At 7:30 a.m., Sgt. Brent Nagel and Sgt. John Henderscheid were sitting in the sergeants' office of the West St. Paul (Minn.) Police Department when they heard a call dispatched to patrol units: an ambush alarm at the Retail Employees Credit Union at 1685 South Robert Street.
The sergeants looked at one another. Both were all too familiar with the usual alarm aggravations associated with the job—robbery alarms, burglary alarms, panic alarms, and the all-too-often common denominator, false alarms.
But neither had ever heard the term "ambush alarm" before. This unfamiliar call, coupled with the hour of the morning, led the sergeants to roll together to the location just one block away from the police station.
As the sergeants pulled into the rear lot of the credit union, they noticed a dark gray Pontiac G6 4-door backed into a parking space with the driver's window down.
Nagel walked to the rear of the bank as Henderscheid went to investigate the parked car, finding the Pontiac's front and rear license plates had been covered up by paper.
A radio transmission went out over the police frequency: Three officers were entering the bank via the bank's front door.
With many West St. Paul officers routinely hired to work overtime at the credit union, the location was hardly unfamiliar territory for local cops. Still, why the officers were entering the bank was beyond Nagel. Had they made contact with someone inside?
The sergeant didn't know. All he knew was that alarm protocol had been broken, and hopefully for a good reason. For instead of locking down and securing the location and making a call inside to have someone step out, officers had now insinuated themselves inside the bank. Nagel could only hope that the officers knew what they were doing.
From Bad to Worse
Nagels's hopes were dashed. Inside the credit union, things were going from bad to worse. Having entered the bank, the senior officer proceeded deeper into its interior, leading the way as a female trainee and her plain clothes training officer brought up the rear.
Inside, Wilfred James Hines waited.
A career criminal, the 46-year-old Hines had spent a vast majority of the previous 30 years in some manner of custodial confinement.
It was perhaps predictable that upon his most recent release Hines had gone back to doing what he knew best, hitting several banks and getting away with more than $100,000 within a few short months.
Hines' M.O. was to get the drop on bank employees as they opened up for the day and this day had been no different. Hines hid behind a dumpster before sneaking up behind the arriving bank manager and sticking a gun to his head. Forcing the manager to unlock the door and turn off the alarm, Hines must have thought everything was going according to game plan. Except this time the bank manager had surreptitiously triggered an ambush alarm before deactivating the system.
Once inside, Hines forced the bank manager to open the bank vault, then relieved the man of his cell phone before locking him in a separate room.
Hines was in the process of leisurely loading up an athletic bag with money when a trio of officers entered the front door of the bank.
Hearing their voices, Hines retreated into the bank vault and left the door open. As the lead officer neared the vault, his gun still holstered, Hines jumped out and stuck a 9mm pistol to the officer's head. The officer's peers elected to back off.
The bank had two entry doors: a public entry and exit door in front of the building and a locked exit at the rear of the building. Nagel staked out a rear corner of the bank where he could watch the rear door and still have cover from the side of the building. As he did, Henderscheid went over and pulled the paper covering off the license plate and called it in. The plate returned to a rental agency.
Just then, the sergeants heard another radio transmission.
"He's coming out. He's got a gun."
Beyond the exit door at the rear of the bank was a breezeway and a smoked glass door that led outside. As the outer door opened toward him, Nagel watched as a large male in a ski mask and hooded sweatshirt backed out.
As the man cleared the door, Nagel aimed his Glock model 22 .40 caliber pistol at the man and yelled, "Police! Drop the gun!"
Only when Hines emerged into the daylight did Nagel realize that the man had a hostage in tow. The hostage was down on all fours, with Hines' 9mm pressed against the base of his skull.
If Nagel had known the man had a hostage, he'd have kept his mouth shut and angled for a shot. Now, the man was not only aware of Nagel's presence but determined to use his hostage for whatever leverage he could. Positioning the hostage between himself and the sergeant, he kept Nagel at bay.
Beyond the door, two square pillars rose to an overhang. Hines violently dragged the hostage officer to a point between the pillars, blocking Nagel's view of both of them.
But as Hines moved into the parking lot, Nagel got a better look at the two men. He immediately recognized that the hostage was not the bank manager as he'd initially suspected, but a fellow officer.
With a large leather bag draped over his left shoulder, Hines crouched as he continued to back up and increase the distance between himself and Nagel. Throughout, Hines was vigilant to keep the captive officer down on all fours and between himself and the sergeant. With his right hand still pressing the barrel of his gun firmly against the base of the man's skull, Hines dragged the officer by his left hand.
Nagel moved from the corner to the nearest pillar. Simultaneously, Henderscheid began to move forward, as well. But having been sidetracked by a citizen not related to the situation, he had some 75 yards of distance to cover.
A heated conversation evolved between Nagel and Hines, with Nagel repeatedly ordering Hines to release the officer and Hines countering with threats to shoot the man.
Nothing to Lose
"I've got nothing to lose!" The nine-time convicted felon yelled as he yanked on his hostage. "I'll kill him!"
