Precious seconds ticked away as blood oozed from the bullet wound in deputy Sean Pearce’s belly. Around him, what he would later describe as a chaotic scene was playing out.
Newly released dispatch tapes from the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office confirm inexperienced commanders at the scene gave scant — and wrong — information to paramedics and other officers rushing to the mobile home in east Mesa where Pearce and another deputy were shot Dec. 16. Units were initially sent toward the wrong address. It took almost 30 minutes for patrol officers to find out that there were not suspects loose in the neighborhood.
Pearce and Lew Argetsinger, the second deputy wounded when the sheriff’s SWAT team attempted to serve a search warrant, have said that confusion caused by new supervisors delayed their medical treatment and could have endangered residents.
Among the issues raised by the two experienced SWAT officers that are corroborated by the dispatch tapes and other records:
• The on-site commander, who had taken control of the sheriff ’s SWAT team three weeks earlier, called in the wrong emergency code on the radio.
• The commander gave the wrong address to dispatchers.
• Paramedics were not told that two deputies had been shot.
• Other deputies responding to the scene weren’t told whether suspects were still barricaded in the mobile home or roaming the dense neighborhood, on a county island in east Mesa.
• Details of the shooting were telephoned to the dispatcher, rather than being broadcast on emergency radio channels.
"We are left bleeding in the street for way longer than we should have been," is how Argetsinger, who was hit in the hand, described it Jan. 13. Because Pearce, Argetsinger and the rest of the SWAT team were put under internal investigation the day after that interview, they can no longer talk to the media.
Larry Black, chief of enforcement for the sheriff’s office, said the issues cited by the two deputies are irrelevant or were the correct response given the situation. Ultimately there was no delay in the officers receiving medical treatment, and no danger to the community, Black said.
But Keith Frakes, who spent 14 years on the Maricopa County SWAT team and retired from the agency last April, said some mistakes by inexperienced supervisors may have delayed critical medical treatment.
"When you’ve got a guy shot in the torso, every second counts," Frakes said.
In January, the Tribune detailed the sudden shake-up in the SWAT team that occurred less than a month before the shooting. The unit’s top commanders, both SWAT veterans, were abruptly replaced without explanation. The experienced team of deputies who normally provided close-quarters support for SWAT operations was being replaced by deputies who lacked experience or significant training in tactical missions.
The departmental report fixes the time of the shooting at 6:34 a.m.
The first call from the scene came at 6:41 a.m. from Lt. Dave Trombi, who had taken command of the unit Nov. 22 with no SWAT experience.
"Need to roll fire," Trombi told the dispatcher, referring to the fire department. "We have shots fired."
Calls about shots fired are fairly routine and could be anything from hunters shooting in the desert to a homicide, according to Pearce and Argetsinger. There is a specific radio code for shootings involving an officer.
Black said it was appropriate to call in "shots fired" because that’s all Trombi knew as he stood outside the mobile home when gunfire erupted. There was no need to broadcast additional details because the trailer was already surrounded, and additional patrol units were not needed, Black said.
Trombi also gave an incomplete address in his initial call, then confirmed for dispatchers the shooting took place on North 91st Way. The shooting occurred on South 91st Way. It took about 90 seconds for dispatchers to correct the mistake through another officer at the scene. Trombi’s initial transmission was his last until after 7 a.m.
The first call to Rural/ Metro Fire Department came in as a "possible shooting," according to Alison Cooper, spokeswoman for the department.
Paramedics were initially given the wrong address on North 91st Way, Cooper said. Five minutes later, the paramedics still had not been told whether anyone at the scene was injured, according to Cooper, who reviewed the Rural/ Metro dispatch logs.
Meanwhile, sheriff ’s dispatchers were attempting to find out more information about who was injured. But rather than use emergency dispatch channels, deputy Gary Labenz, who took over on-scene communications from Trombi, used a telephone to call dispatchers at 6:48 a.m. That was the first they learned that two SWAT deputies had been shot. Labenz is the supervisor of the support team that had been put in place in November. In a second call six minutes later, Labenz said he did not know if there were other suspects at large.
Black said there is nothing unusual about phoning information about the deputies’ injuries rather than using emergency broadcast channels.
But Frakes, a board member on the National Tactical Officers Association, which sets standards for SWAT training, said a full assessment of the situation should have been broadcast. Aside from ensuring an adequate medical response, using the radio would apprise other deputies of the gravity of the situation, particularly whether suspects were still on the loose, he said.
In fact, dispatch tapes do show that patrol officers rushing to the scene were having trouble getting information. About 7:05 a.m. deputy Robert Nabower, the patrol supervisor, was still trying to find out if other suspects were at large.
"Do we have bad guys that are outstanding?" Nabower said in a radio call. "That’s what I’m trying to figure out so I can make some kind of assessment and make some decisions."
Labenz replied that two officers had been shot, that the suspect had been shot but was still alive, and that the scene was not yet secured, meaning it was still not known if all suspects were caught. That was the first time a full assessment of the situation was broadcast on emergency radio channels, according to the dispatch tapes.
The area was declared secured at 7:08 a.m.
Exactly when paramedics were allowed to start treating Pearce and Argetsinger is not documented. Paramedics arrived at 6:49 a.m.
Pearce said that when the paramedics were let in, they seemed shocked to discover that two deputies had been shot. The Rural/Metro log shows that at 6:56 a.m., paramedics told their dispatcher that "possibly two deputies are involved," according to Cooper.
Cooper, who spoke with the battalion chief who responded to the call, said paramedics did not know deputies were wounded until they arrived. Without checking with sheriff’s officers, the paramedics rushed to the deputies, loaded them onto an ambulance and moved them to a safer location down the street to treat them, she said.
Pearce has returned to part-time duty, while Argetsinger remains on medical leave. The old SWAT team was disbanded in December. A new part-time team is being trained.