on.
“I’ve been doing this for 24 years and I’ve never seen anything like this,” Lee said.
Police vehicles blocked the entrance to the Walnut Grove at Richland subdivision. People stood three rows deep across the street watching. Students on spring break from nearby Collins Hill High School also watched as they attended a baseball game.
Jake Major, 18, and several others applauded SWAT officers as they exited the subdivision.
“I’m sad, because I just heard three gunshots killing somebody,” Major said. “But at the same time, four people were in there and their lives were in danger.”
After the explosion and gunfire, which startled the crowd of onlookers, officers were seen running, frantically gesturing for people to clear the road for an ambulance, which left the home moments later with a police escort.
Jaime Gossan and her husband live three doors down from the standoff. She didn’t know the occupants of the house, but said that earlier Wednesday the man ran down his driveway toward her husband as he rode a motorcycle in the subdivision.
A German shepherd that was with the man also ran up to the motorcycle, but her husband kept moving, Gossan said. A short time later, he saw the firefighters go in, and then saw SWAT officers, 30 or more, surround the house.
Gossan said her husband also saw a robot go up to the house involved in the standoff. Gwinnett County police have a robot equipped with microphone and speaker through which they can talk to barricaded suspects.
Police sent out a message to all media about a half-hour before storming the house, asking them not to broadcast aerial shots of the home until the standoff was resolved.
“This is a very touchy situation, anything could happen at this point, so we’ve got to try and keep him calm,” Ritter said during a press briefing earlier in the evening.
The subdivision is full of two-story traditional houses, with neighbors describing it as quiet and safe. The home involved in the standoff is valued at $131,600, according to the Gwinnett County Tax Assessor’s Office.
“I’m blown away,” said Steven Hayes, who moved in with his fiance and two children about eight months ago, drawn from Marietta by the good schools and parks in the area. “You’d never expect this here.”
His fiance, 8-month-old daughter and 4-year-old son remained in their house a few doors down from the standoff, forcing Hayes to wait anxiously at the subdivision entrance Wednesday night. His fiance told Hayes that officers came in and out of their house to use the bathroom, and one officer had borrowed a phone charger.
One fire engine and one ambulance arrived in response to the initial call. In Gwinnett, firefighters are cross-trained as emergency medical responders, and a medical emergency is a routine call for them, said Rutledge, the fire captain.
He said the firefighters were given no reason to suspect they were walking into a dangerous situation, or else their protocol would have been to stage themselves outside and wait for police to enter the home first.
*** DUH! ***
The standoff was reminiscent of a December incident in upstate New York, where William Spengler ambushed firefighters after luring them by setting his house on fire. Spengler shot four firefighters, killing two. A police officer also was injured.