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By Dominique Sumner, SWAT Digest
Special Contributor to PoliceOne
On the morning of April 4, 1991, the officers of the Sacramento County Sheriff's Department Special Enforcement Detail (SED), had no idea they were about to become involved in the largest hostage rescue operation in US history. The entire incident began that afternoon when a group of four armed Asian males drove into the parking lot of "The Good Guys" electronics store located in the South Area of Sacramento, California. The group exited the vehicle, a 1982 Toyota Corolla, and entered the store. They began to herd customers and staff into a group, including a shoplifter attempting to exit the store with camcorder shoved down his pants, and begin shooting. Several customers manage to escape, and alert police of the situation.
When the call came in at 13:35, the SED, which is part of the Department's Narcotics/Gangs Division, was already in the process of gearing up in anticipation of executing a previously planned drug raid. They immediately page off duty team members, and begin preparations to rush to the scene. They also alerted the Departments hostage negotiation unit, the Critical Incident Negotiations Team. Unfortunately do to several recent transfers, and military training obligations, the unit was only able to muster nine of its authorized personnel. By the time SED arrived on scene 40 minutes later, the surrounding area had been secured by nearby sheriff's deputies and Highway Patrol ground and air units.
The North Division commander, Capt. Mike Smith, became the incident commander, and Capt. Don Savage, the Narcotics /Gangs Division commander acted as Tactical Commander. Sacramento County Sheriff Glen Craig responded to the scene and assumed over responsibility for the incident. The command group operated out of a command vehicle stationed a short distance from the store.
The SED immediately deployed one of it's sniper teams, Jeff Boyes (armed with a Remington .308 ) and Roger Stanfill (armed with an AR-15). A second sniper, Jerry Manduca (armed with a Winchester Model 70 .308 rifle), soon arrived on scene, and immediately took up a position supporting the other team. The SED commander, Sgt. Don Devlin, also began to interview employees and customers to gain information on what had actually happened, determine the stores layout, and find out about any security systems in the building.
The initial information they received on their arrival, was that four armed Asian males, armed with three pistols and a shotgun, had botched a robbery and had taken hostages in The Good Guys electronics store. The SED was able to determine that approximately fifty hostages had been taken. As the situation developed, the local media descended on the area in force, broadcasting the unfolding incident for the world, and placing additional pressure on an already tense situation.
The team was able to obtain a floor plan for the building , which copied and distributed to team members. The SED team felt there was only one entrance to the store that did not have alarms on it, a freight entrance located at the rear of the store. They would have to come in through a fabrics store on the north side of the building. The seven-man entry team, which was composed of Sgt. Devlin; SED investigators Gordon Smith; Bill Kelly; Mike Hammel; Greg Peterson; Charles Price; and Stanfill, gained entrance to the fabric store, and slowly moved into position. The subjects apparently heard movement by the police and. shouts of "Stay away from the door" coming from inside the store itself.
One of the entry team members, Investigator Smith, removed a ceiling panel, in the hallway between the two buildings, and inserted a pole mounted mirror. he was able to observe the subjects directing hostages to place large boxes against the back to block entry. Once the door was barricaded the area was abandoned. A fisheye camera, obtained from the California Department of Justice, was installed by the team but was of limited use, because of the design of the store, and only showed a portion of the showroom near the door. By this time the hostages had been tied up and been arranged in front of the store's glass front entrance doors in standing and kneeling positions.
For over two hours with the department's Critical Incident Negotiating Team, led by Sgt. Paul Hauptman tried to end the incident peacefully, by negotiating with the hostage takers. The hostage takers began to display irrational behavior, demanding everything from four million dollars, to forty 1,000-year-old ginseng roots, to a 50-troop military helicopter, to transporting everyone to Thailand after a refueling stop in Alaska. Throughout the incident the hostage takers never presented a clear set of demands to the negotiators.
