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.[PAGEBREAK]
Vicky Gilner, sister of the slain officer, didn't buy it. Gilner was a former legal advisor to San Diego Police Chief Jerry Sanders; she knew how police departments worked, and she believed that the real reasons for her brother's death would never be revealed by an in-house report. She pushed for an independent review. And she got it.
The NTOA Report
The Cobb County Commission contacted the National Tactical Officers Association (NTOA), and the job fell to Ronald M. McCarthy. McCarthy, the Association's director at large and veteran of numerous SWAT actions, arrived in Atlanta in September 1999, telling the local press that the horrific outcome of the Cobb County PD SWAT team's assault on the Smith house did not necessarily mean there had been any failings on the part of police management or field commanders. But he warned that people might not like the conclusions of his investigation.
Nearly five months later, McCarthy submitted his findings to the Cobb County Commissioners. And he was right. People didn't like them. McCarthy's report lays much of the blame for the William Paul Drive disaster on Lt. Merrifield, an unpopular conclusion that to this day still rankles some members of the Cobb County PD.
McCarthy's harshest criticism centers on Merrifield's decision to make a tactical entry into the Smith house with what he describes bluntly as an undermanned force. "When the Cobb County PD SWAT team arrived with the ability to deploy only 12 officers, they were already at a very significant disadvantage," McCarthy wrote. His recommendation was to expand the team to 35 officers and establish cooperation between other SWAT teams in the area, including the Marietta Police Department and the Cobb County Sheriff's Department.
Although McCarthy recognizes that one of the most critical factors in the outcome of the botched raid was poor intelligence, he believes that if Merrifield had taken more time planning the action and rehearsing it and had brought in more SWAT officers from other agencies, the effects of the poor intelligence could have been minimized.
"The raid had to take place, but it didn't have to take place in five or 10 minutes [after negotiations broke down]," McCarthy said in a recent interview. "It could have been 20 or 30 minutes later. There could have been an opportunity to gather more people. He [Merrifield] should have called for another agency to come and relieve his containment people. And he should have rehearsed in a floorplan that closely matched the Smith house."
The report also lashes Merrifield for the tactical plan that his team executed when it made entry into the Smith home. McCarthy believes the 12-man squad had no hope of effectively rescuing Mildred Smith because it could not breach the house at enough points. "The entry at the far end of the house from the location of the hostage meant that the time it would take to reach the hostage was going to be extremely long and should the suspect want to kill the hostage, it would have been the likely outcome," he wrote.
McCarthy's report details how he would have planned the assault on the Smith's ranch-style suburban home. The strategy would have involved simultaneous entries through the window of the bedroom where Mildred Smith was held, the rear of the house through the sun porch, the kitchen through the carport, and the front door. It would have required a total of 33 officers; 25 to make the assault and eight to maintain containment on all four sides of the house.
Of course, Merrifield only had 12 officers at his disposal, including himself. A defense for which McCarthy has little patience. He believes the William Paul Drive disaster was a tragedy waiting to happen because of the limited resources of the Cobb County PD SWAT team.
The day that the NTOA report was released to the public, the surviving members of the SWAT team held a press conference to defend their commander. Also, James Arrowood, Cobb County Public Safety director, argued that Merrifield had "performed according to his training and experience." He added that the McCarthy strategy in the report had the benefit of Monday morning quarterbacking and that there's no guarantee that a 33-man assault would have had better results.
Lt. Merrifield did not respond to an interview request for this article. However, he did speak to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution shortly after the release of the report.
Addressing McCarthy's harshest criticism that his team was undermanned and that he should have called for help, Merrifield said, "[Calling for help] is doable once you have the training, but [then] you have a comfort level. If we had done that, I think the outcry would have been, 'What were you thinking? You're in a hot operation, and you bring in two teams who have never worked together?'"
McCarthy agrees that bringing two tactical teams in to work on the same operation when they haven't trained together is problematic. However, his argument is not that Merrifield should have brought two teams unfamiliar with each other's methods together in the William Paul Drive incident. He says the Cobb County PD SWAT team should have been training with other local tac opps units long before the incident.
"It's been recommended by NTOA and lots of people who have their head in the right place that police departments, especially smaller ones, join together in a cooperative effort," says McCarthy. "That way if there's a major violent incident or critical incident that requires equipment or manpower that they don't have but other agencies do, they can resource each other. But you can't do that unless you work together."
