At 0226 HRS, Lt. Dan Marcou was jolted awake in his motel room by a smoke alarm blaring in the hallway outside. Minutes later he found himself on a telephone with a man who told him with icy calm, "Call me the paper boy. I deliver papers...and death."
This column first appeared on PoliceOne.com.
You may have seen the motel where Marcou was staying in the news. It's the Comfort Suites in Oak Creek, Wis., a Milwaukee suburb, where on Nov. 5, 2004, an angry felon murdered his girlfriend, killed a German business traveler, shot several other guests and took a military reservist hostage during a middle-of-the-night rampage.
What's not widely known is how two off-duty Wisconsin officers helped a lone first responder begin to contain this hell storm and initiate a tactical strategy that ultimately led to the gunman's capture.
Here, constructed from exclusive interviews with PoliceOne.com, are details of their critical involvement.
The off-duty cops, 51-year-old Marcou of the LaCrosse (Wis.) PD and Sgt. Brian Puente of the Trempealeau County (Wis.) Sheriff's Dept., had booked separate rooms at the motel while participating in a master-instructor course at the Milwaukee County Sheriff's Academy, a short drive away.
Rousted from his first-floor bed, Marcou initially thought the insistent smoke alarm had been triggered by a fire. Only later did he consider gun smoke. When the inside of his door felt cool and he could see nothing threatening through the peephole, he pulled on some civilian clothes, made quick peeks around his doorframe and headed outside toward the front desk to investigate.
Crossing the parking lot, he saw a uniformed officer who he later learned was Oak Creek Patrol Officer Robert Michalski stepping out of a squad car. Unknown to Marcou, someone in the motel had called 9-1-1 saying they thought they'd heard gunshots, and Michalski, on routine patrol, happened to be driving through the parking lot at that time. Marcou saw that the officer was carrying a shotgun and a sling bristling with extra ammunition.
At that moment, a middle-aged man burst out of the inn's front door on a dead sprint toward Michalski.
"He's shooting people! He's shooting people!" shouted the man, a motel maintenance worker. He sputtered that he'd gone to the third floor while checking the blasting smoke alarms. Near the elevator he'd confronted a goateed young man in a yellow sweat suit with a gun in each hand, his arms "raised toward the sky" like some Old West gun slinger. The startled maintenance man had bolted back through an exit door and escaped unharmed.
He thought one of the guns was an AK-47. "You gotta get up there!" he yelled.
"I normally don't stick my nose into things off-duty," Marcou says. But hearing all that, "there was nothing in my being that could possibly have left that officer by himself."
He stepped forward, showed Michalski his police ID and offered his support.
"I will need help," Michalski told him. "Are you armed?"
No, the lieutenant admitted. He'd left his .45 semi-auto in his room. Michalski gave Marcou a .45, and retained another handgun for his own use, along with the shotgun.
Michalski radioed his dispatcher, "We have shots fired, people down, a suspect possibly on the third floor. Mutual aid is requested from surrounding agencies."
Michalski also gave a precise description of Marcou and stressed that he was armed so that dispatch could inform responding officers for the lieutenant's protection. "Everyone who arrived knew about me," Marcou recalls gratefully.
As Marcou and Michalski headed into the front lobby, Sgt. Puent emerged from a stairwell, having come down from his second floor room carrying a fanny pack with his .380 sidearm inside. Michalski also recruited him and started building an initial containment plan: Marcou would monitor the lobby and its branching corridors and common areas, Puent would position himself where he could watch hallways on the second floor and Michalski would head up to control the third floor. So far, they were the only three cops on scene.
Working the Phone
Marcou was busy immediately. People were wandering out of their rooms and into the lobby, wondering what was going on. As they appeared, he told them, "A man is shooting people. We don't know where he is. Come toward me." And as they did, he hustled them into a secure conference room off the lobby. Similarly, Sgt. Puent guided people he found wandering the halls on the second floor to safety , while Michalski cautiously approached the third floor.
Through the young female desk clerk, Marcou got the alarm system turned off to discourage people from leaving their rooms and to eliminate the deafening distraction. The clerk, the daughter of a Milwaukee detective, calmly reassured concerned guests who called the desk. She told them to lock themselves in their rooms and that police officers were on the premises. One caller claimed to be "shot and bleeding." While trying to be comforting, the clerk soon put that guest on hold to punch into another call.
