When the San Antonio Police Department's police radio frequency crackled with the sound of high caliber rifle fire, Officer Pedro Garcia and his partner, Officer J.B. Garza, had some idea what was up at the corner house on Red Start Drive.
They'd been to the location only minutes before, searching for an outstanding warrant subject, Andres Vargas, who had a deadly conduct warrant incident to his having pointed an AK-47 at his ex-wife.
At the time, a warm car hood, open windows, and a tall wrought iron gate locked from inside of the property suggested to the officers that someone was home. But the thought of getting marooned in a locked enclosure with a guy presumably armed with an AK-47 didn't smack of tactical soundness, so the two officers agreed to re-visit the location later.
Unfortunately, another unit had pulled up to that same location just as the subject's son arrived home.
The young man had invited them in to search for his father. Not faced with a locked enclosure, the officers had taken the son up on his invite.
Now, those officers were being fired upon.
Returning to the Scene
Garcia and Garza parked near the property but as far out of eye-line of the two-story house as possible. In a bid to avoid exposing himself to any gunfire from the front of the residence, Garcia opted to scale the wrought iron fence at the corner of the property.
At the back of the dwelling, Garcia and Garza found a set of French doors, one of which stood wide open. A splash of fresh blood trailed from its threshold and around the corner of the house before disappearing from view in the backyard. For the moment, things were eerily quiet.
The stillness was quickly shattered by a rapid-fire barrage of large caliber weapons fire. Garcia and Garza darted for the best cover available: a boat and trailer parked beneath a carport awning in the driveway.
The rounds were going off so rapidly that Garcia was sure it had to be coming from an assault rifle. Leaving Garza behind the cover of the trailer, Garcia doubled back to his patrol car to retrieve something that would help even the odds: an AR-15 patrol rifle.
My Dad's Gone Crazy
Back in the carport, Garcia rejoined Garza and they tried to determine where the rounds were coming from. As they did, a young man popped his head out of a small bathroom window facing the carport.
Leveling his AR-15 at the young man, Garcia ordered him to keep his hands where they could see them.
The young man immediately complied, then cried, "My dad's gone crazy! He tried to kill me! He's upstairs!"
The boy's sincerity was not in question-he was plainly scared to death-but his loyalties were. Keeping his long gun trained on the young man, Garcia told him to climb out the window.
Once the kid was safely out of the house, Garcia glanced toward the rear of the property. He saw that the trail of blood terminated at the body of a uniformed officer.
Telling Garza to deal with the kid, Garcia made his way back to the fallen officer.
Officer Lawrence Robards lay on his back, bloody, but alive. Garcia could see where a bullet had taken a sizable piece of his leg.
"I need EMS," Robards moaned. "I need help real bad."
Garcia assured him that he'd get it.
Having told the kid to beat feet, Garza moved from the cover of the carport and joined Garcia and Robards.
The unspoken thought Garcia and Garza shared was that any man willing to kill his own son would have no compunction about killing as many cops as he could. They had to get Robards out of there as soon as possible, both for his sake and theirs.
They tried to get a grip on Robards, but his clothes were too bloody and his injuries too severe to even consider lifting him over the wrought iron enclosure.
If they couldn't get Robards out of the yard, they could at least try to get him to some cover. At the rear property's extreme corner lay a passageway, one that apparently led to an adjacent lot. If Garcia and Garza could somehow get Robards through the chain-link fencing that linked the two properties, they might be able to get him to safety.
But as they dragged Robards toward a passageway, a large rott
weiler rounded the corner and attacked. Garcia point-fired his AR-15, killing the dog mid-leap. Any sense of relief he felt was short lived as he realized that accessing the lot would mean scaling yet another wrought iron fence, this one seven feet tall with spikes and bolted to a wall that closed off access to the property. There was no way that they'd be able to get Robards out with his leg in its current condition.
Rounds tore up the ground about them as the gunman Vargas opened fire on the trio from an upstairs rear window. Garcia could hear the rounds as they whizzed by him and impacted the ironwork. Swinging the AR-15 around, he squeezed off two quick rounds back at Vargas, forcing the man to momentarily retreat from the window.
With the momentary lull, Officer Daniel Pue jumped over a rear fence and assisted Garza in getting control of Robards. As Garcia covered, they carried Robards behind him as he made slow, inexorable progress past the windows and doorways of Vargas' house, his vigilant AR-15 rotating from one potential threat to the next.
