When you're a member of SWAT, you know that your personal life will not be immune from disruptions. Any given hour of the day or night could find you getting the call. So when Mike Lessman's pager went off at 0430 hours on July 15, 1999, the Reno, Nev., police officer answered the call.
Told that his team was being activated to roll on a barricade situation, Lessman hung up the phone and got dressed. Less than a half hour passed before he reached the SWAT command post. The SWAT team was given an update on the events that had transpired at a nearby residence.
Twice in the early morning hours preceding the SWAT activation, patrol officers had responded to domestic disturbance calls at a home on Orovada Street. On their first visit, they found a cooperative 37-year old Glenn Sunde alone after having an argument with his girlfriend, Lisa Kelly. Kelly had left the location with her 10-month-old child, but later returned, precipitating a violent outburst from Sunde and a return call to police. When officers showed up the second time, they were met by a visibly agitated Sunde, who was wielding a large butcher knife and sporting several self-inflicted stab wounds.
In a profanity-laced tirade, Sunde advised on-scene officers that he was holding his girlfriend hostage and threatened to cut off her head. Seeing what Sunde had already done to himself, the officers had no doubt about his willingness to do so. They prudently backed off.
Attempts to negotiate with the suspect were made via telephone, with Sunde becoming more and more uncooperative. By 0300 hours, the man had discontinued talking with officers entirely and refused to answer the phone. An emergency action team was readied.
As the SWAT team speculated where the suspect and his hostage might be located inside the house, officers on the perimeter alerted the team that a fire had been started inside the house. The suspect's actions were escalating events much faster than the team would have liked. Fearing that the hostage was in imminent danger, the lieutenant in charge of SWAT made the decision for an immediate entry.
The front door of the location splintered open behind the weight of a ram as tactical officers spilled into the darkened house. The first two officers breached the doorway and headed straight down the hallway in front of them. Lessman, the number four man in the stack, linked up with the officer in front of him and entered the living room to the right of the front door. Beyond the living room, they saw a kitchen and dinette area.
To counter the surge of adrenaline pulling his team deeper into the location, the assistant team leader repeated a mantra: "Walk. Walk. Walk."
His eyes straining against the darkness, Lessman peered toward the kitchen where he observed a refrigerator blocking part of its entryway. Stepping wide into the living room, he angled for a better view of the kitchen area. Just then, Lessman heard assistant team leader Greg Rea yell, "Kitchen! Kitchen! Take the kitchen!"
Lessman inched forward. Beyond the refrigerator and deeper into the kitchen was a large table that had been upended on its side. He suspected that the table was shielding someone behind it.
But the room was dark; the only illumination came from items that had been lit atop the stove in Sunde's bid to burn the place down. As Lessman entered the kitchen, he illuminated the table with the SureFire light that was mounted onto the forearm of his Heckler & Koch MP5.
As he continued to inch forward, the tops of two heads came into view beyond the table. Lessman rose up to a high ready position.
Sunde was sitting on the floor behind the table with his back against the wall. His legs were wrapped around his girlfriend Kelly's legs, pinning her to the ground directly in front of him. Sunde hugged her tight to his chest with his left arm around her neck, keeping her head firmly planted next to his own.
Given Sunde's deathgrip on Kelly, Lessman knew the hostage wasn't going anywhere. But Lessman's attention was concentrated on the object in Sunde's right hand—a large butcher knife.
Drop the Knife!
Lessman entered the kitchen and ordered Sunde to let his hostage go.
"Drop the knife! Drop the knife!"
Then, to his fellow tactical officers, Lessman yelled, "I've got him in here! I've got him in here!"
Later, Lessman would reflect that he should have been more specific and said, "I've got him in the kitchen."
But for Officer Darren Swetkovich there was no doubt. When Swetkovich saw his teammate move his MP5 to high ready, he realized that Lessman had the suspect.
Swetkovich came up shoulder to shoulder with Lessman. Both officers gave Sunde several more commands to drop the knife and let the girl go. But Sunde was hardly contrite.
"Get the f__k out of my house!" he yelled, and Lessman saw him plunge the knife downward. But Lessman's perspective didn't allow him to discern whether he was hitting himself or the hostage, a reality that also prevented him from taking a shot. Taking a half step further, Lessman gained a better view of what lay beyond the table.