Almost instantly she caught Marcou's attention. "I think it's the shooter!" she whispered, holding her hand over the phone. "He wants to know if the police are here." Marcou figured that if the coast were clear, the gunman probably intended to attempt an escape.
Marcou's 31 years of experience in law enforcement and an extensive resume of training had prepared him for that moment. He's certified to teach more than a dozen critical law enforcement subjects, including active-shooter tactics. His years with the LaCrosse PD include stints as the ERT commander and as a hostage negotiator.
He reached for the phone.
One of the first things he asked was, "Are you hurt?"
"Hurt? I'm not hurt," the man replied. "I'm the murderer. I'm the killer. I'm the shooter. Don't come breaking into my room because I've got a hostage."
"Are you armed?" Marcou asked.
"Yeah, I've got two Mac-10s." Actually, reports indicated later he had a Mac-10 and a handgun. The maintenance man had been wrong about an AK-47.
"Where are you?" Marcou asked.
"That's none of your concern."
"Who are you?"
"That's none of your concern either."
"Well," said the lieutenant, "we're going to be talking for awhile. My name's Dan. What can I call you?"
The gunman was silent for a moment, then: "Call me the paper boy. I deliver papers...and death."
Marcou felt a chill shiver run through him. But, he told PoliceOne.com, "When things are really bad is when I function best. That's just time to go to work."
At any time, he knew, "there was the potential for the gunman to say 'Screw you' and hang up and start shooting again." Determined to stay connected, Marcou kept him talking and tried to build rapport. When he felt he'd brought the suspect to a point where he wouldn't impulsively hang up, he asked if he could speak to the hostage.
Marcou intended to gather as much information as possible by asking only yes-or-no questions to discourage responses that might alarm or inflame the shooter. He was able to establish that the hostage, a military reserve master sergeant and airplane mechanic, had not yet been shot and to confirm that the suspect was armed, that he had more than one gun and that he looked like he might use his weapons. Before long in their staccato dialogue, the nervous hostage blurted, "This guy's gonna kill me, man! Get me outta here!" And the shooter yanked away the phone.
Marcou still managed to keep the gunman on the line. He wouldn't say who he'd killed, and in terms of motive would offer only, "They were scheming on me." But he did reveal that he was wearing body armor and that his weapons were fully automatic.
Repeatedly he referred to "when my people get here." Marcou was able to determine that he meant his mother and father, whom he had phoned earlier during the shooting spree. "Now I had a hook," Marcou recalls. He worked to construct some safety from this information. "They must be good parents," he told the shooter. "I know you love them. You don't want any more shooting. They could be here right now. I know you don't want them hurt."
As Marcou developed this theme, the gunman eventually agreed that when his parents showed up, he would surrender. "But if you move against me," he warned, "I'll kill the hostage."
Marcou doesn't know how long he was on the phone "time was so distorted" but it was long enough for SWAT teams to arrive and deploy. A local hostage negotiator transitioned in to take over the conversation and, like Sgt. Puente who was relieved on the second floor, "I became just a witness," Marcou says. He was able to step back with the satisfaction of having turned an active-shooter situation into a far less threatening stationary hostage standoff through his skillful dialogue.
Because of the connection between the suspect's phone and the front desk, responding officers were able to pinpoint which third-floor room the gunman was calling from. Based on the weapons intelligence Marcou had elicited, they were reassured that ballistic shields they had available for rescuing wounded guests would, in fact, be adequate to stop the offender's ammunition if he resumed his attacks.
As rescues progressed with Officer Michalski's help, negotiations with the gunman continued. Finally, he agreed to surrender peacefully. When he was taken into custody, he asked simply, "How many people did I kill?"
5 Off-Duty Survival Tips
1. Make your presence known: Make one of your first priorities in an off-duty engagement alerting responding personnel to the fact that you're an officer, particularly if you're armed. If backup will be responding in waves, make sure the first officer you speak with gives all other responding officers your full description, too. If you're engaged in an off-duty confrontation and a civilian is calling the police, be sure the caller lets the dispatcher know an off-duty police officer is on scene and gives your description.
2. When you least expect it, expect it: A bad situation can surface at any time, so be prepared. Remain in Condition Yellow, a relaxed-but-alert state, at all times, but make sure you avoid getting overly paranoid. One of the keys to off-duty survival for the long term, both physical and mental, is a healthy balance between the heightened awareness the job demands and the relaxation all of us need.
