Rural gunfights that changed their agencies
It’s time to recognize the changes wrought by critical incidents in remote places
In Alaska’s wilds, California’s woods and New Hampshire’s gentle greenery, watershed gun battles disrupted lives and assumptions. Critical incidents aren’t particular to place: all it takes for bad things to happen is people. Just as every officer who hears the names Norco, Newhall and North Hollywood knows their significance, now it’s time to recognize the changes wrought by more remote incidents.
GUNFIGHT IN THE SANTA CRUZ MOUNTAINS
By August 2005, California had been the epicenter of the nation’s weed wars for years. Dense forests crowd subdivisions, walking trails and playgrounds. Cartel growers take advantage of abundant sunlight and stolen water to grow and export high-quality cannabis. Heavily armed “farmers” and trafficked laborers patrol the guerrilla grows; booby traps are common. Banned neurotoxins and anticoagulants coat the plants and spill into the soil and water, threatening watersheds and killing wildlife. Game wardens walk point in the battle for the future of the wild places.
On August 5, 2005, a joint team of game wardens, state park rangers and deputy sheriffs working to eradicate illicit weed grows on public lands was ambushed in a wilderness preserve in the Santa Cruz Mountains. California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) Lieutenant Kyle Kroll, then a young game warden with three years of experience, was shot and seriously wounded. In the ensuing gun battle, one cartel grower, armed with a shotgun, was killed. The other vanished in the dense greenery. That’s when the hard part really began.
The wilderness preserve is thickly forested, rugged, and cut off from resources like backup or an ambulance, yet less than 30 miles from San Jose. On a map, it doesn’t look remote, but when an officer is down and bleeding, it seems like the dark side of the moon. It was a long hike into the grow, and any help for the pinned team and the wounded warden would have to hike in too or come from the air.
It was nearly three hours before Kroll was airlifted from the site of the gun battle. The other members of the team tended to him as he battled blood loss and the summer sun, while they also maintained a watch for the cartel member with the rifle. The helicopter approached early on and was ordered away because the gunman was still at large. The crew had to wait for authorization to return; like all bureaucratic processes, it took time – a lot of time. Medics arrived on foot, sweating and dusty, before the helicopter did.
There were more complications than just geography and bad guys: the team was hard to see in the dense greenery and had already used their only smoke flare. A landing zone had to be hacked with a machete for the flight medic and basket. White paper was used as a primitive signal to guide the craft over their location. Kroll’s golden hour had long since ticked away, and the officers with him were frustrated and frightened for their young colleague.
As CDFW (ret.) Lt. John Nores, Kroll’s partner, said in his book "The War in the Woods," this was the day everything for the Marijuana Enforcement Team (MET) changed.
Kroll was honored with a Purple Heart and the Pogue-Elms Award for his courage and grit in the face of mortal danger; the cartel member who shot him was never found. But the MET gained staff support, better equipment and training upgrades that gave them more options and greater safety in future operations.
After reading his book, I talked with Nores by phone. He told me, “One of the great changes was acceptance: if we’re gonna stay in this game, we’ve got to do better. We need to be prepared. This kind of operation wasn’t traditionally game warden stuff. We needed to address peer support, and ways to notify families.” (Within 15 minutes of the Sierra Azul gunfight, the press was reporting that there were casualties long before family members were officially notified.)
“We needed changes in tactical training, in administration and OIS protocols, in follow-up,” Nores said. He credited CDFW Chief Nancy Foley (whom he refers to affectionately as Mama Bear) with a sensitive and useful debrief of all the involved wardens. Because of her tenacity and follow-up, nearly every aspect of MET’s training, equipment and administration evolved.
Tactical medics were added to the teams. A trauma nurse helped develop new field aid techniques based on those used by USAF pararescue specialists. Protocols were redesigned so that future helicopter approaches would be rapid, and without the administrative obstacles to the evacuation of a wounded officer that had endangered Kroll. The introduction of bone conduction microphones for team members on the ground now allows quiet and clear communication.