The one demand that remained constant was the request for bulletproof vests. The vest were obtained by the police, and one was exchanged for the several hostages. Another benefit of the exchange, was that it allowed police to gain information on the current situation in the store. One of the released hostages revealed that the shots heard early, had been the hostage takers shooting at the stores security cameras, and that none of the hostages had been harmed up to this point. Another cause for optimism was the generally high rate of success when negotiating with armed robbers, as most eventually realize that if they don't surrender peacefully the police will be forced to resolve the situation using the tactical option.
At one point during the negotiations, the negotiator for the hostage takers, who called himself "Thai", agreed to surrender to the police, but only if they were allowed to retain their bulletproof vests and weapons while in prison. He set down the phone and began to discuss the situation with his partners. By this point many of the officers involved felt that the exchanges might lead to a negotiated settlement. Suddenly he phone went dead, and the CINT immediately tried to reestablish contact with the store. One the initial try, the phone was busy, and one the second try a suspect calling himself " Number One", answered the phone, informing everyone that he was now in control, from that point on the situation began to rapidly deteriorate. Shots were once again fired at the stores security cameras.
Approximately eight hours into the incident, the subjects shot a male hostage in the leg and permitted him to drag himself out. At one point the police attempted to have all the subjects move to the television area of the store by putting the hostage on the news, but unfortunately this tactic didn't work, and the team was finally give the "green light ". Sniper Jeffrey Boyes would issue the signal to execute the assault. Boyes had received permission to fire on any subject he could obtain a clear line of site on.
When an elderly hostage was shot in the leg, the decision was made to move in. A second vest was delivered to the front door and a tethered female hostage was sent out to recover it. While this was transpiring, guns were placed to the hostages heads, a hostage was placed on the phone, he informed the police that the subjects were going to begin executing hostages.
As the door swung open to let the female retrieve the vest, Boyce was able to line up the perfect sight -picture of Number One, and he took the shot. Unfortunately at that very instant the door was pulled shut by a hostage, and the bullet hit the door frame. Boyes radioed "Go", and the SED entry team immediately hit the door. A flash-bang was tossed into the store from outside, and a hostage managed to scramble to safety through the now shattered door. Number One, now stunned and disoriented managed to stagger out of Boyce's sites, and take cover behind a large pillar. He then immediately began firing his weapon at the bound hostages.
It took the entry team approximately two to three seconds to gain entry to the building because of the barricades erected earlier. They then had to contend with the 100-foot dash to the front of the store. The team was armed with a variety of weapons for the entry. Sgt Devlin, Price, and Smith were armed with SIG/Sauer P-220 pistols, Bill Kelly carried a laser-sighted HK MP-5, and investigators Hammel and Peterson carried HK MP-SD3's. Stanfill was still armed with his AR-15.
Hammel and Price cleared the west side of the store, Peterson and Kelly the east side, with Devlin and Smith going straight up the middle. Stanfill took-up a rear guard position. As the began its movement toward the front o f the store, the remaining hostage takers immediately began to fire on the entry team, and hostages. Peterson stepped on the wire that had been used to tether the female hostage sent out to recover he second vest. At that very moment she was snatched to safety by officers outside of the store causing Peterson's feet to fly out form under him, forcing him to fall backwards, just as a shot gun blast blew through the area where he was standing. His fellow team members erroneously believed he had been struck in the face by the blast. As Peterson began to rise to his feet, Devlin and Kelly tried to flank the shotgun wielding suspect who fire on them once again, before being taken under fire by the team.
Simultaneously on the west side of the store, Price, Hammel, and Stanfill took out one of the suspects before he could react. Stanfil then spotted a second armed suspect and fired on him, but he disappeared into chaos of the screaming and panicked crowed of hostages. Approximately two seconds later, Number One, was cut down by multiple hits from Hammel, Stanfill, Price and Kelly.
At this point the team could only account for three of the suspects, and immediately began a systematic search for the fourth one. Price and Hammel discover and unarmed Asian male, wearing a vest lying on the floor. Once he is rolled over they discover he has a .223 caliber entrance wound, and have finally accounted for all four suspects.
During the assault the suspects managed to wound eleven hostages, kill three more, and three other hostages were injured by broken glass. All four suspects were neutralized by the entry team. Three were killed and one, Thai was wounded by Stanfill. None of the SED entry team was wounded.