Parked abreast of one another, Officers Mike Soden and Jefferson Davis were commiserating through their open driver's windows with Davis' radio car partner, Art'z Watkins.
It was well past midnight on Nov. 6, 2006, and things had been agreeably quiet for the trio of Prince George's County, Md., officers with nothing portending otherwise in the cold early morning hours. But then the radio frequency came alive with a call being dispatched: A residential robbery in the 800 block of 48th Avenue in College Park.
The three officers looked at one another, each knowing they were only a minute and a half out.
As the officers' cars rolled away in tandem, dispatch relayed additional information. The informant had been in the house when the suspects entered through a back door. Having somehow succeeded in exiting the house without detection, the informant had dialed 911 on his cellular phone to advise that multiple armed suspects were holding his friends and family hostage inside his home.
Young, energetic, and experienced, Soden, Davis, and Watkins were not only co-workers, but friends, having worked with and around one another long enough to have faith in their collective abilities to handle just about anything tossed their way.
Making a Plan
As they drew nearer their destination, they shut down their sirens well before coming in audio range of their destination. And they made a quick plan of action.
Having worked the area previously, Soden knew the lay of the land as well as the house in question. He directed Davis and Watkins to approach the rear of the location on foot and take up containment positions while he covered the front.
Some 20 feet diagonally from the rear sliding glass door of the house stood a large tree. It was there that Davis and Watkins took cover. The vantage point gave them a clear view of anyone who might exit the rear sliding glass door as well as concealment, courtesy of a hedgerow.
Cries and Threats
Finding nothing amiss to the front of the house – all activity sounded like it was emanating from its rear – Soden opted for a tactical concession: He moved around the side of the dwelling toward the corner of the house nearest Davis and Watkins.
It was not a decision Soden made lightly, for he knew it would be up to arriving officers to resume containment on the front. But he also knew that he and his fellow officers were dealing with multiple suspects (though not how many) whose propensity for violence was becoming readily apparent given the threats and cries coming from within. If things went south, Soden didn't want to be caught in a crossfire with Davis and Watkins. The way he saw it, they'd fare that much better working in concert with one another if things escalated.
Soden's decision was reinforced as he made his way alongside of the house and the voices coming from a basement window grew louder and more distinct.
"Where's the f____g safe?" one demanded. "Where's the drugs?"
So that's what this is: a dope rip-off, Soden thought.
Soden had no sooner advised dispatch of an active crime at the location and requested K-9 and additional backup than the yelling was eclipsed by desperate screams-the sounds of a male inside being pistol whipped.
Whatever patience the suspects might have possessed was long gone and things were getting ratcheted up a notch. But just when Soden thought rounds might start getting capped, an incongruous and eerie silence settled upon the house.
A Mad Dash
The stillness was not unlike that of "animals" discovered in the act of trespass-which pretty much sized up the situation. The only questions were: Had the animals somehow become aware of the officers' presence, and if so, what were they going to do about it.
Assuming the suspects were on to them, Soden handicapped their next likely course of action. Unless it went barricade, they'd probably opt for a dash out of the house. Making a beeline straight out the back seemed unlikely. If the suspects knew anything about the area, they'd know that nothing lay in that direction but hedgerows and US Route 1 beyond.
Despite the absence of anything readily identifiable as a getaway car to the front of the house, Soden was inclined to bet that they'd make an end run around the rear of the house and back toward the front-toward him.
His suspicions proved to be well founded.
Suddenly, a suspect rushed out the rear sliding glass door, his movement activating a motion detector light located directly in front of Davis and Watkins and momentarily blinding the officers.
The man had moved so quickly that neither Davis nor Watkins was able to get a command out before the man had closed the gap between himself and Soden. Neither the officer nor the suspect appeared to have been prepared to find themselves face-to-face.
It was then that Soden's vision kicked back in. And the man's cold eyes told Soden everything he needed to know. There wasn't going to be any discussion.
Officer and suspect raised their guns simultaneously. Later, Soden wouldn't be able to tell who fired first, only that the 9mm rounds he double-tapped from his Beretta 92FS were as much a defense as an attack.
Falling backward and away from the incoming rounds, Soden tripped and fell. His back seared with pain.
As he recovered his balance, there was a blip in Soden's visual cortex. The suspect was gone. Soden's mind seemed to be working in shutter progression, his brain filling in the blanks of what wasn't registering in his visual memory even as it dealt with the pain in his back. Had he been shot?
