A Monday afternoon, a small blue VW, and a one-armed man in a dress suit: Hardly the components one is apt to conjure up when envisioning a firefight.
But such was the recipe for violence in Midway, Ga., last March when William Gordon decided to take on his family and cops in a blaze of glory.
For Midway police officer Mark Rich, his role in the situation began at 5:30 a.m. with a BOLO for a small blue VW being driven by Gordon. At the time, Gordon was wanted for burglary and setting his family's property afire. To further secure his position as Midway's Most Wanted, Gordon had also threatened to come back and kill family members.
As the hours ticked by, updates came in from both Gordon's estranged family and detectives who'd set up camp at the house to prevent Gordon from carrying out his threat. These updates usually revolved around the fact that Gordon repeatedly called the location and threatened to kill himself and his not-so-loved ones.
He's Coming Home
At 3:30 in the afternoon, the last call came in from Gordon. He was coming back to Liberty County to kill his stepfather.
Of the few routes available to Gordon, none was quicker than I-95, which connected with Highway 17. With two detectives at Gordon's destination, other law enforcement officials fanned out over the area, taking up positions to optimize their chances of intercepting Gordon at one of the two highway arteries. Officer Rich's boss, Chief Kelly Morningstar, was on one of the intercept teams.
As officers from various agencies maintained a roadside vigil, Liberty County Sheriff's Dep. Ralph Dixon's voice came on the radio. With stress audible in his voice, Dixon verified the tag number of a vehicle he was following that he believed to be Gordon's VW. The vehicle was headed toward Midway.
At that, Rich put his car in gear and started rolling from I-95.
As dispatch verified the tag number and Dixon's suspicions, Dixon advised that he would maintain his surveillance posture pending the arrival of assisting units.
Boxing Him In
Gordon reached the intersection of Highway 17 and Highway 84, then turned back toward the interstate-back toward Rich. Rich advised that he would wait for the VW at Martin Road.
With Chief Morningstar behind him, Dixon advised that they would wait until they reached a less populated area before effecting a traffic stop.
Additional units arrived. Dixon activated his blue lights in a bid to stop the VW. But the driver failed to yield and as the developing convoy passed, Rich fell in line.
Gordon now had patrol units at his rear left and right flanks. Additional units cut off arteries, simultaneously preventing new motorists from entering the danger zone and isolating the threat as much as possible.
Gordon did not yield and once again quickly approached a populated area. In a bid to box Gordon in, the patrol units attempted to position themselves about his vehicle.
But Gordon compensated with each attempt, switching from one lane to the next and back, putting the units back at square one. Throughout, Gordon didn't make any overt attempts to strike a police car, or even accelerate in a bid to escape. He seemed to have another agenda in mind.[PAGEBREAK]
The High Ground
As Gordon crossed over some railroad tracks, he reached his hand out the sunroof of the vehicle and pointed it in the direction of an open field just down the road and across the street from a daycare center.
Something about the man's collective actions seemed to give credence to his indication that he planned to turn into the field. By unspoken accord, the units backed off to allow the man to make good on his intent. Sure enough, Gordon turned off the road and drove into the field, pulling atop a knoll just short of the tree line and the woods beyond.
It was good to get him off the road. But now Gordon had a strong, defensible position; he had seized the high ground. The only saving grace as far as the officers were concerned was that the man had also marooned himself in an area where fields of fire wouldn't be as large a concern as they might have been on the street.
Rich pulled up perpendicular to Gordon's VW and 20 yards short of it to assume a tactical position as other units fanned out about the passenger side of Gordon's VW.
With his boss and a Georgia State Patrol trooper taking the rear flank and other officers stopping to his right, Rich found himself in the middle of a semi-circle containment of Gordon.
By parking atop the knoll, Gordon had given himself a good four feet of elevation on Rich and his peers so that Rich's natural line of sight as he sat in the patrol unit was up under the VW.
The first thing Gordon did upon exiting the VW was take a position behind its engine block. Leaning over the hood, the man pointed a handgun at an officer off to the right front of his VW as the officer exited his unit. But despite having the drop on the officer, Gordon didn't fire. Instead, he suddenly dropped back down behind the engine block.
When Gordon reappeared a split-second later, it was his attire that caught Rich's eye. The man's sartorial tastes would have suggested a Sunday outing, and the dress suit would not have looked out of place in church. But there was hardly anything holy about the man's intentions and this time he immediately let loose, firing a round at an officer to Rich's right and striking the back door of the officer's vehicle.