But just as Garcia made it under the carport, another volley of fire broke out. Vargas, apparently relying on his familiarity with the property, fired blindly from inside the house through its walls at them.
Vargas' shots were unbelievably close. A pair of sunglasses atop Pue's shoulder were blown off his epaulet-but Garcia methodically pressed on. He'd made it to where a trailer was parked before he looked back to find the trio was no longer behind him.
Unable to keep up with Garcia, Garza and Pue had elected to double-back to the fence line, Robards in tow. There, Garza and Pue used nothing but brute strength and determination in kicking the wrought iron fence long enough and hard enough to loosen it from the wall. When they'd created enough space to accommodate them between the fence and wall, they assisted Robards to an adjacent property.
I Need Help
From the vantage point of the trailer, Garcia watched as more rounds tore through the wall facing him and another officer who was taking cover beneath the trailer. Garcia figured so long as Vargas was fixating his fire on their position, Garza and the others might stand a chance. In the meantime, the two of them in the carport would try to contain the SOB pending SWAT's arrival.
The second officer yelled at Garcia.
"There's a wounded officer inside the house!"
"No," Garcia yelled back. "We got him! He's around back."
"No, no!" the officer under the trailer yelled. "There's another right there!"
Just then Garcia saw what the other officer was pointing at and his heart sank: A female officer dragged herself down the last steps.
Officer Brandy Roell was in a seated position, her back to the door and her arms pushing her body backward across the tile flooring in a desperate bid to get herself away from the suspect and to cover.
Vargas' fire began alternating between two kill zones: The carport and the doorway. Rounds were penetrating two and three walls at a time, and with each volley, seemed to be getting closer.
His AR-15 still trained on the second story, Garcia rushed for the injured officer. As he crossed the doorway at the right side, rifle fire splintered the wood frame adjacent to his head, sending a sliver of wood into his chin.
Roell was about three feet beyond the threshold. It might as well have been a mile. She stared back at him.
"I need help," she said.
Garcia rushed to Roell and bent down next to her as he angled his rifle up toward the landing atop the stairwell.
If only the guy would show his face...
As rounds smacked into the walls and furniture about Garcia and Roell, Garcia fired two quick bursts toward the top of the stairs. He grabbed Roell and pulled her toward the door, her slight stature and his adrenaline working to their advantage.
If I wasn't hamstrung by this long gun, I'd be able to get her out even quicker, Garcia thought.
Still, he knew that the AR-15 was part of the reason the two of them were still alive. And if Roell's blood compromised his grip, it also slickened the white tile about them, allowing him to slide her across it with ease.
His rifle still trained toward the unseen top of the stairwell, Garcia got Roell through the doorway and onto the driveway as chunks of concrete kicked up about them. He'd gotten her halfway to the trailer when Roell's uniform got hung up on some construction boards littering the driveway.
Garcia yelled for the second officer in the carport to get Roell over the boards as he covered the two of them. For Vargas to get a good shot at them, he'd have to descend the stairs. And the officer knew that if Vargas tried that, Garcia would finally have the upper hand against his unseen assailant.
Garcia had never seen this fellow San Antonio officer before, but the man didn't hesitate. He rushed forward, freeing Roell from the boards and dragging her between the trailer and the boat. Laying her down, the officer then crawled beneath the trailer, positioning himself where he had an upward view of the interior of the house and the stairwell beyond.
Garcia and his fellow officer communicated a game plan: If the covering officer opened fire, it would be Garcia's cue that the man was coming down. Garcia would then be able to get his rifle on the suspect.
Garcia ran around the boat toward the street and crawled under the trailer. Working his way to Roell, he dragged her toward the front end of the boat, putting more cover and distance between her and the suspect.
The injured officer was going in and out of consciousness, her face ghostly pale. Beneath her vest, Garcia could see what an AK round had done to her insides. As gingerly as possible, Garcia pushed what he could back beneath her vest and told her he was going to roll her on her side. As he did, he put his hand atop the huge hole in her stomach and asked Roell if she could move.
"I can't," she replied. "I need help."
Ram the Gate!
Garcia looked about, inventorying what he and Roell were up against. A spiked five-foot tall wrought iron fence surrounded the perimeter. There'd be no surmounting an obstacle like that, and yet he knew he had to get her out.
That was when he spotted Officer Carlos Kella running to a patrol car.
"Ram the gate!" Garcia yelled to Kella. "Ram the gate!"
