SWAT chaos details emerge - East Valley Tribune: News

SWAT chaos details emerge

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Posted: Sunday, January 16, 2005 6:31 am | Updated: 8:13 am, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

Deputy Sean Pearce lay in the east Mesa street with a bullet in his gut. His head rested on the knee of deputy Lew Argetsinger, a fellow member of the Maricopa County sheriff’s SWAT team whose right hand had been shattered by a bullet from the same gunman’s pistol.

In the month before the Dec. 16 raid, the SWAT team’s top commanders, both experienced SWAT veterans, had been replaced without explanation. Training time had been cut. Experienced deputies who normally provided close-quarters backup on tactical operations were replaced with inexperienced officers with virtually no training.

Pre-raid planning had been rushed because SWAT team members had been scattered throughout the county on routine patrol duties.

Now, both of the wounded deputies say the sudden changes in the SWAT team contributed to the problems that occurred when they served the search warrant relating to a murder case out of Pinal County.

In separate interviews Thursday with the Tribune, Pearce and Argetsinger said the SWAT team shake-up and other changes relating to the unit raised the danger by severely limiting their options in handling the warrant. They said they were left with little choice but to pursue a direct assault that went terribly awry when the man inside the trailer opened fire with a 9 mm handgun.

Neither Pearce nor Argetsinger directly blame their new commanders for what transpired inside the single-wide mobile home early in the morning of Dec. 16. It was the gunman who decided to open fire, they say.

"It absolutely is an officer safety issue," said Pearce, a Mesa resident. "To me the bigger concern is the public safety issue. The neighbors around this house where we served the search warrant are at risk if we can’t perform properly and be proficient in our job, meaning we can’t contain that and not allow this guy to escape."

Argetsinger, who lives in the West Valley, also cited top commanders’ hostility toward the SWAT team as causing the disarray that put the deputies’ lives at greater risk.

"Did they cause the shooting? No. Absolutely not," Argetsinger said. "But they didn’t help us succeed in there. They didn’t offer the support that we normally would have gotten. Nobody is saying it was their fault. What we’re saying is they didn’t allow us to operate at our peak performance either. I know they didn’t help us. They hurt us."

Both of the deputies said they expect retaliation for discussing their concerns with the Tribune. But they said they agreed to talk because they believe Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s reorganization of the SWAT team and other changes are putting the lives of deputies and the public at greater risk.

The day after the two men spoke to the Tribune, the sheriff’s office launched an internal investigation of the SWAT team and barred its officers from discussing the internal changes made to the unit. The Tribune was told of the investigation by a lawyer hired by a police union.

Larry Black, chief of enforcement for the sheriff’s office, confirmed the team is being investigated, but said he could not provide details. Black did say the investigation is unrelated to the shooting.

Black rejected any notion that management decisions involving the SWAT team compromised the safety of its officers.

The tactical planning for the search warrant was done by experienced SWAT officers, Black said. While the raid was the first assignment for members of the new support team, there also were six experienced members from the old squad in place as well, he said.

"It’s the same group of people that made entry into the house that had done it several times before," Black said. "They planned it three days in advance. They had a chance to do all the things they normally do. There is nothing that could have been different than what happened."

The Tribune attempted to separately contact Arpaio and the new SWAT commanders, Capt. Joel Fox and Lt. Dave Trombi. Black said he would be the only one answering questions about the SWAT team.

SHAKE-UP

Rumors that there was going to be a shake-up in the SWAT team began almost immediately after Arpaio was re-elected Nov. 2. Members of the unit were told in early November by their former commanders, Capt. Phillip Babb and Lt. Michael Mitchell, that they were going to be replaced by Trombi and Fox. Fox had served as a part-time SWAT officer in the 1990s. Trombi, who had been the sheriff ’s public information officer, had no experience on the team.

Also, members of the K-9 unit, who had long provided the "containment team" — making sure suspects don’t escape when SWAT officers enter a building — were going to be replaced by deputies in Squad Five, a unit of officers without regular beats who filled in on different patrol sectors throughout the county.

