SWAT leader: "This is about as dangerous as it gets..."

Fla. gang member with assault rifle found dead after standoff

By Rebecca Dellagloria and David Ovalle
The Miami Herald

The word tattooed on his arm described the standoff: Drama.

After holing up inside a South Miami-Dade home for eight hours and spraying officers with fire from an assault rifle, Eusebio Estrada was found dead, apparently of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

A member of the gang known as TOYS, he was 19.

Barricaded inside the small blue house in Homestead, Estrada kept at bay scores of heavily armed officers, rooftop snipers and military Black Hawk helicopters on loan from the nearby Homestead Air Reserve Base.

"This is about as dangerous as it gets," said Miami-Dade Special Response Team leader Lt. Jim Tietz. "We were actively being shot at. It doesn't get any worse than that."

The Special Response Team -- aided by the FBI's SWAT team -- tried negotiating, to no avail. Ten negotiators were on hand, but Estrada refused to communicate or surrender from the home at 700 NW Eighth St.

Monday night, the department's homicide unit began piecing together exactly how he died. Miami-Dade police would not confirm that Estrada shot himself, but said their officers had not shot.

The drama started Saturday, when Estrada and Samuel Mendoza, 21, were accused of firing at Florida City police while escaping in a black Chevy Tahoe. One of them hung out the window of the car firing an AK-47 assault rifle, police said.

No officers were hurt. Investigators later discovered the Tahoe abandoned, bullet casings still inside.

A tip brought police to Mendoza's house Monday morning. Mendoza -- the brother of a man convicted of shooting and partially blinding a Homestead police officer -- was arrested there without incident.

Authorities identified him as the brother of Salvador Mendoza, who was convicted in 2004 and sentenced to life for shooting Homestead Officer Edgard Rivera.

"I guess it runs in the family," said Florida City police Sgt. Barbara Barrett.

About 11 a.m. Monday, Estrada holed up inside the house and began firing at Homestead and Florida City officers and detectives.

Four schools in the area were quickly put on alert. By afternoon, parents choked the streets at Homestead Middle School in a frantic rush to scoop up their children.

Images filmed by television news helicopters captured the drama as it unfolded:

--Four police officers laid belly to the ground, taking cover behind a white police sedan. An armored Miami-Dade Special Response Team van later zoomed in to give them cover.

--A woman lumbering toward a van -- pointing back toward the house -- was pulled into the armored van by a police officer.

--After tear gas was shot into the home, a man identified by family as Virgilio Vega, 23, was cuffed through security bars in the back of the home.

It was unclear what his role in the standoff was or if he faces charges.

Vega's mother was at the scene, and said Estrada was her son's roommate -- they had gone to South Dade Senior High School together -- and Vega had been caught in the house when the standoff started.

After the standoff, police admonished the TV news corps for showing live images, including positioning of officers.

In the past, the department has frequently asked stations to work "cooperatively" by not airing live footage during standoff situations.

"I can't stress enough how dangerous it is for us to be put on live TV. It's unacceptable," Tietz said.

As for Estrada, he was already known to Miami-Dade's Multi-Agency Gang Task Force, who believed him to be a member of the gang TOYS, an acronym for "Taking Over Your S---." The small but violent South Miami-Dade gang is mostly made up of Mexicans and Central Americans and specializes in violent robberies.

According to an arrest report in March, an officer from the task force was interviewing Estrada about gang ties when Estrada screamed: "F--- that s---, n--. I ain't with that gang s--- no more. Why you guys f---- with me?"

He refused to calm down. Officers arrested him for disorderly conduct.

Samuel Mendoza has a lengthier criminal past -- he has logged 12 arrests since 1999. Some resulted in convictions; others were not prosecuted. He was also charged with attempted murder in 2004, but the charge was dropped. On Monday, it was unclear why.

Mendoza's mother told The Miami Herald that she hadn't seen her son for several days until he returned to their Homestead house about 3 a.m. Monday.

"He didn't say nothing," said his mother, who declined to give her first name. 'He just jumped in the shower . . . Then I looked out and my house was surrounded by cops and I said, 'Did you do something?' and he said no, and I said 'If you did something you better turn yourself in.' "

Mendoza turned himself in. Estrada did not.

Miami Herald staff writers Erika Beras, Jack Dolan, Scott Hiaasen, Jack Dolan and Susannah A. Nesmith contributed to this report.

Copyright 2006 The Miami Herald

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