Kella nodded then jumped into his patrol car and hit the gas, smashing through the gate before backing out and heading for a house a few doors down where Garza, Pue, and the injured Officer Robards were awaiting evacuation.
Garcia thanked God and Kella for the break. He told Roell that it was going to hurt, but to just bear with him. Throwing her over his shoulder, he made a sprint for the fence line.
Clearing the damaged gate, Garcia darted left toward a patrol car that was parked at the intersection. He and Roell were still exposed to the #1 and #4 corner of the house, but he had put distance between themselves and the suspect and his withering fire.
Somebody had moved Garcia's patrol car, leaving another parked in its place. Garcia patted himself, but couldn't find his keys. Another officer threw Garcia his set.
Garcia opened the back door and the cover officer from the carport joined him in helping Roell into the back seat. Garcia backed up the patrol car, turned around, and drove a few blocks to a hospital to where EMS was ready for them.
With Roell out of the car and onto a stretcher, Garcia jumped back in the patrol car. He checked the MDT map and saw there was another way around to get to the house.
Not knowing that Robards had already been transported, Garcia believed that the trio of officers were still trapped in the backyard. As the suspect continued sporadic gunfire, Garcia drove around the block and approached toward the #3 and #4 corner. That was when he saw Daniel Pue and J.B. Garza at the house catty-corner to it. They advised Garcia that they'd gotten Robards out.
Garcia now knew that time was on their side. He had his fellow officers widen the perimeter, as concerns over Vargas' targeting a police helicopter or other patrol cars dominated his thoughts.
He needn't have worried. His partner Garza was on the radio telling dispatch to tell everyone to quit talking over one another, getting all the plainclothes officers out of the area, keeping the helicopter away, and summoning SWAT in to end the situation.
While they were coordinating resources, Garcia noticed the kid that they'd helped out of the house was hiding behind a car. Garcia went over and got his cell phone to make sure that he hadn't been calling back to give his dad info about officer movements and locations.
Once he was satisfied that he could do so with a clear conscience, Garcia checked himself out. His uniform was saturated with blood, but it turned out to be from the wounded officer he'd rescued. Despite Vargas' steady barrage of gunfire, Garcia had escaped serious injury.
As the minutes passed, control slowly reverted to a changing of the guard, as intel was gathered from the son and passed on to SWAT: What his dad was doing, what he was wearing, what kinds of weapons the man had.
Throughout, Vargas continued to fire at officers.
Today, Garcia sums up the final act of this incident like this: "He'd point the muzzle out, and shoot some rounds. That went on for a good while. Then SWAT gassed him and gassed the house.
"He ended up killing himself."
Stamina and Vision
Looking back, Garcia is appreciative of the training he took part in during the months preceding the incident.
"I'd been training for a SWAT try-out for about eight months prior to the incident. I was PTing like a madman," he says.
All that physical training helped Garcia have the stamina to stay in the fight and save other officers. It also made his reaction time quicker.
"When I shot that dog, I saw the sights come up and a round went off," he says. "It wasn't like it is on the range where you feel like the trigger press is taking forever. It went off like I had a one-pound trigger pull on it. Once the sights came on target, the round went off, it was a good hit, and the dog went down."
Garcia also thought like a SWAT officer during the incident, cataloging pieces of information that he could use later to his tactical advantage against the gunman and to aid other officers.
"They say that one of the first feelings you lose is your sense of touch, or taste, and other things become excluded," he explains. "But I could see everything. I didn't get any tunnel vision. I heard the bangs, but they weren't incapacitating in any manner.
"Once I got to the command post, I had a picture of the house in my mind. They were trying to get a layout of the house, but didn't know I had actually stepped into it. I was able to clarify things, and tell them what was wrong with the layout they'd drawn up. 'No that's wrong because the dining room is on the left, the kitchen is straight ahead, the living room is on the right,' I told them. I could see all that. The stairs came up, the stairs came back this way. So my tunnel vision wasn't like looking through a straw.
Garcia believes his physical training also made it easier for him to maintain his senses during the engagement. "I think I didn't lose my senses because of all of the training that I was doing. The oxygen was there a little more for the function that I needed at the time, which was vision. I was breathing. Part of training is they're always telling you to breathe, take deep breaths, breathe."
These days, Officer Garcia proudly serves as a member of San Antonio PD's Tactical Response Unit. For his heroic actions that afternoon, he was named the 2009 Officer of the Year by the International Association of Chiefs of Police and Parade magazine.