Fortunately, his intended target had taken a position behind the trunk of Rich's vehicle and was uninjured.
In response, a couple of deputies and a Georgia State Trooper simultaneously returned fire, forcing Gordon to duck and take a position behind the A-pillar of his VW.
Shortly thereafter, Rich heard gunfire come from the other side of the VW. This time the percussion was louder and deeper, sounding to Rich very much like a shotgun.
How many guns does this guy have? thought the veteran firearms instructor.
From all around him, Rich could hear his fellow law enforcement officers yelling commands for Gordon to drop his gun.
Instead, Gordon casually stepped out from behind the cover of his vehicle, walked directly to the front of his VW, and exposed himself to the assembled officers, including Rich.
Gordon was armed with two firearms.
He raised one at Rich and the assembled officers.[PAGEBREAK]
Rich and a deputy to Rich's right fired another volley, as did others from each of the law enforcement agencies present.
Struck in the head and upper torso, Gordon fell.
For a few seconds Rich and the other officers retained cover, evaluating the situation. When repeated commands failed to elicit either compliance or any threatening movement, Rich joined other law enforcement personnel in advancing on Gordon's position.
They disarmed the downed man and, as other officers began administering first aid, Rich approached the driver's side of Gordon's car to clear the vehicle for any additional threats. Propped up against the A-post of the open driver's door: A semi-automatic shotgun.
Seizing the shotgun, Rich peered into the driver's side window. The only thing inside was a framed picture on the passenger side seat. It showed a woman and child.
Shortly thereafter, EMT personnel took over trying to revive Gordon. Despite their efforts, he died at the scene.
In the aftermath of the shooting, it was determined that Gordon had a prosthetic arm, which made maneuvering his vehicle during his singular act of communication with authorities-the hand gesture through the rooftop-something of a surprise. The fact that he took the time to place a handgun in that prosthetic offers additional insight into his frame of mind at the end of the chase and his determination to force the hands of assembled officers.
Law enforcement and civic officials agreed that a great many things went right that day. Communication was excellent: Information was continually and rapidly relayed from the family and on-site detectives to all involved agencies-Midway PD, Liberty County SO, and the Georgia State Patrol. Rich asserts that this, in particular, was critical to a successful outcome.
"If all the agencies weren't on the same page, an unsuspecting officer may have unwittingly made a traffic stop of the subject and walked up on a death trap. Fortunately, communication throughout this incident was the best I'd seen in a long time and everyone knew of the threat that was in the area and conducted themselves accordingly."
He also cited Ralph Dixon's discipline upon observing Gordon's vehicle.
"Dixon didn't rush things. He took his time and was very selective as to how to follow and when to engage. Collectively, we knew we were dealing with a suicidal man who was armed and we didn't want him getting into a populated area."
Given all that went right, Rich notes that things could have gone very differently. "Considering that our agencies don't routinely train together, we worked well together throughout the incident. The only real problem was the boxing maneuver.
"From an officer safety standpoint, it's an inherently dangerous act," Rich continues. "But bear in mind the area that he was approaching included the children's daycare center, and we were more concerned about keeping him from getting to a point where he could endanger innocent kids. Even then, officers made sure not to pull up directly next to the suspect and expose themselves to his fire or put themselves in a crossfire with one another. And the moment we believed that he wasn't going to be such a threat, we backed off. Sometimes you're forced to make a tactically risky decision on behalf of the community. Fortunately, it worked out."
Rich also notes that the shooting acted as a catalyst for change within Midway.
"Individually, we were outgunned," he explains. "Had we not had the number of deputies on scene at that end of the county, it could have been a very bad situation, especially given the types and number of firearms the suspect had at his disposal and that he'd assumed a tactical advantage in taking the high ground."
The Gordon incident has spurred the Midway city council to approve the requisition of rifles for the town's patrol cars.
"The shotgun is perhaps the most versatile weapon in law enforcement," says Rich. "But it's not for all situations. Whether or not you're dealing with conventional pellets or slugs, it's not as accurate as a rifle platform where you can literally pinpoint your shots."
But as to the motivation for Gordon's violent outbursts throughout the day?
It, like the significance of the picture that rode shotgun with Gordon on his ill-fated country drive, remains a mystery.