Ambush in the brush!

In an open area of the woods known as “the shooting range” Officer Vann Streety survived a deadly ambush through his own sheer force of will

Editor’s Note: In a phone conversation he had with PoliceOne on the day we posted this story, Vann Streety said something I feel compelled to pass along: “A lot of cops say the phrase ‘Be safe’ as kind of a salutation. I’ve added something to that. Now I say, ‘Think tactical, never give up, and go home safe’.” Well said Vann. Well said indeed.

— Doug Wyllie, PoliceOne Senior Editor

Officer Vann Streety already has his hand on his sidearm, his adrenalin-surged body reacting in the moment, back-peddling, getting distance between himself and the deadly threat. He had seen the attacker’s pistol, but he was unable to draw his own firearm in time. A shot rang out. He started to pull his gun. “What the hell?” he thought, “Why can’t I get my gun out?” It was like a bad dream. Every cop has had that dream — you know the one, where you can’t get your gun out of the holster to save your life? Psychologists tell us that it is a collection of our deepest fears and insecurities manifest in the critical moment of survival. Nothing works, everything starts to fail, an expression of our deep connection with our own mortality. Everyone, they tell us, has dreams like this...

But this wasn’t a dream. Though he was slightly confused by the unfolding predicament he was in, Vann Streety was very much aware that he wasn’t going to suddenly sit up and find himself in the comfort of his own bed. This was another one of the dozens of death matches that play out each year in police work and it was happening under the damp and dusky canopy of the untamed Florida forest.

With the crack of each shot Streety was reminded that a life was in the balance, his life, and though he found himself an unwilling player, his sense of survival kept him fiercely committed to the battle that was now unfolding.

Although he was shot six times, less than six months after his incident Vann Streety is doing well, healing and recovering while on administrative leave.
Although he was shot six times, less than six months after his incident Vann Streety is doing well, healing and recovering while on administrative leave.

This open area of the woods — known to the locals as “the shooting range” — was a recreation site so far removed from civilization that local gun owners frequently used it to fire off rounds at tin cans or forest debris. This was the first time, at least as far as anyone could remember, that anyone had fired on a human target here.

In the course of only a few seconds, Streety was shot multiple times. Streety got hit in the back, then again, and again as he fled down the dusty unpaved road. Bullets pierced his arms, his shoulder, and one crashed into his back pocket, through his wallet, stopping short by a twist of fate and the most unexpected of circumstances. The SOG Team Challenge Coin in his wallet had no particular value except the pride that Streety had in carrying it. By sheer luck — or perhaps divine intervention — that thick metal coin was positioned directly in the bullet’s path. On impact, its metal frame stressed and bowed, but like a miniature battle shield it absorbed the full kinetic energy of the .45 caliber round, stopping it from entering his body.

He didn’t know the full extent of his injuries. As he ran there was no time to inventory — it was time to just keep running, getting distance. He knew that with every step he took, he would create a larger gap, further challenging the shooter’s accuracy. Five yards, ten yards, fifteen yards — even seasoned shooters have trouble keeping hits on the target when distance is increased.

So Streety ran.

People who know Vann Streety would describe him as a modest, well-mannered, polite young police officer — a consummate professional who took his job very seriously. His slight frame and youthful attributes had always served him well as a Fish and Wildlife Officer in Central Florida. He policed the woodlands and waterways and was in excellent shape, maintaining a regular workout schedule and a healthy diet designed to compliment his active professional lifestyle. On July 15, 2009, the day that seemed destined to be his last, Streety had reported for duty the same way he always did. He was ready for anything. Looking ten years younger than his actual age of 43, he later said that on that day he felt like he was in the best shape of his life.

Less than three years earlier, Streety had been party to another police-involved shooting in Polk County, Florida. After a suspect fled from a traffic stop a twelve-year police veteran and his K-9 partner from the Polk County Sheriff’s Office responded. Both were killed going into the woods after him. A second officer was shot in the leg. The gunman had intentionally fled into the woods trying to take advantage of its natural cover and concealment. What the gunmand didn’t understand was that this decision would be one of his last. Going into the woods in Florida is a direct invitation to the Florida Fish and Wildlife SOG Team to join the party. Vann Streety was a proud member of this elite team and was activated to assist in the suspect’s apprehension. The SOG Team is a special unit of the FWC built specifically for these types of circumstances.

A hybrid of urban SWAT and Navy SEAL, the FWC SOG team is an unusual domestic law enforcement tactical team, working almost exclusively in the vast untamed Florida wilds. SOG members are the best of the best that the FWC has to offer. Their special skills involve deploying from land, air, and sea and they train regularly under the most trying conditions. The FWC policy explains the purpose of SOG as a unit designed to “maintain a readily available source of personnel and equipment capable of immediate mobilization and response to a variety of unusual occurrences and special events.”

Streety — along with dozens of other officers representing multiple agencies and jurisdictions — canvassed the wooded area of Polk County and spotted the cop killer hunched down behind an old oak tree.

Negotiations failed, and the suspect went for a gun — the gun he took from the murdered officer. Streety and several others fired on him and ended his life. Now, three years later, running through the woods and filled with bullets, Streety had to admit that for him, the first episode had gone a lot better than this one.