The K-9 officers had SWAT training themselves, and also trained closely with the tactical team, Pearce and Argetsinger said. Their expertise provided better protection for the entry team and allowed SWAT officers to concentrate on what was happening inside.

A departmentwide shakeup involving almost 300 officers took effect Nov. 22. About a week later, Fox met with members of the SWAT team and laid out the new directives. Pearce said it was an "ugly" meeting in which Fox was confrontational.

According to Pearce, Fox told SWAT team members they would be given regular patrol assignments because the department’s new priority was to reduce response times. Their training time would be cut from two days per week to two days per month. The National Tactical Officers Association recommends that a full-time SWAT team spends 25 percent of its time training.

Pearce said SWAT officers responded that two training days a month were not enough to maintain the proficiency of the unit, especially because they also had to train for specialty assignments, including methamphetamine lab raids and bomb disposal.

"We brought these issues up to Fox and he just continued to tell us how training wa sn’t important," said Pearce, who is a certified bomb technician.

"On this incident where we had two of our guys hurt, I think that our training allowed us to get out of that situation without having anybody else injured. You don’t rise to the occasion in a situation like that. You fall back on your training. If you train properly then you are going to react properly."

CONTINUED TURMOIL

On Dec. 1, the new patrol assignments became effective. Argetsinger began working in New River. Pea rce wa s assigned to Sun City, but as the senior deputy on the SWAT team he had administrative duties to wrap up before he began patrol. He also was responsible for helping the SWAT team’s sergeant, Todd Hoggatt, scout locations where future search warrants were to be served.

Both Pearce and Argetsinger said no one on the SWAT team objected to being assigned patrol duties. Even before the shake-up, SWAT officers would frequently go out on patrol when they had completed their weekly training and had no other assignments; they just didn’t want to lose training time because of patrol, they said.

On Dec. 13, the SWAT team got word that it would be serving the search warrant in east Mesa. The following morning, Pearce and Hoggatt did surveillance on the home and began developing their tactical plan. Pearce said it was clear early on that their options were limited.

The unit was understaffed, Pearce said. While the team originally had two sergeants, one had been transferred and not replaced. Two deputies were out of town, and another was on light duty because of an injury. A fourth was off on family medical leave.

That left six members of the team to serve what was deemed a high-risk warrant, Pearce said.

More troubling was the containment team issue, Pearce and Argetsinger said. The Mesa warrant was to be the first tactical assignment for the new men from Squad Five, who had undergone only five hours of training, including three hours of basic pistol training, they said.

"None of us was willing to say we trusted any of those guys with three hours of pistol training," Argetsinger said.

The team also did not have the opportunity to go over the assault plan as thoroughly as they normally would, according to Pearce and Argetsinger. Some members of the team were in distant parts of the county on patrol the night before the raid. Others, including Pearce, were working a DUI detail.

Pearce said that he raised his concerns with Trombi when they first met to go over the tactical plan.

"I specifically told Trombi as I pointed to the ops (operations) plan, ‘We are doing a homicide search warrant with six guys. That’s unacceptable and it’s unsafe,’ " Pearce said.

Ultimately, the deputy on family leave was called in, making him the seventh man on the team.

LIMITED OPTIONS

On the morning of Dec. 16, the full SWAT team met at 5 a.m. to go over the tactical plan. Pearce had worked the DUI detail until about 2 a.m. The planning process, which might normally take hours, was done hurriedly in a remote corner of a shopping center not far from the neighborhood of tightly-packed mobile homes on unincorporated county land in east Mesa.

The warrant was to be served at 6:30 a.m.

From the beginning things did not go well.

The deadbolt on the door was strong, so it took longer than it should have to break through, Pearce said.

When the door finally did pop open, SWAT team members called out that they were sheriff’s deputies with a search warrant, both in English and Spanish, and stormed inside.

