Editor’s note: One year ago today in a rural part of Wisconsin, Richland County Sheriff Darrel Berglin and his Special Response Team were manning the perimeter around a house in which a self-proclaimed survivalist named Robert Bayliss was holed up and heavily armed. In Lt. Dan Marcou’s excellent account below, we’re reminded of the professionalism and preparedness demonstrated by police across the country every single day. If you’ve got a story you’d like to share, please let us know by sending us an E-Mail. If you don’t want to write it in your own “First Person" voice, then one of PoliceOne’s columnists can tell the tale in your stead.
One of the officers at the scene in Richland County, Wisconsin said it was “like a war zone.” The scene was reminiscent of the SLA shootout in Los Angeles, except this gun battle took place around the crest of a hill, on the wooded, junk-littered property of a self-proclaimed survivalist named Robert C. Bayliss.
It all started during the afternoon of March 31, 2008 when several Richland County Deputies approached Bayliss’s enclave to serve civil process on him. They had tried many times since January to serve the process, without success. Bayliss was being evicted from his property for failing to pay taxes since 2000. The deputies maneuvered cautiously through the 18-acre property toward the home, which held a commanding view of the area from its location on the crest of a hill.
Suddenly the silence of the woods was shattered by 15 rounds from a high powered rifle. The deputies took cover and immediately called the in the situation, triggering a three-day stand-off.
Richland County Sheriff Darrel Berglin responded to the scene along with the Richland County Special Response Team. Due to the size of the property and the tactically superior position of the home, a painstaking effort was taken to establish a command post and achieve containment. Negotiators continually attempted to contact Bayliss with no indication that he was even slightly willing to negotiate.
On April 3, 2008 at 9:00 AM an attempt was made to approach the house by the Richland County Team and the Vernon County Sheriff’s Department Special Response Team, utilizing their Bear Cat (Ballistic Engineered Armored Response Counter-Attack Truck). As the team approached the house, Bayliss opened fire again, striking the sides and windshield of the Bear Cat. The windshield held, but the decision was made to disengage.
Throughout the day, negotiators continued to use voice-projecting equipment in their attempts with to convince Bayliss to surrender. The attempts proved futile. Sheriff Berglin then requested assistance and received an immediate response from the Dane County Tactical Response Team, The Eau Claire County SWAT Team, the La Crosse County Emergency Response Team, The Sauk County Emergency Response Team. These groups joined Vernon and Richland already on scene.
A chain of command was established and the tactical team leaders formulated a plan. The additional teams allowed for a rotation of the counter-sniper teams. Intelligence gathered on the perimeter suggested that Bayliss’ possessed incendiary devices and home-made explosive devices.
In addition to the teams mentioned above, Richland County had requested and received assistance from Wisconsin Department of Criminal Investigation, The Dane County Bomb Squad, The Wisconsin Fire Marshall, Kenosha Air One, The Wisconsin State Patrol Fixed Wing Aircraft, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, Viola Fire, and Viola Emergency Medical Services.
A plan was devised to end this deadly encounter.
The Battle is Joined
At 4:52 PM three Bear Cats in a formation began an approach the house, enabling team members to concentrate their fire power forward. Bayliss instantly opened fire on the teams, firing from the upper windows of the home, moving from window to window as if they were gun ports. Bayliss concentrated his fire on the Bear Cats, containing the teams. His fire was extremely accurate, but the Bear Cats did what they were designed to do. They protected the teams.
Both counter-sniper teams fired back at the ducking and moving suspect, but Bayliss had fortified his home for this battle. The house had been reinforced in spots with steel plating, which protected the suspect and were found later pock marked by police hits. All of the Bear Cats were hit, but the assault continued forward in the face of this relentless fire. The gunfire was general now as Bayliss began to lob home made explosives out of the upper windows of his home. Some 50 rounds of non-burning chemical munitions were fired back into the Bayliss compound.