Shooting qualifications were revamped for the entire agency, moving from an emphasis on hunting to one of survival. Some of the light .223 rounds used by several officers in the gunfight were deflected by the heavy brush, and the various team members used multiple sorts of weapons. Now all MET members carry the same rifle, a heavier short-barrelled .308. It’s more reliable in dense vegetation, and they can share ammunition and magazines. Finally, a program was approved allowing a hand-picked interagency team to form a sniper element for overwatch.
In the six gunfights since not a single MET member has been wounded.
THE SPREE KILLER AT MANLEY HOT SPRINGS
Two Alaska State Trooper (AST) helicopters converged on the tiny community of Manley Hot Springs on May 19, 1984, searching for a drifter who had murdered seven people, including a toddler and a pregnant woman. The crew of both aircraft were seasoned officers, many of them combat veterans, and they had a plan for capturing Michael Silka. Silka was himself an Army veteran and an expert with several weapons, but the troopers didn’t know that.
The manhunt came to an abrupt and violent end in one of the rarest occurrences in law enforcement: a gun battle from an aerial platform. Troopers Jeff Hall and Troy Duncan shot at Silka as he shot at them. Silka died where he stood. Duncan died in the helicopter next to his partner.
Jeff Hall, now retired, met me and my husband at the airport on his way through town. We shared a drink, and he shared his perspective from decades of honoring Duncan’s memory by training others to fight and live. He’s told the story of the battle many times, but I wanted to know what happened after the shooting stopped.
Hall filled in a little history first. AST’s foray into special operations began after an arduous, failed manhunt in 1975. “All the officers chose and provided their own weapons and gear,” Hall said. “The helicopters were old, privately leased Hillers. Like most special weapons teams then, we were the afterthoughts, we got leftovers.” The military and United States Marshals Service had donated lots of surplus to Alaska when it became a state, and a lot of it was still in use.
They trained with four visiting Los Angeles Police Department SWAT members, the era’s cutting edge, who worked with new SERT members for two weeks, and left them to figure out the rest.
Hall said, “A plan is just a list of stuff that isn’t going to happen. We learned from that (at Manley Hot Springs). We weren’t trained as well as we should have been, we didn’t have the equipment we needed.” They digested the FBI’s after-action report and put the suggestions to use. Helicopter tactics, including choices for landing zones, were modified and updated.
“We went from sporadic, disorganized training to regular, scheduled training with members from all three SERT groups. Team leaders began to emphasize innovation, cross-training and rotation. We gained more support and made more use of outside experts and subject matter experts. The department took good care of us. They realized the lack of support we’d had and the cost of it, and they fixed it.”
I also talked by phone with Lt. Michael Roberts, a second-generation trooper, 15-year SERT operator, and commander of the northern team (SERT’s three regional teams work cooperatively and train together whenever possible). Roberts teaches a History of SERT course for the AST academy and was eager to talk about takeaways from the Manley Hot Springs case.
“SERT in the 80s was still a growing program; we were still figuring out applications. Jeff Hall was working really hard to establish this team in 1984. Troy Duncan is still the only operator ever lost from this team; it’s his initials on our challenge coins,” Roberts said.
“We just finished a SERT mission yesterday, and the helicopters were ready to launch for it - except, the cloud cover was at 500-600 feet. In 1984, they (the helicopter crew) were low and close, within range of ground fire. We learned not to deploy within that range. And we got the bad guy anyway, using different sets of tools like drones and a Bearcat. Duncan’s loss is the driving force behind so many changes to preserve safety and life.”
Alaska isn’t like any other state. It’s enormous, larger than the three largest states in the lower 48 combined, with a lower population density and higher violent crime rate than any other state. Therefore, when SERT adopted training and practices from LAPD SWAT, they had to mix it up.
