The Miami suburb of Coral Gables, Fla., is home to a confluence of lifestyles, where the affluent and the amoral intersect and are often one and the same. Its palatial houses and palm tree-lined streets are home to doctors, lawyers, business people, and narcotics traffickers.
On April 19, 1993, Officer Maggie Avery of the Coral Gables Police Department was working with a narcotics team conducting a reverse sting operation out of a recently refurbished office. The office itself was undercover; some $20,000 had been pumped into its décor to make it look like the home of an architectural firm, right down to drawing tables and renderings of buildings that the firm had designed.
Inside the phony office front, an undercover narcotics detective was waiting to sell a kilo of cocaine to three bad guys. Hidden in two adjoining rooms were two three-man SWAT teams. Outside, Avery was the lookout, parked in a rental car around the corner from the office near the intersection of Lejune and Greco. Her position kept her in eye-line of the street fronting the business as well as an alleyway paralleling its rear.
Fellow officers liked to kid Avery for carrying two spare magazines for her four-inch .40-caliber Glock. They called the five-foot, three-inch Cuban-American officer “Rhambet” and “Dirty Harriet.”
Avery let it slide off her back. The spare mags were just indicative of her overall attitude toward the job. Regardless of what happened, she was coming home alive at the end of her shift. That’s the reason she also wore a Point Blank ballistic vest under the casual blouse that was part of her undercover look.
In the Alley
Another reason that Avery was loaded for bear on the job was that she liked to be in on the action. However, a u.c. operation the week before had effectively put a stop to that, thanks to some intense SWAT involvement that had brought some undesired attention to the operation. The thinking now was that, with Avery holding the outer perimeter, things might play out less dramatically.
Usually, the u.c. unit’s communication system was highly dependable. After all, the affluent city of Coral Gables could afford the best equipment for its cops. But today, the radios were proving to be a nightmare. Avery was getting only sporadic bits and pieces of the information coming over the portables. The u.c. team switched to cell phones, with Avery getting her intel via calls only after it had been relayed from undercover officers to her narcotics sergeant.
A half hour passed. Evening neared. And a Chevy long-bed pickup pulled into the alley and parked just outside the rear of the “architectural” firm. Two men exited the truck and scanned the terrain before going inside the location, while a third—Avery’s counterpart—remained outside as a lookout.
Time was dragging. Another 30 minutes passed as negotiations between the fake dealer and the real ones played out. Meanwhile, Avery kept an eye on the lookout, who paced a few steps here and there but mostly stayed by the pickup.
Then the transaction closed, and the two SWAT teams burst into the room and placed the two hoodwinked hoodlums under arrest. Things were going according to Hoyle.
As SWAT took the two men down inside the architectural firm, the narco sergeant came over the radio ordering Avery to grab the third suspect. She gunned her car’s engine and started to pull into the alleyway to block the truck’s exit.
But just as she was bearing down on the Chevy, she heard the sergeant say, “No! No! No! Hold up!”
Several women had just exited their parked cars and were heading to an adjacent workout studio.
Avery stopped and hurriedly waved at one of the leotard-clad women to get her attention. The woman reflexively waved back at Avery before an unmistakable look of non-recognition passed over her face.
It didn’t matter. By the time the woman in the leotard realized that she didn’t know the attractive Latina who had waved at her, Avery’s deception had worked. The suspect had been distracted.
A second “go ahead” came over the radio. And Avery moved in, pulling up to block the suspect’s truck and jumping out of her car so quickly that she had the drop on the suspect before he realized what was happening.
The suspect was Juan Morino, a Marielito and a Hialeah resident with an extensive criminal history. He was a dangerous man. And now he was cornered. There was a 10-foot concrete wall to his back and the undercover officer and carport area were on his flanks. She was standing between him and freedom. And he was determined to be free.
Avery saw that the suspect had a gun in his waistband. Using Spanish and English commands, Avery ordered Morino to drop the weapon.
But the three-strike candidate had already let his partners know that should the transaction result in a rip-off or raid, he wasn’t going back to jail. He brought his Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum up and out in a one-handed grip and pointed it at Avery.
Avery didn’t hesitate. She immediately cranked out four or five rounds of suppressive fire, trying to unnerve the suspect before ducking behind the suspect’s pickup truck for cover.
And just as suddenly, Avery felt as though a platoon of guardian angels had descended upon her. She could hear her rangemaster standing one-inch tall on her shoulder, telling her, “Don’t yank the trigger, press firmly... Stay behind your cover.”
Feeling the Heat
Morino wasn’t trained, but he wasn’t a fool either. He used a BMW for cover and fired slow, deliberate shots at Avery each time she looked up.
Avery crouched low next to the pickup. For the better part of the next 10 seconds, her eyes swept beneath its underside and that of the Beemer parked beyond in an attempt to catch sight of Morino’s legs. But Morino had positioned himself on the opposite side of one of the wheel wells. Avery was unable to get a bearing on Morino, so she was forced to look back over the hood. As her head popped back into view, so did Morino’s.
Less than 15 feet now separated the two as they resumed firing at one another. Avery was shooting through the windows of the Beemer at the suspect, but her rounds were getting deflected by the glass and metal of the car. She could feel the heat of Morino’s incoming rounds as they passed by her face.
