10-8: Life on the Line
with Charles Remsberg
A midnight knock…and then madness
Bob Willis, then a patrol officer for New Berlin (WI) PD, was dozing on the floor in front of the TV when a knock sounded at his front door around midnight that snowy Christmas Eve. His wife, who'd been turning off lights to shut the house down for the night, peeked out of a window. She saw a young male standing on the stoop, thought perhaps he was a neighborhood teen in trouble or one of their son's friends and cracked open the door to a nightmare.
A gang of other Asians stormed out of the shadows and lunged against the door. At least one brandished a weapon. "Gun!", she screamed. That and the sound of her falling to the floor as the attackers surged against the door jolted Willis awake.
"Initially, it was 'What the fuck!'", Willis recalls. "I went from Condition White to Condition Black." But quickly he "got the context" and threw a powerful shoulder block against the door, holding the clamoring intruders back until he could slam the deadbolt into place.
Through a glass portal he could see "three or four Asians and a couple of guns. I bodily threw my wife into the kitchen and yelled at her to call 911." Then he bolted to the bedroom and grabbed his shotgun.
Through the living room picture window, he could see a two-door car backed into his driveway, motor running and apparently unoccupied. "They're at the back door!" his wife shrieked. Clad only in black karate pants and a T-shirt, Willis, armed with a shotgun, ran outside barefoot into more than two feet of snow and below-freezing temperatures to do battle.
Seconds later, the gang ran from behind his house, across the driveway and through some bushes to a car parked on the street. As they reached the vehicle, Willis blasted off a round. They fired back then piled in the car and fled. "They may have driven to a safe house or onto an expressway nearby," Willis speculates. "They faded into the night and were gone."
The car abandoned in Willis' driveway turned out to be one of several that had been stolen a few days earlier in Little Rock. But beyond that, there were few productive clues and the incident remains unsolved. Willis is convinced it was revenge motivated. There had been an upsurge of offenses perpetrated by gangs of Asian criminals convoying up from Texas and Oklahoma to prey on Hmong immigrants who colonized in the Milwaukee metropolitan area. They'd invaded and taken down large wedding receptions at gunpoint and pulled other armed robberies, burglaries, car break-ins and assorted street crimes of opportunity.
Willis had been directly involved with them twice; once chasing a vehicle break-in suspect and eventually capturing him at gunpoint; another time as backup in a pursuit that involved police ramming and flipping a car containing three suspects who ended up in jail. Neither incident registered heavily with him and as weeks passed he "kind of lost track of them."
Willis doubts that he was targeted specifically but believes that more likely he was selected somewhat randomly as a symbol for delivering a "back off" message to police. Investigators later established that the day before the attack, Asians posing as poll takers had canvassed Willis' neighborhood. They duped people into answering a bunch of innocuous questions and, in the process, inquired as to whether any police officers lived in the neighborhood.
Earlier, on the day of the attack, a car stolen in Little Rock was recovered, seemingly abandoned, near his house. Willis had no knowledge of that because he worked in a different jurisdiction from where he lived. Exactly how the would-be invaders found his house or why they even were attracted to his neighborhood remain mysteries.
Until the would-be retaliation, Willis had considered his suburban community "very quiet, peaceful. A lot of people still left their doors unlocked. Breaking pumpkins" was about as heavy as the crime usually got. His house was just five blocks from a police station.
But the close call changed the Willis family's orientation. Willis beefed up their home fortification with sensor lights and alarms, fashioned hiding places where defensive weapons could be more readily accessed and saw to it that everyone was more actively security conscious.
Things are calm again now. But Willis frequently reflects back on that midnight madness. "What if I hadn't been home that night and they had gotten in?" he wonders. "Would they have killed my entire family?"