Orange County (Fla.) Sheriff's Dep. Jennifer Fulford had a lot on her mind on May 5, 2004. Having just paid for her wedding dress, the logistics of her nuptials were weighing on the 31-year-old deputy as she began her patrol. There was still so much to do, and time was a precious commodity.
Fortunately, the five-year patrol veteran and FTO's latest trainee, Jason Gainor, was a lateral from the nearby Windermere Police Department. Training Gainor promised to be a streamlined process, just a matter of familiarizing him with his new agency's way of doing things.
Fulford and Gainor were working the day shift when shortly before 0800 a call went out: Suspicious circumstances at a residence. A juvenile informant had told the 911 operator that "strange men" were inside his Pine Hills, Fla., house. The dispatcher advised that little additional information was forthcoming as the eight-year-old boy was whispering and his cellular phone connection was poor. Dep. Dwayne Martin and Dep. Kevin Curry responded. Fulford and Gainor rolled to assist.
When Fulford and Gainor arrived at the Medford Court residence, they found Martin and Curry already on scene and speaking with the informant's mother in the driveway. The child informant was nowhere to be seen.
As Fulford drew near, the nervous mother approached her. "There are three men in my house. I don't know who they are or what they want."
Despite prodding from Fulford, the woman only repeated the same threadbare details. Then she finally added one more bit of information. Her children were seated inside a van parked in the garage.
Curry and Martin directed the mother to wait on the opposite side of the street while a helicopter and a K-9 deputy were requested to respond. The two deputies then took up surveillance postures on opposite sides of the property.
Fulford stared at the open garage door. The woman was hiding something, she thought.
While the neighborhood was no ghetto, predatory crime and dope slinging were not exactly foreign concepts on Medford Drive. Increasingly, security bars occupied the portals of doors and windows, and children were largely kept indoors. It was a neighborhood in decline.
Normally, the tactics for handling this home invasion would be containment. Get the requisite logistics and game plan in order, then do it by the numbers.
But something forced Fulford's hand. Whatever the intentions of the men inside the house-and whatever her personal reservations-she felt an immediate need to act on behalf of the children inside the van.
If the suspects were to close the garage door, the children would be at their questionable mercy. Should that happen, the best-case scenario would be a barricade operation. Fulford didn't want to contemplate the worst-case scenario.
She approached the garage.
John Dzibinski couldn't believe his good luck. Only a month before, the 26-year-old had been busted in Osceola County for drug possession. But thanks to a teletype mix-up, he wasn't held on a South Carolina warrant naming him as a suspect in a North Charleston home invasion.
Now, he'd been tipped off to a large amount of marijuana and cash stashed inside a residence in suburban Orlando. Dzibinski's source characterized the house as "easy pickings." The husband was out of town, leaving just the wife and three children.
Dzibinski invited his two buddies, George Jenkins and Shaun Byrom, to accompany him for an easy score. Like Dzibinski, Jenkins had an extensive criminal record. Among his lesser documented evils was home invasion robbery.
Figuring the woman and her kids couldn't put up that much of a fight, the trio left their two AK-47s in their motel room, then headed for Pine Hills with handguns in their belts.[PAGEBREAK]
Get Rid of Them
As home invaders go, the trio of Dzibinski, Jenkins, and Byrom were not exactly criminal masterminds. They hadn't controlled the occupants of the house, so the boy had been able to call 911 and now they were looking out the window at a major complication.
Seeing the deputies converging on the house, Jenkins chose to intimidate the female resident. "Get rid of them," he ordered.
That didn't work. They watched as she talked to the cops. But the cops weren't leaving. And a female officer was now moving toward the house. From Jenkins' point of view, everything was going to crap in a hurry.
In the Garage
As Dep. Fulford neared the open door of the attached garage, she saw a van and an SUV parked inside. Entering the garage on the driver's side of the van, she peered into the van's windows. Two small children buckled into car seats stared hopefully up at her. She wondered where the third child was.
She smiled comfortingly at the two kids, then tried the doors. Locked. As she attempted to retreat from the garage, she noticed that Dep. Martin had moved to the driveway just outside.
"I can't get the kids out," she said, and started toward him. "The doors are..."
She didn't get a chance to finish. There were male voices-fast, agitated-coming from the opposite side of the minivan. Suddenly, a volley of three to four shots rang out.
Fulford dropped to the ground, keyed her mic, and advised over her portable radio, "Shots fired!"
Martin, wounded in the shoulder, rolled out of the kill zone for cover.
Unable to see Martin, Fulford drew her Glock and spun in the direction of the shots. They were coming from the back of the van. Fulford braced just as the six-foot, 275-pound Jenkins emerged from the rear of the minivan, his 9mm pistol blazing.
Bullets slammed into Fulford's body as she returned fire. Jenkins collapsed to the ground against the garage wall but continued to fire. Fulford ducked down behind the wheel well of the minivan. She saw movement toward the front of the vehicle. John Dzibinski had entered the garage and was now firing at her.
Gunfire surrounded Fulford. Jenkins was firing. Dzibinski was firing. Dep. Martin was firing. And of course, she was firing. Her senses overloaded. Time slowed. The deafening booms of the shots were only small "pops" to her ears.
Fulford was now on the garage floor trapped between the minivan and an SUV and exchanging fire with suspects to her front and rear. At least with Jenkins at the rear she'd been able to get cover behind the van. But with Dzibinski now at the front, leaning over the hood of the van and shooting, Fulford had nowhere to go.
Trapped, she alternated her fire back and forth, consciously using her .45 caliber Speer hollow points to both suppress the fire of her attackers and stop their attacks.