To be fair, even Merrifield's most vocal critics say there were aspects of the tragedy that were beyond his control. Reeves and Gilner died of nearly identical injuries caused by the penetration of buckshot through their underarms and into the major organs of theirs chests. The body armor issued to the Cobb County PD SWAT team had no underarm shielding. It does now.
The William Paul Drive incident was an unmitigated disaster for all involved. Sgt. Reeves and Officer Gilner were both married with families; Lt. Merrifield was reassigned from the SWAT team (with no loss in pay or rank) and suffered the indignities of the media spotlight at a time when he was grieving over the deaths of two friends; the men and women of the Cobb County PD were shaken by the loss of two officers on a tight-knit suburban force; and Mildred Smith buried her 40-year-old son, who by all accounts was more sick than criminal.
But if it can be said that something good can come of such terrible events, then something good did result from the study and analysis of the incident. Many small, part-time SWAT teams have studied the Cobb County disaster and changed their tactics, procedures, equipment, and policies.
In the weeks following the deaths of Reeves and Gilner, SWAT officers nationwide sent inquiries to the NTOA, asking the Association's director Larry Glick to tell them what happened in Georgia. Their inquiries were fueled by two factors: shock over the loss of two SWAT officers in the same action when, on average, one SWAT officer is killed in action annually in the United States, and fear that their own units might face similar tragedy.
Perhaps that's why the conclusions of the McCarthy report have been embraced by so many SWAT commanders. "People have read it and totally changed their operations," says McCarthy. "I've gotten I don't know how many communications from people saying that. And I've had people walk up in classes, and say, 'Hey, we were in the same boat that they were. Now we're doing everything much better because that incident woke our administration up.'"
Nowhere is this more true than in metropolitan Atlanta. The Cobb County PD SWAT team is now a leader in the movement to bolster the capabilities of small agency tactical units. From 12 officers, the team has grown to 33 officers. More importantly, the team now trains regularly with the Cobb County Sheriff's Department, Marietta Police Department, and other area special response teams. Together, this cooperative regional response team can now field approximately 70 trained officers.
"Good things come out of bad incidents, and I think a lot of good came from that report," says NTOA director Glick. "Law enforcement for a long time because of ego issues between county sheriff's departments and police agencies said, 'we can handle it ourselves. Don't go to your neighbor and ask for help.'
"Now the message is simple," Glick says. "You can't operate a SWAT team without enough manpower. If you don't have enough, you need to call people for assistance when you need help."
Unfortunately, this change in mind-set came much too late for Sgt. Reeves and Officer Gilner. It also came too late for many of their fellow officers on the Cobb County PD who still carry the physical and psychological scars of one very long, hot night in Georgia.
Anatomy of the Austell Disaster
- At 6:02 p.m. on July 23, 1999, Officer Jorge Mestre of the Cobb County Police Department answers "man with a gun" call, and confronts subject in the driveway of 3800 William Paul Drive.
- The subject William Greg Smith, 40, shoots Officer Mestre, a gunbattle ensues, and Smith retreats into his home.
- Negotiators arrive and open communications with Smith's mother, Mildred Smith, 73.
- The crisis team talks to Greg Smith, and from his bizarre ramblings, concludes that Mrs. Smith is being held against her will and is in imminent danger.
- At 11:00 p.m. negotiations break down, and the police SWAT team moves on the house.
- The SWAT team breaches the house in two locations, the basement and the kitchen.
- Officers storm the basement with no problem.
- In the kitchen, chaos reigns. Sgt. Steve Reeves and Officer Stephen Gilner are mortally wounded by Greg Smith who fires from 30 feet down the hall.
- The raid fails and the SWAT team withdraws.
- At 6 a.m. the next morning the police SWAT team is relieved by officers of the Cobb County Sheriff's Department.
- Shortly after 10 a.m., a sheriff's deputy shoots and kills Greg Smith. Mildred Smith is brought out of the house, and the standoff ends.
What Went Wrong
- The Cobb County Police Department tactical team was woefully undermanned.
- Help should have been requested from other area SWAT teams.
- The attack plan was dictated by the number of officers available instead of a workable strategy.
- SWAT officers should have had access to the house's floorplan and rehearsed the raid in a similar home or in a marked off diagram.
- The SWAT commander should not have been part of the breaching teams.
Source: Report of the National Tactical Officer's Association