Awakened by an active shooter: 5 lessons learned

There is no word for the feeling a cop has as he finds himself in a critical life-or-death incident, armed with nothing but an overwhelming urge to assist


“Screeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!” The screaming smoke alarm thrust me from a sound sleep into a bolt upright position in an instant. It was at 0230 hours on Nov. 5, 2004, at the Oak Creek Comfort Suites. I was there for training.

After feeling the door for heat and clearing the hallway via the peephole, I exited and found myself outside on the stoop tying my shoes.

An Oak Creek squad car slipped silently to a stop at the entrance. A lone officer emerged, long gun in hand, instantly charging it. This was more than a smoke alarm.

I walked toward the officer and was behind him when the night auditor burst out of the door, shouting breathlessly, “He’s shooting people! He’s killing people! He’s got an AK- 47.”

Officer Robert Michalski instantly ascertained the location of the shooter, described as a large man in a yellow sweat suit, shooting up the third floor of the hotel.

I identified myself and offered my assistance. Michalski asked, “Are you armed?”

No.

There is no word for the feeling a cop has as he finds himself in a critical life-or-death incident, armed with nothing but an overwhelming urge to assist.

Michalski handed me his backup weapon and said, “Cover the first floor. This a mutual aid request.” My unnamed feeling was replaced by determination.

Michalski headed smoothly upward toward the third floor and on the stairs met Trempealeau County Sheriff’s Deputy Brian Puent. Michalski assigned Puent to cover the second floor and was joined by a second Oak Creek officer on his climb into the unknown upstairs. By chance, all four first responders were SWAT.

How it began: the first shots
The cause for the alarm was a killer who had picked up a .357 Magnum and shot his girlfriend dead. After doing so, he picked up an Uzi and stepped into the hallway on the third floor and shot the first three innocent strangers he saw. He killed a German businessman and seriously wounded a man and woman, who saved themselves by scampering back into their rooms.

The shooter sprayed the hallway with the Uzi, and this commotion caused a soldier just back from Iraq to leave his room to investigate. The smoke from the gunfire set off the smoke alarm, causing the killer to drive the soldier back into his room, where he wrapped him in a shower curtain and threw him into the tub.

My point of view
The first thing I did was clear the first floor and identify a conference room as a suitable safe area. Amazingly, I found the night clerk still at her post taking phone calls from guests. I told her to tell them there was a shooter in the hotel and to shelter in place in their rooms until receiving an all clear.

I took up a position of advantage from which I could cover the front desk, the lobby, the safe room, the exits, stairway, hallway and elevator. As the alarm gradually coaxed guests from their rooms, I directed them to the conference room safe area, telling them there was a shooter somewhere and they should stay in the safe area unless the situation changed.

It was for me, however, that the situation changed. The desk clerk answered a call and stopped speaking in mid-sentence. Her face took on a look as if the Grim Reaper was on the line to make reservations.

She turned toward me and said, “It’s him.”

I took the phone and identified myself as Lieutenant Dan Marcou. The first order of business was to convince him that escape was hopeless without letting on that there were only four cops on scene. I succeeded in this.

I then realized the alarm was still blaring. I was having great difficulty communicating, so I asked the front desk clerk if she could shut down the alarm. She accomplished this almost immediately. She returned with a nod and picked up another phone and continued with her notifications. Her courage was inspirational. I later discovered she was the daughter of a cop.

Negotiations begin
Even though I was primarily a SWAT officer, I have always felt that as long as you are talking, they are not shooting. I had been cross-trained as a negotiator and have never regretted it. After introducing myself and convincing the shooter he was surrounded, I said, “We will be talking for a while. What should I call you?”

He answered, “You can call me ‘The Paperboy.’ I deliver papers and death.”

I actually thought to myself, “Someday that will creep me out, but I’ll have to take a rain check on that, because I am a little busy right now.”

“The Paperboy” went on to tell me he had killed 12 people and he was dying to kill some more — especially the guy in front of him — if the police tried to enter his room. I wrote a note to the desk clerk to find out what room he was in, and she eventually was able to identify the room.

I asked to talk to his hostage and was surprised when the killer handed the phone to the soldier.

I said to the soldier, “I am Lieutenant Dan Marcou. We are going to get you out of there, but I need you to answer a series of questions saying only yes or no. Do you understand?”

The amazingly calm soldier answered, “Yes.”

I asked, “Is he armed?”

Yes.

“Does he have more than one gun?”

Yes.

“Two.”

Yes.

“Does he have a rifle?”

No.

“Are both guns handguns?”

Yes.

“Is it just the two of you in there?”

Yes.

“Are you hurt?”

No.

“Does he look like he will use those guns?”

“Yes!” the soldier answered. “So get me out of here!”

With that, the shooter wrenched the phone from the soldier and promised that if we tried anything, “I will kill this guy!”

The response builds, negotiations break through
As I continued my conversation with “The Paperboy,” I was joined by a sergeant from the Milwaukee Police Department, who listened for a bit and decided to let me continue with the negotiations. I wrote notes passing intelligence on the location of the suspect, how he was armed and the fact that he had a hostage.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, “The Paperboy” gave me a hook! He confessed that after he had killed the people, he had called his mother.

I answered, “You called your mother on this night, which is obviously the toughest night of your life? Your mother must be a wonderful person. Tell me about her.”

His demeanor changed instantly from a deranged killer to a loving son. “My mother is a saint.”

We talked at length about his mother.

This discussion led to agreement that arrangements would be made for him to surrender so that he could see his mother again tonight. It was at this point that a transition was made to local negotiators to arrange for the surrender.

SWAT in action
As I stepped away from the phone, I was amazed to discover that while I had been talking to the shooter, the Oak Creek, Milwaukee and Franklin SWAT teams had been called out and deployed. The hotel was secured, and rescues, evacuations and emergency transports were being done in earnest. The multiple teams were working together seamlessly.

Once Greg Phillips – “The Paperboy” – was in custody, the search incident to arrest revealed he was wearing soft body armor under his yellow sweat suit. I breathed a sigh of relief as I returned Michalski’s weapon to him with a sincere “Thank you.”

Lessons learned
Two people were shot to death. Two others were seriously wounded. Greg Phillips is currently serving two consecutive life sentences in Waupun State Correctional Institution. There were five clear lessons coming out of Oak Creek for me:

1. My Glock can’t save any lives if I am not carrying it.
2. For a cop alone, there is often non-traditional assistance willing and able to assist you if you are willing to accept their help.
3. Cross-train your SWAT operators/negotiators.
4. Shared skills lead to shared success.
5. A decisive response will likely minimize casualties in active shooter events.

I hope reading this account has helped you as much as writing it has helped me.

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