3. What you see may not be what you get: If chaos erupts, remember to look deeper into the situation to ensure that what you see and hear coordinates with the event you think you're dealing with. This can be particularly true in post-Sept. 11 society where one type of disruption may be used as a distraction to a more serious event. In the Wisconsin shooting situation, a smoke alarm wasn't signaling a fire, it was signaling an active-shooter situation. Take appropriate measures to deal with the apparent event at hand, but remain alert and curious for anything additional that may lurk under the surface.
4. Cross-train whenever possible: As an officer, you may be called upon to handle a wide variety of situations, both on duty and off. The more expansive your skill base, the better. Look for opportunities to cross train yourself to serve as an effective first responder in as many unexpected scenarios as possible, including hostage situations, medical emergencies, pending suicide situations, encounters with a variety of emotionally disturbed people, etc.
5. Use mental role playing to prepare: One of the best ways to prepare to respond to both off- and on-duty encounters is to role play potential scenarios in your head using if/then thinking; i.e., "if this happens, then I will do this." If you're in a hotel room, spend a few moments considering what you will do if you hear gunfire down the hall in the middle of the night. If you're driving home, consider what you will do if you notice someone tailing you. If you're in a store, consider what you will do if a gunman suddenly bursts in. The scenarios are endless and take care you don't drive yourself to paranoia, but calm mental planning can yield a calm, calculated response even in the worst of situations.
The gunman was identified as Gregg Phillips, who had been living at the motel with his 23-year-old girlfriend for about 10 days. Reported to be a one-time Latin Kings gang member, he has a criminal record dating back about 10 years and at the time of the motel slaughter was on extended supervision for fencing stolen goods for a burglary ring.
According to authorities, this is how the shootings went down: The night of Nov. 4, Phillips went out on the town, dining on crab legs and filet mignon, visiting bars and strip clubs and popping Ecstasy. When he returned to the Comfort Suites, four armed acquaintances accosted him in the parking lot, and they argued vehemently over a debt.
Up in his room, Phillips tore into his girlfriend for "setting him up" by telling his adversaries where the couple was staying. They fought, and when she tried to leave in the early hours of Nov. 5, Phillips threw her to the floor and shot her in the head.
Guns in his hands, he then stormed into the hallway, spraying bullets as people opened their doors to see what was going on. When the reservist stepped out of his room, thinking he'd heard "a pack of firecrackers" as well as the activated smoke alarms, Phillips forced him back in at gunpoint and took him hostage.
Phillips told him he'd killed 11 people. Actually the death toll was two: the girlfriend and a German sales executive who was shot seven times when he entered the hallway from the room next to Phillips'. Others were only wounded.
Once the two off-duty officers and the first responding Oak Creek patrolman teamed up, there were no additional casualties. Marcou's negotiating skills in particular are credited with keeping the incident from escalating further.
Reflecting on that fateful night, Marcou credits Wisconsin's statewide uniform training standards for aiding in a smooth and effective police response at the Comfort Suites. "Every police officer in this state has to go through uniform courses to be certified, so we all have the same foundation for the way we talk to people, the way we fight, the way we pursue vehicles and so on," he says. "There were five agencies involved in this incident, but everyone knew how everyone else would be responding."
Personally, Marcou says he learned something vital about off-duty expectations. "For the rest of my life, I don't know where I'd feel comfortable going unarmed. Something can happen at any time. At any moment you may be able to help in some small way in a bad situation."
At this writing, Gregg Phillips, who turned 25 four days after his shooting spree, is being held on $1,000,000 bail. He has pleaded not guilty to two counts each of first-degree intentional homicide while armed and attempted first-degree intentional homicide while armed, plus charges of taking a hostage and possession of a firearm by a felon. If convicted, he faces life in prison.
Marcou has not been able to establish what Phillips meant by his reference to being a "paperboy." He figures it was possibly just a flip remark that popped into the gunman's mind during the bloody melee.
Greg Phillips was tried and convicted of the motel shootings. During sentencing, Phillips interrupted the judge, challenging him to send Phillips to jail for life. The judge obliged and sentenced Phillips to two consecutive life terms plus 85 years for other offenses. Parole is not an option. ed.
Remsberg's column is a PoliceOne.com exclusive, sponsored by Blauer.