For 12 minutes—what seemed like an “eternity” to the tactical officers on scene—there was a continuous exchange of gunfire. One officer at the scene said “I was trying to keep the suspect’s head down by shooting where I thought he was. If I could keep his head down I thought he could not shoot at the teams.” Bayliss would appear take a shot, then quickly disappear and move. Surrender was clearly not on his agenda.
As the arrest teams closed in, it is suspected that Bayliss either accidentally or deliberately set his house alight with one of his incendiary bombs. As the fire quickly spread there were a series of explosions inside the fortress. Fire Departments had been on stand by, but they could not approach, because of the extreme danger posed by Bayliss, his burning ammunition and his improvised explosive devices.
Tactical Team Members called for Bayliss to surrender, warning him that he would die inside the house if he did not come out. When it seemed to be over for Bayliss, he appeared exiting an upstairs window and began to climb down a makeshift ladder. His sweatshirt shifted, revealing a pistol in a holster on his right hip.
One officer warned the rest, “He’s got gun on his hip!”
Another officer cautioned the others, “Look out boys he’s going to hit the ground shooting.”
A chorus rang out “Drop the gun!” followed by a solo voice singing clearly, “Less Lethal! Less Lethal! Less Lethal!”
The distinctive pop of less lethal rounds replaced the still echoing gun fire and Bayliss reacted to a double-shot to the thigh. He stopped on the ladder and for the first time in three days he was communicating, and at long last listening. Using his finger tips he removed the pistol from his holster and threw it to the ground. Robert Bayliss was ordered down the ladder and to the ground and after a minor bit of physical resistance was over come he was handcuffed. It was over.
At his trial, Bayliss conducted his own defense and even though he did not belong to any particular group, he possessed views that questioned governmental “sovereignty.” He felt that after posting his property and giving warning, anyone on his property was “trespassing.”
The jury didn’t buy his defense and after eight hours of deliberation, on February 10, 2009 found Robert Bayliss guilty on 13 of the 17 charges lodged against him, including being found guilty of four counts of Attempted First Degree Intentional Homicide. He will be sentenced after a pre-sentence investigation.
His property, minus the home which burned to the ground, was sold at auction for $35,000 to make up for his back taxes.
Robert Bayliss had more than 90 weapons in his home and fired more than 200 rounds from his favorite, a 300 Winchester Magnum. He threw in excess of 30 incendiary grenades at the officers. Officers returned fire with approximately 150 rounds and 50 chemical munitions along with the less lethal rounds that inspired Bayliss’ final capitulation.
Local media in all jurisdiction involved had universally questioned the acquisition of Bear Cats, which were strategically placed recently around Wisconsin by Homeland Security. After the Bayliss battle, local media begrudgingly agreed that lives were protected by these vehicles, which seemed to arrive from Homeland Security minus the blare of the bugle like the cavalry of old “in the nick of time.”
The Association of SWAT Personnel of Wisconsin, which every year recognizes a SWAT Officer of the Year and a SWAT Team of the Year, gave unprecedented recognition for this unprecedented incident. The 2008 SWAT Team of the Year Award went out to six separate SWAT Teams for their extraordinary coordinated response to this extraordinary circumstance. They are:
The DANE County Tactical Response Team
The Eau Claire County SWAT Team
The La Crosse County Emergency Response Team
The Richland County Special Response Team
The Sauk County Emergency Response Team
The Vernon County Combined Tactical Unit
Rodney Stearns, who is a member of the Eau Claire County SWAT Team had this to say about this incredible experience:
“It was a battle that can not be explained with an end result that carries that same amazement. This was one of those tactical missions that relied heavily on proper planning and preparation and the end result was a direct reflection of both.”
To all of those officers who faced the ferocious fire of a man bent on killing, and who ultimately thwarted the suspect through superior tactics, equipment, and professionalism above and beyond the call of duty, PoliceOne salutes your courage.