“Only about half of our missions are traditional urban SWAT,” Roberts said. “The other half is remote. When we responded to a mission on the Squirrel River, it took a plane, a helicopter, a 4-wheeler and a boat, just to get there. We’ve trained with the LAPD and the Texas Department of Public Safety and developed a rural ops handbook with military tactics plus pieces of whatever works. We adapted LAPD tactics to Alaska, but about half of what we do is out of the Army Ranger handbook. When we come across a skill we need to develop and can’t find someone to train, we get to work on developing it ourselves."
“There are lots of techniques that we use that just don’t apply to other places,” Roberts continued. “Most places you can just drive in. If we have to use a plane, then we have to choose: Do we take more people or more equipment? We have weight charts for every piece of equipment, just for choosing what we take each time. Another difference between urban ops and AST is that they focus on containment and visibility, whereas we use camouflage, concealment and mobility. We use night vision whenever we can and it’s enabled officer safety. It’s hard to shoot someone you can’t see.”
Contingency planning matters, and provides a path around the complacency that can afflict rural law enforcement.
“That’s a cultural thing, a problem for rural law enforcement, to underestimate a suspect because mostly it works out okay. What if it doesn’t this time? We underestimated Silka. Most suspects aren’t prepared for us, or for Alaska. He was very prepared,” Robert said.
AST paid for that miscalculation in blood, and remembers it every time they plan a new operation. The SERT teams train regularly, with each other and with neighboring agencies. They cultivate relationships, consult locals and learn from them.
“Troopers work hard on being cool-headed and fair, and on interaction with the community. We call ourselves ‘Your Alaska State Troopers’. As soon as an operation is over, the helmets come off, we have conversations with locals, and repair what needs mending," Roberts notes. "You have to when you work where you can’t get back up, where we may be flying in and having to borrow someone’s pickup to get around after we land.”
An effective SERT team, Roberts explains, works best when heart and mind are both engaged, and it’s ultimately culture that drives the team.
I asked about training to shoot from aerial platforms as Hall and Duncan did at Manley Hot Springs. Roberts told me those kinds of shootings happen so rarely that AST has backed off from frequent training for them. “For a smaller agency, you have to recognize what things bring the most value, and concentrate on that.”
THE COLEBROOK MURDERS
“I had been in the drug task force from a police department,” New Hampshire Fish and Game Col. Kevin Jordan told me. “I thought that was very dangerous but the worst shooting ever, I experienced as a game warden. I thought my family wouldn’t have to worry about that anymore.”
I was talking by phone with the colonel about an August 1997 incident in the village of Colebrook, New Hampshire. On that day, an angry sovereign citizen killed four people, two of them state troopers, and wounded a Border Patrol agent, two more troopers, and a young game warden who worked for Col. Jordan, now-retired Lt. Wayne Saunders. I had listened the day before to Saunders’ podcast interviewing Jordan about the incident; it was dense with emotion and information and I highly recommend it.
Jordan, now the Law Enforcement Division Chief, was open about the shootings, the way he felt about them and the things that changed because of them. Colebrook is a small community, so when the shooting started, officers responded from state, local and federal departments, on duty and off. They came in plain clothes and in uniform, in their personal vehicles with their own deer rifles in some cases. Many had no radios. The carnage and manhunt went on for hours, moving from town to forest, and across state lines.
By the time Saunders was shot, Jordan said, there were no more ambulances available; he was transported to care by a private citizen. Responding medics knew every victim personally. Dispatchers wept, overwhelmed by radio traffic and grief, and grappling with dwindling resources. It would have been a disaster in a giant metro; in a village of less than 2,000, it was beyond comprehension.
Jordan described the fury of knowing his officer had been shot, was perhaps dying, and the shooter was still at large. He went on to describe the extended manhunt for a shooter who used downed officers as bait, of the gunman’s death, and the shakes and sweats and puking that follow an adrenaline dump that goes on not for minutes, but for hours.
