It was a damned cold night for central Florida. Officer Keith Cowart wasn't getting any argument from Smokey Stapleter or Gary Markowski on that score. His fellow Melbourne, Fla., police officers had congregated with him for a windshield conference and coffee. Stapleter rubbed his arms to get his blood circulating.
"I hate it when it's quiet," he mused. "Because you just know it's going to hit the fan, big time."
Cowart and Markowski made eye contact with one another in silent acknowledgment of a shared thought: Now, why did he have to go and say something like that?
It was easy to reflect on the lack of activity at that hour. It was another to verbalize the thought and screw up a good thing. It wasn't in Cowart's nature to be superstitious. All the same, he was sure that his partner's words would prove prophetic.
He got into his patrol car and went back to work, good naturedly resigned to his fate. It wasn't as though he needed any help. By any objective standard, Cowart was known in vocational parlance as a "s_ _t magnet."
On duty and off, Cowart's knack for being in the "right place at the right time" was the stuff of local legend. Already, he'd been involved in no less than six officer-involved shootings throughout his 30-year law enforcement career. And before the night was over, he'd have one more.
Two hours passed. Cowart rolled to assist on a traffic collision with serious injuries. He was directing traffic when an alert tone came over the radio frequency advising of a felony in progress: A man with a gun in the bar of the local TGI Fridays. Familiar with the location, Cowart put himself on the call and started his roll.
As he accelerated his patrol car, Cowart, a SWAT officer, considered what might be awaiting him at the restaurant. Cowart was accustomed to taking advantage of routine calls for conducting informal recons of businesses in the area, and prior calls of drunk patrons at the location were now being mined for profit.
In his mind's eye, Cowart envisioned the familiar layout of the restaurant, deliberating which area of the property would give him an optimal view of the interior while minimizing any potential exposure to himself.
Normally, getting there would be half the battle. But the early hour proved a mixed blessing. Traffic was typically light. However, the quiet of the early morning also meant that sound would be amplified in the industrial confines of the city, so Cowart turned off his lights and sirens as he came within a mile of the TGI Fridays.
On the Scene
Cowart decided to take a containment position at the rear of the restaurant that was located off U.S. 192 near the Melbourne Square Mall. A south-facing window availed Cowart a view inside, where a suspect wearing a ski mask held a woman in a headlock at gunpoint. It looked bad, but Cowart, accustomed to finding silver linings where he could, took comfort in the fact that the suspect's back was to him.
Parking the patrol car out of the suspect's sightline, Cowart exited on foot with his rifle, a Bushmaster AR-15 with pressure-switch activated scope.
Cowart ducked behind some bushes. It didn't make for optimum cover, but the concealment was ideal. He was about to find out just how ideal.
A second suspect came running around the back of the restaurant. Three things became immediately apparent to Cowart: One, the man was wearing a ski mask. Two, he was carrying a SIG 9mm. Three, he wasn't a good guy.
The man's reactions suggested to Cowart that a second officer might be positioned at an opposing corner of the restaurant. So before the suspect could get a drop on the other cop, Cowart decided to introduce himself.
"Drop the gun, motherf_ __er!"
Cowart's barked order, though vulgar and politically incorrect, garnered results. He says that he never saw a suspect dispose of a weapon and drop to the ground as quickly in his life.
Thanks for the Help
Just after the suspect dropped his weapon and proned out, a sergeant from an adjacent police agency arrived on scene. Thankful for the sergeant's timely arrival, Cowart told the three-striper to handcuff the suspect, while he covered. But the sergeant refused.
Cowart couldn't believe it. When it came to working with officers from adjoining agencies, Cowart had always enjoyed professionalism. More than once he'd had to rely on another agency's officers, and they'd come through. So the sergeant's refusal confounded him. Just what was the man doing here? If he wasn't going to be of assistance, he would only be a liability, Cowart thought.
Cowart was weighing his options when one of the sergeant's subordinates arrived on scene. Showing greater initiative than his superior-and more than a little disgust-the junior officer quickly handcuffed the suspect.
With one suspect in custody, things were looking better than they had minutes before. But Cowart operated on the "plus one" theory. Having already seen another suspect inside the location, he wondered where a third might be.