As Streety continued to retreat from his attacker he worked feverishly to draw his weapon — but it simply would not come out. With the initial moments of ambush now behind him, drawing the firearm was now both conscious and deliberate. Training for hours on the firing range had certainly prepared him to engage a threat. He was an excellent marksman that could put round after round on the kill zone of a target. But his training hadn’t really prepared him for the reality of what he was now facing. Suddenly he felt the deadened thud of the .45 caliber round slamming into his left arm, the impact shattering the humorous bone. Immediately that arm began flapping around wildly, his shoulder patch raising up and slapping him in his face as the arm bent obscenely at the new joint created by the damaged bone.

“This is bad” he thought. He glanced over his shoulder, thinking that at any moment he would be tackled by the gunman who seemed so focused on killing him. The quick glance told him that the shooter was not in pursuit. Streety slowed. Taking advantage of this pause in battle, Streety now realized why he could not draw his weapon. The first round fired had struck his duty holster, hitting the weapon within before ricocheting into his shooting hand — the wound was through and through — rendering that completely useless.

Streety would later learn that the slide of his weapon had been irreparably damaged, left virtually inoperable by that .45 round. Even if he could have drawn it, the gun would likely not have fired more than one round. The slide would have malfunctioned as it slid backward along the rails. The first shot would likely misfeed the second round causing a significant jam as the weapon failed to cycle properly.

When he stopped running, he turned quickly and tried to locate the suspect, but he was gone, vanished from sight. Streety admits that he had no idea what was going to happen next. He stood on the edge of the wood line, near an old Brazilian pepperbush, trying to afford himself enough concealment while he surveyed his injuries. “Where was the shooter, was he going for more rounds?” Streety knew he needed help.

Using his opposite arm Stretty slung his support hand to his shoulder mic. He gripped the mic and squeezed.

“10-24! 10-24! 10-24! I need a medical helicopter! I’ve been shot multiple times…First landing zone is probably gonna be 520 and Satellite Rd. I’m just north of satellite and Chervon. Both of my arms are just about inoperable.”

The dispatcher — using a calm voice as she was trained to do — responded, “Can I get a better 10-20 than Satellite?”

Streety, with a little agitation in his voice, replied “Oh my God! Just come north on Satellite from 520. That’s where you’ll find me!”

Although his other arm had also been shot through, and now hung limp at his side, he still had use of that hand. To his amazement he could still grip and clutch with it — using the mic proved that — so he still had necessary functionality for operating a firearm.

Streety carried a back-up gun on his leg beneath his uniform trousers. Standing essentially unarmed and unprotected in the woods, both arms dangling by his side, bleeding and alone, he pulled his thoughts together and formulated a plan. “I have to get to my gun.”

Streety abandoned his attempts to draw his holstered firearm with his injured hand and dropped now to a low squat. Using the limited range of motion from his strong arm he took advantage of the gross motor movement and pushed his pant leg up with his bloody hand revealing the 9mm Kahr Black Widow pistol fastened to his ankle. His support hand, though dangling uncontrollably by his side still, had a strong clutch capability. Using this hand, manually directed with his opposite arm, he pulled out the Kahr and brought it to bear in the direction of the attacker. His strong arm, bones still intact, propped it up at about mid-chest level and he thought to himself, “If he comes, I can take him.”

Suddenly a terrible thought infiltrated Streety’s mind. Inside his patrol truck was his own M4, lying in a soft rifle case just behind the front seat. Left unsecured by the suddenness of his departure, it was now his biggest threat. The thought of this shooter armed with a scoped rifle added a new dimension of horror to this already unsettling predicament.

“If he gets to that, I’m dead!” Streety took flight again, this time he retreated into the woods, crashing through the thickets and thick Brazillian pepper bushes. “If he’s going to get me, he is going to have to follow me into these woods.” He ran in deeper, diving head first into the brush.

Moments like these define the warrior. Streety never recalls feeling like he was losing. Certainly he knew that things weren’t working out like his training and past experience would have lead him to imagine.

Streety was caught in the “Oh sh*t” moment, when absolutely nothing was going right. But because he was who he was, he took the fear, the frustration, and the fatigue, wound it tightly within his mind and refashioned it into something...extraordinary. He laid there in the woods, broken, bleeding, but in his mind, still winning. He was mentally prepared to finish this encounter. As sure as he had made it this far he would prevail. His thoughts drifted to his family — the three young children that gave him meaning.

“I’m not gonna die in these woods,” he told himself. “I have too many people to take care of.”

From a concealed position he cautiously peered out. He could see the backside of the gunman’s vehicle through the tangled brush. It was now stopped alongside the road, nearly perpendicular to where Streety was lying. Streety listened as gunfire once again erupted. The shooter fired a full magazine blindly into the woods. He had misjudged the place that Streety had entered, his rounds passing harmlessly into the wooded area. When the shooting stopped, the gunman hit the accelerator and drove away. His quick exodus suggested to Streety that this part of the ordeal had finally come to an end.

With that thought a tremendous sense of relief flooded over him and he cautiously rose and worked his way to the wood line where he saw the vehicle driving off into the distance. Streety, by his own fortitude and sheer will to survive, had overcome the “Oh sh*t” moment that would change the course of his life.

Today, Vann Streety is doing well. Although he was shot six times, less than six months after his incident, he is healing and recovering while on administrative leave. He remains optimistic that time will afford him as much of a recovery as medical science and nature will permit.

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