Jefferson Davis certainly thought so. Seeing Soden fall backward, Davis hesitated to engage Soden's attacker for fear that one of his rounds might possibly strike the fallen Soden. Just then, the suspect retreated back into the rear yard, engaging Davis and Watkins as he ran. Freed from the distraction of possibly hitting their partner, both officers returned fire even as another suspect ran out the back door, firing at them as well.
Somebody in the Woodline
As rounds flew back and forth before him like some ballistic tennis match, Soden got back to his feet and into the fight. Lining up his sights on the suspect nearest him, he fired.
One suspect fell but immediately got back to his feet even as yet another suspect exited the house. All three suspects split up, running in the general direction of the backyard and into darkness.
Davis spotted one of them as the man darted to the left and rear of he and Watkins for a thicket. Realizing that the man had offset his cover and concealment, Davis did a one-eighty and went prone.
"There's somebody in the woodline!" he yelled to Watkins.
But Watkins' attentions were frustratingly divided on multiple fronts. He was worried about his friend Soden, he was trying to update and coordinate responding units, and he was trying to deal with what appeared to be a group of victims now exiting the house. Watkins' only response to Davis was to curse his friend and tell him to shut up.
No Further Movement
Things were becoming a first-class mess as Lt. Eric Fatsinger arrived.
As suddenly as it'd started, the firefight had stopped. Soden told the lieutenant that he thought he might've been hit, and the two men looked for wounds. But the absence of any bullet holes and the presence of an upended lawn chair suggested that Soden hadn't so much been shot as he'd wrenched his back when he fell over backward.
Meanwhile, Davis maintained his vigil of the brush. He didn't know what was going on, but speculated that the suspect was lying low so as to pick up he and Watkins in his sights once they stood up or otherwise moved. But even with the arrival of other officers on scene, there was no further movement in the brush.
Still, no one was going to be taking anything for granted just then and as Davis kept a vigil on the spot at the woodline, Watkins and Soden detained the group at gunpoint and proned them out on the ground. Once they'd verified that these were the victims, the officers turned their collective attentions to the woodline.
Lt. Fatsinger decided to expand the inner perimeter and requested a K-9 check of the brush.
As aero did a FLIR sweep of the area from overhead, the K-9 alerted to something down the street: a suspect hiding beneath a car.
A 19-year-old suspect had been hobbled by a bullet to the hip. Reports say that at one point he had also apparently attempted to get into a motel down the street with a large quantity of drugs.
In due time, officers also found the body of Miles Johnson at the hedgerow line. Struck by a bullet that severed his femoral artery, the 27-year-old had bled out as he lay in the bushes, a loaded .357 caliber handgun and a large amount of illegal drugs and money discarded nearby.
A third suspect-the man Soden had actually initially exchanged rounds with-got away. A review of Davis' patrol car video camera revealed a suspect running past his unit and disappearing, never to be seen again.
Medals for Valor
Looking back on the incident, Soden notes that so much of what he'd read and heard about gunfights came into play that morning.
"Auditory exclusion, the slowing of time, distance distortion, time speeding up-it was all there." And it occurred over 10 seconds of sustained gunfire among six individuals. When the confrontation was over, approximately 50 rounds had been discharged.
In such sustained and close range combat, it was the officers' training that made the difference.
"They came out shooting, all three of them," Soden says. "They showed no hesitation, no respect for the law, and no respect for human life. We didn't have time to do anything other than what we were trained to do. We had spent countless hours in the academy preparing to be officers, countless hours in in-service training, countless hours preparing to act in stressful life or death situations, controlling our emotions. We were all on auto pilot."
Davis did not experience the same degree of physiological responses as Soden during the shooting. But that's not to say that the night's events didn't leave an impact on him.
For months afterward, he had difficulty sleeping. Night after night, his mind concerned itself with the implications of the outstanding suspect. Would he come back for vengeance?
Intellectually, Davis knew it wasn't likely. But his emotional concern for his loved ones would find him getting up four or five times a night to investigate any sound.
A psychiatrist prescribed some sleeping pills, which Davis refrained from taking. He didn't want to become dependent on some artificial stimulus for sleep. And in time, his sleep patterns improved on their own. Still, it was not an easy period, and there were times he was worried that it would be his wife beating him to death for the nocturnal forays that disturbed her sleep, too.
Already good friends, the three men have grown even tighter since the incident. In a way, they even believe that the lack of available manpower on scene was a blessing in disguise as it minimized the prospect for crossfire and friendly fire casualties.
Soden, Davis, and Watkins were each awarded their department's Medal of Valor for their actions in College Park that night.
They continue to serve the community of Prince George's County today.