Avery saw Morino move to his right and to the front end of the pickup. They exchanged gunfire again. Avery’s gun was getting lighter with each shot. She knew she would have to do a tactical reload soon.
Morino extended his gun hand straight in her direction; Avery squeezed off one last round.
He looked dazed. His gun hand lowered, “Drop the gun!”
This time, Morino complied with Avery’s commands, then turned and put his hands on the wall. His body rotated, a small drop of blood on his upper torso coming into Avery’s view. It was so minute that Avery thought the suspect had only been wounded.
Morino grasped for the wall, as much out of a need for support as compliance. He swayed, then slowly slunk to his knees, his hands still on the wall.
A post-adrenaline surge washed over Avery and her palsied hands found difficulty putting her Glock back into its holster. Her sergeant took control of the weapon and, as fellow officers sheltered her, Avery found herself being led into the sanctuary of the undercover office.
Investigation revealed that Morino had fired six rounds at Avery. Avery’s 13th and last had entered his right armpit, traversing his torso and obliterating his heart.
Hearing this, Avery understood why there was so little blood on Morino’s shirt. He had been dead on his feet.
Homicide investigators reconstructing the incident also couldn’t understand how Morino’s rounds had missed Avery. They had come within inches.
The gunfight damaged an informant’s Beemer, and news coverage of the incident effectively put the undercover office out of business, a net loss to the Coral Gables PD of some $23,000.
By far, the worst collateral damage from the shooting was inflicted on Avery’s psyche. The night of the shooting, all of the emotions Avery had been suppressing spilled forth.
Her husband and fellow officer, Jim Avery, was a veteran of officer-involved shootings himself. He understood all too well the myriad emotions and thoughts that were occupying Avery, and spent the night comforting her. By morning, she thought she felt better.
But when Avery kept her department-mandated appointment with a psychologist, she insisted that she was fine, and could return to work at any time. The psychologist felt otherwise and, as Avery walked out of his office, the psychologist told a secretary, “She’ll be back.”
Living with It
The psychologist knew his business.
Indeed, Avery’s post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms only escalated. In the weeks that followed, she found herself hyper-vigilant, always on the alert and looking around herself for threats. Danger seemingly lurked everywhere, and the aversion she’d acquired about touching her gun only left her feeling more vulnerable. Her capacity for denial wearing thin, Avery wondered if she might be going crazy.
There were other concerns as well. At the time of the incident, another undercover officer—whose reservations about taking a suspect’s life were well known—had been inside the office monitoring the alleyway via an interior feed from an exterior video camera. Shortly after the shots had been fired, he’d lost sight of Avery when she’d ducked behind the vehicle.
Believing that Avery had been hit, this undercover officer stepped from the office and fired a single round at the suspect at the same moment that Avery fired her final volley. His concerns that it’d been his bullet that’d killed the suspect had gotten the better of him, as well, and he too was having difficulty on the job. Subsequent ballistic testing did little to assuage his concerns; forensic analysis could not conclusively determine which officer had killed Morino.
For Avery, there was no doubt. The trajectory of the bullet—piercing below the armpit before passing straight through the body cavity—could only have been accomplished with the suspect’s arm extended in the direction of the firing officer. At no time did the suspect turn toward, or attempt to fire at, the other u.c. officer.
Avery received several awards for her bravery under fire, including Officer of the Month. She was the Coral Gables Police Department’s first Gold Medal of Valor recipient, and was awarded another Gold Medal of Valor from the International Narcotics Law Enforcement Association.
For months after the shooting, Avery experienced headaches and difficulty hearing. Complicating her predicament was an injury that’d she’d sustained just prior to the shooting, resulting from the employment of a percussion grenade.
Avery was diagnosed with acute post concussion syndrome, an eventuality precipitated by the synergistic effects of the concussion incident and the shooting. A neuropsychologist ultimately determined that she did not have a hearing problem; she had actually suffered some very slight damage to the front left lobe area of the brain that affected her ability to process what she was hearing. Almost a year to the day after the shooting, she was medically retired.
Avery believes any number of factors helped her survive the firefight. For years, both on duty and off, she’d conscientiously practiced visualization techniques. By envisioning such scenarios before they occurred, she had conditioned her mind and body to the point that she’d responded with a sense of emotional and physical equilibrium when the reality occurred. She also cites the fact that unlike some officers who used such occasions to jaw-jack and goof off, she took every one of her training courses seriously, particularly when it came to range training.
Maggie Avery is willing to talk with other officers who have been involved in shootings. You can contact her through POLICE Magazine.
Dean Scoville is a patrol supervisor with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and Associate Editor of POLICE.
CONSIDER THESE QUESTIONS
Think about Officer Maggie Avery’s gunbattle with a hardened felon, and ask yourself these questions.
- To what extent have you discussed or practiced cover and concealment while engaged in close-quarter combat?
- How seriously do you take your department’s training? To what extent is your ability to find training profitable compromised by others who are less attentive?
- Do you practice visualization techniques? If so, how often? What are some of the situations you have visualized? Has the practice ever paid off for you?