Both Pearce and Argetsinger declined to discuss the shooting itself since it is still under investigation. But a narrative report released Friday by the sheriff’s office provides details of what went on inside the trailer.

Pearce broke left upon entering the trailer, followed by deputy Rod Jackson and Argetsinger. The other members of the team went to the right to secure the back of the mobile home.

A curtain covered a doorway that separated the kitchen, where the deputies entered, from the living room. As Pearce started to pull back the curtain, gunfire erupted from a bathroom at the far side of the living room.

The first slug smacked Pearce in his body armor. The second slipped under the ballistic vest and went into his abdomen.

Pearce dropped, calling out that he was hit. Jackson stepped over him, shielding the fallen officer while returning fire, according to the report. Jackson also was hit, but his body armor stopped the bullet.

As Argetsinger was raising his weapon, a bullet hit him in the hand and he dropped his assault rifle. Argetsinger tried to pull his pistol with his left hand, but was unable to hold it. He then grabbed Pearce and began dragging him out of the trailer. Jackson saw the suspect duck behind a wall in the bathroom and opened fire, hitting the gunman through the wall, according to the report.

Jorge Luis Guerra Vargas was taken into custody with bullet wounds to his face and arm. He has since been indicted on seven counts of aggravated assault.

CHAOTIC SCENE

Argetsinger and another deputy dragged Pearce out of the mobile home and into a driveway. Later, they moved him to a safer position in the street.

Both Pearce and Argetsinger described the scene outside as chaotic, a sharp contrast to what had happened inside the trailer, where SWAT team members responded just as they had practiced in "officer down" drills during training.

"You get outside and it’s total chaos," Argetsinger said. "We are left bleeding in the street for way longer than we should have been. We’re both sitting there bleeding, and we’re kind of laughing — ain’t this a sight?"

No one had notified Rural/ Metro Fire Department that the deputies would be serving a high-risk warrant in the area before the raid, something Pearce said is normally handled by the lieutenant in charge of the SWAT team, in this case Trombi.

Rural/Metro was first notified of the shooting at 6:38 a.m. and arrived on scene about 6:45 a.m, according to Alison Cooper, spokeswoman for the fire department.

Pearce said Trombi knelt beside him on the ground and told the wounded man everything would be all right. Pearce recalls he looked up and told Trombi: "Now do you want to talk to me about the lack of training?"

Both Pearce and Argetsinger were flown to Maricopa Medical Center in Phoenix.

As she stood in the hospital corridor, Pearce’s wife, Melissa, was aware of the changes being made in the SWAT unit, and the stress that had put on her husband and other members of the team. She told the Tribune on Thursday that she took no comfort when Arpaio, surrounded by his top administrators, told her he was sorry about her husband.

"I understand he has to be there and I’m fine with that," Melissa Pearce said. "But I didn’t want to be around him."

A nurse overheard Melissa Pearce say she didn’t want to be around the sheriff and moved her to another waiting room. The sheriff and his chief deputy, David Hendershott, followed them. The nurse moved the family again, this time to an empty patient’s room. Again, Arpaio and Hendershott tried to follow.

"I’m thinking, ‘Can they not get a clue?’ " Melissa Pearce said. "I stood up and I said, ‘We got this private room so we don’t have to see people from the sheriff’s office like you.’ "

Finally, Arpaio and Hendershott left, she said.

CONCERNS REMAIN

Both Pearce and Argetsinger face long recoveries. Argetsinger may never be able to work as a law enforcement officer again.

Both men say they worry that disbanding the experienced SWAT team, especially in the abrupt manner it was done, will mean that the lives of deputies and the public will be at risk.

"It’s not a gamble that I think we can afford to take," Pearce said. "You are putting deputies at risk because they feel an obligation to resolve things without a tactical unit. You put the public at risk because these guys don’t have the equipment or training to work that kind of a situation, and the people that were trained and did have the equipment were sent to other assignments."

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