Dzibinski left the front of the van and ducked behind cover. Fulford took inventory of her injuries. She'd taken several rounds in her legs. She prepared to reengage.
I will not die here. I will not die in this dirty garage at the hands of these two suspects, she thought.[PAGEBREAK]
Rain of Bullets
Dzibinski popped out, firing. Fulford's well-placed volley of shots zeroed in on his exposed upper torso before running dry. Reloading, she immediately encountered a second barrage from Jenkins at the rear of the van. One of Jenkins' rounds slammed into Fulford's dominant arm, but not before she fired a round that caught him center mass and put him down and out of the fight.
Her right arm was no longer functional. Fulford transitioned her weapon to her left hand and pivoted in the direction of where she had last seen the second suspect.
Dzibinski leaned out from the corner of the van and again fired.
Fulford resumed firing. She was at once aware of exactly where she was from an almost out-of-body perspective. The claustrophobic confines of the garage...the Jack in the box-like attacks and retreats of the suspects...the rain of bullets...her desperate spins to counter their attacks...the kaleidoscope of silhouettes, shadows, and the cacophony of gunshots and breaking glass had combined in such a manner that her mind seemed to be splitting in different directions, at once taking her outside herself even as it centered her focus.
Dzibinski was making the most of his cover. But Fulford was dialed in. A round caught Dzibinski in the head, and he fell back out of view.
Blood streamed down Fulford's wounded right arm, pooling onto the floor. Her emotions turned on themselves, and the room began a slow spin. Fulford could feel herself starting to black out.
Stay awake. He might come back, and there's still a third suspect unaccounted for.
Tell Them Thanks
Suddenly, Fulford could hear Dep. Curry shouting her name and asking if she was OK. Fulford shook her head "No." Curry and Gainor hurried into the garage and carried her out to the street.
Curry called for the Fire Department to come in and assist, but the scene was not secure and they refused. Her fellow deputies carried Fulford to the end of the block where the Fire Department took over.
Fulford was transported to Orlando Regional Medical Center. At the hospital, Fulford grabbed the arm of Sheriff Kevin Beary.
"Tell the range instructors they were right," she told Beary. "And tell them thanks. Everything they taught me about tactics and survival mindset came to me when I most needed it."[PAGEBREAK]
Recovery and Reflection
Fulford spent two days being treated for her injuries before recuperating at home.
Dzibinski's shots had hit her right knee, left ankle, left thigh, and left buttock. Jenkins' rounds had caught her in the right forearm, right shoulder, and left pinky finger. Her body had absorbed a total of seven bullets.
But she had made her attackers pay dearly.
Jenkins was pronounced dead at the scene. Dzibinski was transported to a local hospital where he was pronounced brain-dead prior to being taking off life-support a week later.
The third suspect, Byrom, surrendered after the gunfight and was sentenced to life in prison.
The homeowners were both charged with trafficking in Cannabis (340 pounds of marijuana). In exchange for testifying against her husband and the third robber, the woman, Isola Allen, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to two years of community control, followed by 10 years probation. Her husband, Clinton Allen, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to five years in prison.
Miraculously, despite their close proximity to the firefight, none of the Allens' children were injured in the incident.
When Fulford reflects on the shooting, she does so with pride. She also considers how differently things could have turned out. There is comfort in the knowledge that the children are safe and the suspects will no longer pose a threat to innocent civilians.
But she acknowledges that communication between the officers on scene could have been better. And she is willing and able to look at her performance with a critical eye.
"Would I have done things differently had I known that there were guns involved? Probably. But then, it might have strengthened my resolve to go in, too. I think I still would have reverted to 'active shooter' protocol.
"The greatest advice I would give is that officers should show greater initiative in asking questions and in sharing information at operations. Never assume that everyone has been privilege to the same information and never assume it of yourself."
Fulford is acutely aware of the debt that she owes her training, as well as her own initiative. She developed the requisite weapon familiarity to feel comfortable with it when it most mattered. When her strong arm became disabled, weak hand firing training paid off. Honing shooting tactics in "shoot house" training was also profitable. Indeed, Fulford believes it was no single factor that ensured her survival, but a confluence of them.
"We'd done a variety of training exercises. We didn't rely on the old static training, standing there, double-tapping, reholstering. The more training scenarios you can do on your own, even if it's in your own mind, the better your chances for survival when things go south."
Finally, Fulford continues to exploit her ability to train and adapt. When nerve damage compromised use of her strong hand for firing, she learned to fire left-handed.
"I actually fire better now left-handed. Probably because I'm left-eye dominant."
Repercussions and Recognition
Fulford's greatest disappointment is the fact that the Allens still retain custody of their kids. She suspects that, despite the interventions of herself and other Orange County Sheriff's deputies that May morning, the children will grow to hate the cops that took their parents into custody.
Fulford, herself, has moved from planning her wedding engagements to planning her public speaking engagements. In the year following the shootout, she was recognized as Officer of the Year by the International Association of Chiefs of Police and Parade Magazine.
She was also awarded the Orange County Sheriff's Office Purple Heart and Combat Ribbon, the Orange County Sheriff's Office Medal of Valor, and the National Public Safety Medal of Valor.
Fulford is now married and back on the job working as a detective with the Orange County Sheriff's Office child abuse detail.
What Would You Do?
Put yourself in the shoes of Orange County (Fla.) Sheriff's Dep. Jennifer Fulford. You are responding to a home invasion and you learn that children are endangered in the garage.
- Based on the information given, would you enter the garage? If not, how would you look to the welfare of the children?
- What would you have done to get more information from the woman in the driveway?
- Could you have effectively continued the fight after losing the use of your dominant arm?
- What thoughts would have gone through your head in this fight?