Hines' strong voice betrayed no sense of fear and Nagel suspected that the man was used to being in situations such as this.
"I'm going to take this f_____g pig with me!" The suspect warned. "You drop your gun!"
Nagel didn't doubt the man's words, but he wasn't about to comply with the suspect's demands. The sergeant knew he had several things going for him. He had closed the distance between himself and Hines, he had perfect cover for a left-handed shot, and the parking lot beyond the suspect was thankfully empty of any pedestrians. All he needed was a little help from the hostage officer.
In the credit union parking lot, Hines crouched low next to his captive, determined to keep the man between himself and Nagel.
But the hostage officer wasn't making it easy for Hines. Still down on all fours, the officer jerked his arms upward and covered his head as he fell downward and curled himself into a smaller target. The suddenness and forcefulness of his movements pulled Hines off balance, exposing the suspect's ski-masked head.
Nagel recognized the opening.
Steadying his hand against the pillar, he fired.
The suspect's body seemed to jerk, then rocked backward.
Nagel squeezed off a second round. Then a third.
The suspect's body flew back, then hit the ground hard.
Nagel moved up on the two men, assessing the situation to determine if he needed to pull the trigger again. The man in the ski mask was on his back, motionless. From the corner of his eye, he caught a glimpse of the gun lying on the ground near the suspect's lower extremities.
Hines was immediately given first aid at the crime scene by West St. Paul police officers and taken by ambulance to Regions Hospital in St. Paul where doctors, upset that he'd even been transported, went through the formality of pronouncing the man dead. Thankfully, the hostage officer was uninjured.
Nagel knows that the best was made of a bad situation that day. When discussing the shooting during training seminars, he makes a point not to paint anyone in a bad light. He believes that it's more important that others learn the cautionary parables of complacency rather than pass judgment on those who've succumbed to it.
"Later I found out that one of the credit union employees had arrived at the front of the location about the same time as the initial three officers. The senior officer asked him to open the door because one of the employees must have set the alarm off. There were some other warning signs that should have been noticed by the people in front, but weren't, including the fact that if the bank had been opened by an employee, the blinds in the bank window would have been drawn open."
And Nagel doesn't hold himself wholly unaccountable.
"I should have screamed something on the radio and not allowed them to go inside," Nagel reflects. "But things happened so fast that by the time we noticed the significance of the Pontiac behind the bank, the three officers had already committed themselves."
As far as his involvement in the incident, Nagel sees where circumstance worked decidedly in his favor.
"When we were yelling back and forth, I had closed the distance between us about 25 feet. The cover was perfect for a left-handed shot. I had a whole lot of luck that day and a lot of things fell into place."
Nagel remembers wanting to focus his attention on what he was aiming at.
"I told myself to avoid looking at the suspect's gun and try to get a sight picture on his head. I'd remembered hearing about a situation in which the officer shot the suspect's gun because that was where he fixated on."
Predictably, training was another factor in Nagel's success.
"At the time I was part of a county-wide SWAT team with officers from 13 agencies. Two weeks before the shooting, I was fortunate to get range training on shooting at hostage-related targets. If I didn't have all that extra training, I don't know if I would have felt comfortable taking that shot…not that I was really comfortable anyways."
As it was, he made his shots count. While one of his rounds had gone wide of the suspect, the other two rounds had done their job. One Federal 180-grain
Hydroshok round had entered Hines' shoulder before ricocheting off his collarbone and into his body cavity where it shredded his aorta. Another had grazed his forehead.
Nagel hopes that other officers are equally fortunate to have such training and to take full advantage of it.
"I'm not real keen about going outside and shooting when it's 30 below in January," Nagel acknowledges. "But there's nothing I can do about that. You've got to get your butt out there in the cold or the heat and shoot with gloves on or not. The training officers probably had the biggest influence on how this thing turned out."
Nagel remains a little amazed at how everything transpired, and is thankful that the situation didn't turn out as badly as it might have.
"I remember it was almost surreal. I couldn't believe what was happening. I had one of those moments of 'Oh shit.' I've never had anything like it."
For his actions in saving a fellow officer, Sgt. Brent Nagel was recognized as the Minnesota Police Officer of the Year by MPPOA and awarded his department's Medal of Honor.
WHAT WOULD YOU DO?
Consider the situation that faced Sgt. Brent Nagel of the West St. Paul (Minn.) Police Department and ask yourself the following questions:
An officer's complacency resulted in his being taken hostage. What do you do to stay on top of things and retain good officer safety practices when faced with the more redundant aspects of the job?
- Have you discussed with your fellow officers what you would do if you were taken hostage? What would you expect them to do?
What would you do if a fellow officer was taken hostage?
How do you handle alarm activations? What different protocol, if any, do you have for business activations and residential alarms?
- In retrospect, Sgt. Nagel wished he had used his radio to tell the officers to back off from their bank entry. In what type of situations have you found yourself having to intervene on another officer's behalf because of his complacency?