He glanced toward a small compact car that he'd noticed when he first pulled into the parking lot. It was devoid of any frost; there was no doubting that it was the suspects' car. But the way Cowart saw it, clearing the car would mean compromising his containment and possibly alerting the suspect inside the restaurant to his presence. His position would allow for an occasional glance at the compact, but that was about all.
Inside, two bar managers had succeeded in locking themselves up in a portion of the restaurant away from the suspect. Unfortunately, a couple of their fellow employees had not been so lucky and were now at the questionable mercy of a highly agitated and armed felon.
Having only recently been released from a North Carolina prison, Luqman Jamal was a third-strike candidate. Rasean Smith had driven north to pick up Jamal before bringing his cousin back to Melbourne, Smith's hometown. Along the way they hit a number of restaurants such as Applebee's, Chili's, and TGI Fridays as part of an Atlantic Coast tour.
Life on parole had not only given the 22-year-old Jamal a new start, but an opportunity to better coordinate his capers with his cousin, Smith, who had proven a quick and willing understudy. The two worked well together, taking time to camouflage themselves and cut telephone lines before entering a location. The only problem was that they had not anticipated a cellular phone or two among the TGI Fridays employees.
Now Jamal raged, yelling at unseen men that if they didn't open the door he'd kill their co-workers.
Cowart noted that there were now other officers on scene. He was thankful that he had such a top-notch night crew handling the calls and dispatching: The intel coming over the radio was excellent. Melbourne PD's radio frequency had been patched in with three neighboring police agencies, and Melbourne's aero units had been notified and brought up on frequency.
Suddenly, the back door of the restaurant flew open. A white male came running out, a TGI Fridays apron flapping behind him.
Cowart took advantage of the ambient light. Fortunately, between the lights in the parking lot and the lights of the restaurant, he had a clear view of everything that was going on inside the bar, which was itself elevated two feet above the rest of the single-story building's floor space.
Jamal was having a difficult time with his hostage, Heather Helms. They briefly disappeared from view before exiting the back door of the restaurant.
Cowart had Jamal in his sights. But the suspect was right on top of the terrified hostage, screaming obscenities at her and threatening her with a Glock automatic. The close proximity of suspect to hostage dictated patience from Cowart.
He also had concerns about certain complications. A series of robberies had been taking place in and around Melbourne by suspects wearing body armor. He thought he might be facing one of those armored suspects. Cowart aimed his rifle. At 25 yards, he wanted to get a clear shot at the suspect's armpit, hoping for a through-and-through that would defeat body armor.
But the hostage, Helms, was not about to go quietly into the night. She resisted Jamal's prodding and threats, eventually wrestling herself out of the jacket Jamal was using to control her movements.
Frustrated, Jamal suddenly yelled, "You f_____g bitch!" and raised the gun to the terrified young woman's head.
Cowart could no longer wait for a clear shot. But in the milliseconds that passed before Cowart could process the information and squeeze the trigger, Jamal fired.
Helms' hair flew upward as her head suddenly jerked forward, her body cascading to the pavement. Simultaneously, Cowart's round caught the suspect in the upper torso. Jamal seemed to stare back uncomprehendingly in Cowart's direction before his body stumbled backwards. Cowart immediately fired a second round and Jamal fell in through the open door of the restaurant.
Cowart and two fellow officers approached. The Glock was still gripped in Jamal's hand, blood streamed from his nostrils and mouth.
Rescue and EMS personnel responded, but little could be done for Jamal. He was pronounced at the scene. Though shaken, Helms was otherwise fine: Jamal's bullet had miraculously missed her.
"Who fired at the suspect?" Cowart's lieutenant asked.
Cowart motioned for the lieutenant's attention. "I did, Sir," he said, handing his rifle to his superior officer before taking a seat in his field sergeant's patrol car.
After a coroner's inquest, Cowart was disappointed to find that his second round had missed the suspect. But the first .223 round had more than done its job. The bullet had taken out the suspect's heart and both lungs before coming to rest behind Jamal's scapula.
For his actions that night and an anemic defense some months later, Jamal's cousin, Rasean Smith, received a life sentence.
Officer Keith Cowart received numerous citations for his actions in saving the life of the hostage.