Later, describing the improvements wrenched from the wreckage of that day, he said, “If you live that fear - so afraid that you’re physically sick – by God, you’d better use that.”
He started a critical incident debriefing team that has broadened its reach to include other agencies, many so small they had few resources of their own. He initiated training changes for dispatchers, to build skills and resilience that could have helped manage the strain of a mobile mass killer. Spouses, who had been isolated by their fear and fragments of information, started their own phone tree. Not every change needs to be official to be helpful.
Grateful to have had a few minutes to speak w/ Col. Kevin Jordan of NH Fish and Game at the NH Law Enforcement Officers Memorial ceremony yesterday as we honored the brave Granite State men and women lost in the line of duty. pic.twitter.com/q3C6BhUkOi— Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (@SenatorShaheen) May 19, 2018
Wayne Vetter, then the NHFG director, made an enormous difference by ordering time off for every single game warden who had been involved that day and also ordering them into counseling. It was unheard of in the 90s; now it’s part of the post-critical incident protocol for the department. Vetter also asked Jordan what officers had needed that day that they didn’t have. The list was extensive.
Game wardens weren’t issued vests. (Saunders’ badge had deflected the round that wounded him; it shredded his bicep and damaged his shoulder but saved his life.) They needed radios to talk to other agencies. They needed realistic training, focused on officer survival. Vehicles needed alterations to allow better evasive action.
Vetter came through for his people, Jordan said. “Now we have everything on that list I gave him. Everything.”
Changes to equipment and training are expensive, and I asked Jordan how he overcame resistance to new spending.
“Persistence,” he answered. “Prioritization. For example, vests were first. The most important priority for me is the safety of my officers and their families. If you can’t get all the equipment at once, make a plan and keep working on it. Use your credibility with the public, and good PR from things like search and rescues to build goodwill. Use the intimacy of rural communities to look after each other; if you don’t have the resources right now, then get creative, get your hands dirty and do it yourself. If you need 50 of something but can only afford 10, then get 10 and make sure field officers get theirs first. Supervisors should be the last people to get new equipment. ”
Jordan is a passionate advocate for intense, realistic training. “You have to train the way you’re going to play," he said. “I insist on simunitions, regardless of cost. Realistic training gives you an opportunity to see each officer’s reaction, then if necessary work more with that officer to improve. It may save that officer’s life. (During the Colebrook incident) the ones who stepped up weren’t always the ones I expected.”
Not all improvements involved training or material goods. Jordan emphasized small concrete changes, like making sure EAP numbers are easily accessible, and meeting regularly on a casual basis just to converse. He said, “Pay attention to personal matters like divorces, illness and custody issues. Pay attention to anniversary dates of critical incidents, or personal losses. People lose productivity through anger, exhaustion and bitterness. Don’t make it official. Just pay more attention to the needs and wants of your staff. If their productivity suddenly drops, maybe just ask. Maybe I can make it better somehow.”
He stopped momentarily and added, “We learned from (Colebrook). We changed the culture and it was not hard to do.”
While preparing for this piece, I talked with and read about the people involved, listened to podcasts, and read two books and innumerable articles. I came away with a profound respect for the people who used experiences of tragedy and trauma to conquer decades of inertia and past practice, reforging the old into the necessary new. Change stubbornly drags its feet, and too often requires a disruptive catalyst. Or as Hall told me over whisky at an airport bar, “Most agencies take a tragedy before they open their wallets.”
It doesn’t have to be that way. Officers easily recite the changes that came after North Hollywood and Newhall; rural officers have the examples of Sierra Azul, Manley Hot Springs and Colebrook. Their leadership can take note now, and start small if they must, but never stop making things better.
I’ll let Jordan have the final word because I cannot say it any better.
“If you don’t take anything else away, take care of your people. If I’m sitting at a funeral, I want to know as an agency leader that I did everything possible to prevent it. I’ve got to live with it. I don’t care what it costs.”