On a muggy summer night in Georgia, it feels like you can reach out and squeeze water out of the air. Such were the conditions at 6:02 p.m. on July 23, 1999, when officer Jorge Mestre of the Cobb County Police Department was dispatched to 3800 William Paul Drive in the Atlanta suburb of Austell, Ga. Mestre was answering a call of "man with a gun." And from the moment he opened the door to his air-conditioned unit and stepped into the sticky swelter of the evening, the heat pressed down on him like a soggy blanket.
The night was about to get a lot hotter for Mestre and the Cobb County PD. By the time it was over, two SWAT officers would lose their lives in the line of duty, two other officers would be wounded, and tactical officers nationwide would be asking what went wrong.
Moments before Mestre answered the call to William Paul Drive, the normally quiet, middle class street was the scene of an argument between neighbors William Greg Smith and Jerald Barnett. When Smith started waving firearms, Barnett retreated to his home and dialed 911.
Enter Officer Mestre. A veteran police officer with nine years of field experience, Mestre walked up Smith's driveway believing that he could calm Smith down and defuse the situation. He was wrong.
Smith, 40, was in no state to listen to reason. He resisted arrest, produced a Ruger .45, and opened fire. Mestre was hit in the leg, but managed to make his way to cover behind a tree at the side of the driveway. Smith then pulled a Mossberg 12-gauge shotgun from the bed of his truck and fired at Mestre behind the tree. Struck by buckshot in his right arm, Mestre transitioned his sidearm to his left hand and returned fire.
Smith retreated into his house. A backup officer called for a medical response, and the wounded Mestre stumbled down the driveway to his car to report a "Signal 50" (officer down).
"Get Somebody Out Here!"
Cobb County Police reacted quickly to the situation. A crisis negotiator was on scene in minutes. She opened communications with the barricaded suspect and learned that Smith was not alone. His mother, 73-year-old Mildred Smith, was in the house, and he wouldn't let her leave.
Over the course of about four-and-a-half hours, the negotiators attempted to reason with Greg Smith, asking him to let his mother out of the house. He wouldn't budge. And they increasingly became convinced that Mildred Smith was in danger.
Transcripts of the communications between the crisis negotiators and Greg Smith reveal that he was apparently suffering paranoid delusions, involving the CIA, the cops, the Texas Rangers, and Dobbins Air Force Base. His primary demand to the negotiators was, "Get somebody out here." Exactly who he wanted, we will never know.
When negotiations with Greg Smith came to an impasse around 11 p.m., the crisis negotiation team advised Incident Commander G.R. Davis that the situation would likely have to be resolved tactically. Davis relayed the word to Deputy Chief Mike Barton, who asked his SWAT commander Lt. Steve Merrifield to "make the call." Merrifield chose to assault the house and rescue Mrs. Smith.
The 12-man Cobb County PD SWAT team had been on scene at William Paul Drive, sweating in 30 pounds of heavy body armor and gear in the 90-plus heat for about four hours, when they got the word that they were going to make an entry. They had also worked a full day, nothing strenuous, just range time with M-16s, but on a muggy July day in Georgia any outside work is strenuous. So it's no reach to believe they were fatigued. And there was no provision for relieving them with fresh officers.
Leaving four men in their containment positions on all sides of the house, Lt. Merrifield effected a plan to enter the dwelling, rescue Mildred Smith, and subdue or eliminate her son. Successful execution of the operation would require precise knowledge of Greg Smith's location and an accurate description of the interior of the Smith house. Merrifield and his men had neither of these things.
Merrifield split the remaining eight men of his SWAT unit into two assault teams. Three men, including Merrifield, would breach the basement, which included a room where Smith reportedly stored additional guns and ammunition. The five remaining officers would enter the kitchen from the carport.
Shortly after 11 p.m., the first team seized the basement without a hitch. Up in the carport, however, things were not going well. The five-man team had trouble opening the door. The first blow from their ram had very little effect, and the second only knocked out a panel. A flash bang was tossed through the open panel to stun Smith, and the team hit the door again with the ram. This time the door opened, and three members of the five-man team poured into the darkened kitchen.
And into a fatal funnel. The Smiths' kitchen wasn't nearly as large as they thought it was going to be, and Greg Smith was 30 feet away down the hall, unaffected by the flash bang and unseen by the SWAT officers. As the third man, Officer Darin Reifert, stepped into the kitchen, gunfire erupted down the hallway and buckshot slammed into the kitchen wall barely missing him.
The men in the kitchen did not know Smith's location, but the deranged gunman had them in his sights. A fourth SWAT officer, Sgt. Steve Reeves, came through the doorway, and Smith, an experienced hunter and crack shot, fired. The load of buckshot caught Reeves in his left shoulder and under his armpit.
Seeing Reeves go down, Officer Stephen Gilner, the last man to enter the kitchen because he had been swinging the ram, went through the doorway and tried to drag Reeves to safety. He was shot in almost the exact same location as Reeves, and the two mortally wounded officers tumbled onto the carport in a heap.
Some 11 hours later the siege ended when Greg Smith was shot dead by a Cobb County Sheriff's Department marksman. Sheriff's Department tactical officers, who relieved the police team at 6 a.m. that morning, said they thought Smith was trying to climb out the window.
Mildred Smith was rescued. She later told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that she was not a hostage. However, she also said that before the incident, she was considering having her son committed for a psychiatric evaluation.
It had been a bloody and heartbreaking 16 hours for the Cobb County PD. Sgt. Reeves and Officer Gilner were pronounced dead shortly after their arrival at the hospital. Two other SWAT team members suffered relatively minor injuries in the melee, and first responder Jorge Mestre was admitted to the hospital for multiple gunshot wounds in his arms and legs.
In the entire history of the Cobb County PD, only three officers had been killed in the line of duty. Now, two of the most elite officers on the force had been killed on the same night. A lot of people wanted to know why.
A grand jury was convened and a 772-page investigative report was produced by the Cobb County PD. The report blamed the disaster on a delusional, but proficient gunman; poor police intelligence about the layout of the home, especially the size of the kitchen; and on just plain bad luck.