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By Gary C. King
PINNACLE BOOKSCopyright © 2010 Gary C. King Enterprises
All right reserved.
Chapter OneReno, Nevada, has always been a rough-and-tumble kind of town, even during its meager frontier beginnings when it was little more than a gateway to the gold-mining town of Virginia City, nestled in the rugged hills some twenty miles southeast of Reno. Mark Twain began his writing career in Virginia City, where he worked as a reporter for the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise. Many things have changed, of course, from the time when Reno, part of the Silver State, made itself known as the birthplace of gambling and brothels. This incarnation happened shortly after a man named Charles August Fey, a Bavarian, who had immigrated to the U.S. when he was about fifteen, invented the country's first mechanical slot machine and named it the Liberty Bell. He had placed it in a San Francisco saloon, where it proved to be very popular, and the rest, of course, is history. Gambling did not become legal in Nevada, however, until Governor Fred Balzar, on March 19, 1931, signed a bill into law legalizing it. Although Nevada has more mountain ranges than any other state-a little-known fact-the state is perhaps recognized more for the fact that it is a place where people come and lose money.
Although once fueled by tourism and quickie divorces, Reno nowadays is feeling the effects of the nearly mortally wounded national economy. A number of well-known gambling hotels and casinos, such as Fitzgerald's, now sit dark and idle, and the once-bustling downtown gambling center, located on Virginia Street, where the famous arched neon sign proudly proclaims that Reno is THE BIGGEST LITTLE CITY IN THE WORLD, struggles today to draw in customers willing to part with their money. The area is rife with homeless people and panhandlers, and some resorts provide shuttles to their guests to travel a mere three or four blocks, due to safety concerns. Even though the city averages less than seventeen murders per year, gang violence has clearly increased, as have crimes related to drug usage.
Many of the city's nongaming enterprises are still thriving and prosperous, particularly south of the city where there are a number of newer housing developments that serve as bedroom communities for commuters who work at the state capital, Carson City, or in nearby Sparks, just east of the city. A visitor to this once-thriving metropolis of approximately 210,000 people cannot help but wonder, however, which cards the future holds for Reno.
In recent years, Reno had been the site of a number of high-profile diabolically plotted cold-blooded murders. One of the more recent ones involved a dashing millionaire swinger named Darren Roy Mack, forty-five, his ex-wife, Charla, thirty-nine, and their divorce judge, Charles "Chuck" Weller, fifty-three, who had a reputation for angering many people whose cases were heard by him. This was the tragic story of an attractive couple who had it all-whose sex lives were unabashedly over-the-top, but who made no secret of the fact that they were swingers, and how, after ten years of marriage and a bitter divorce, it all came crashing down. The downward spiral culminated in murder, a sniper-style attempted murder, and an international manhunt that generated headlines across the country. It was a story that the residents of the Biggest Little City in the World would not easily forget.
It was approximately 11:00 A.M., on June 12, 2006, a Monday, that Reno's 911 emergency-response telephone systems lit up like a Christmas tree. The police began receiving reports that shots had been fired in the downtown area, presumably from the fourth or fifth floor of a parking garage on First Street, near the newly opened Mills B. Lane Justice Center. One of the first calls that came in was from someone inside that building, which houses family court, as well as the Washoe County District Attorney's Office, located on South Sierra Street. The person who placed the call hurriedly put a police officer on the phone, who identified himself as Officer Jones, of the Reno Police Department (RPD).
"I think there's ... a sniper inside a parking garage, just north of the family court building," Jones told the 911 operator. "I think there was a gunshot from the parking garage. I don't know if there's anybody down or not in the family court building. I'm gonna check and see if we have injuries or not. I don't know yet."
There were several moments of silence as the 911 operator attempted to enter the information from Officer Jones into her computer. It seemed like a tense moment for the operator as she attempted to get her computer to function properly. Jones suggested to the operator that she have police officers set up a staging area in and around the Mills B. Lane Justice Center and the parking garage, approximately two blocks away. The operator informed Jones to stand by, because her computer had gone down and she needed to walk to the radio operator's room to relay the emergency message. When she came back on the line, she asked Officer Jones if there was any additional information that he could provide. His response was that he had no further information at this point. However, the operator informed Jones that they had received another report, almost simultaneous with his, that the shooting had come from the fourth floor of the parking garage in question. Because their system was down, the 911 operators and the radio operators were yelling and screaming across the room to one another in an effort to coordinate all the information that was coming in almost faster than any of them could handle.
Seconds later, another call was received at the 911 emergency center from a caller requesting medical assistance. The caller provided the emergency dispatcher with the family court building's address, and instructed the dispatcher to have paramedics use the Sierra Street entrance when they arrived. The caller calmly explained that there had been a gunshot, and that one of the judges had been injured. She explained that he was located on the third floor of the building.
"Is there anyone with the judge right now?" the dispatcher asked.
"Yes, there are deputies with him," the caller explained.
"Is it clear to enter the building?"
"Yeah, it's clear."
Someone could be heard talking on a police radio that the shot or shots had not originated inside the building, but had come from a different location on the outside of the building.
"Are you with the patient now?" the dispatcher asked.
"How old is this person?"
"In his fifties."
"He's a male, correct?"
"Yes," responded the caller.
"Is he conscious?"
"I don't know."
"Is he breathing?" the dispatcher asked.
The caller explained that the victim was breathing and talking, but had suffered a gunshot wound. The 911 operator had not yet been able to ascertain which part of the victim's body had sustained the gunshot. It could be heard in the background conversations that it had been Judge Chuck Weller who had been shot. Apparently, the shot came through the third-floor window of his chambers on the north side of the building. Police officers and deputies, the caller said, were currently blocking all traffic at Sierra and First Streets, as well as all along Island Avenue, a street that ran east and west the length of much of the city's man-made river walk, which the window in the judge's chambers overlooked. The Truckee River runs through the center of town, and the river walk had been created to help beautify the downtown area, at a tremendous cost to taxpayers during recent revitalization efforts.
As additional calls were made to the 911 dispatch center, there were no reports of eyewitness accounts, nor were there any reports of descriptions of a potential suspect or suspects. At one point, Officer Jones called back to the 911 center to determine whether or not a SWAT team had been dispatched to the area. Amid all the confusion, not to mention the frustration with a computer system that had crashed, the dispatcher finally told Jones that a SWAT team had not been dispatched yet. Jones asked to be notified when a SWAT team was en route, and asked that he be contacted by the team, because he believed he could be of assistance to them, at least logistically. In the meantime, precious minutes continued to pass, allowing ample time for the gunman to escape as the police attempted to get organized sufficiently to deal with the problem at hand, while others simultaneously dealt with the 911 computer system crash. While everyone worked feverishly to sort out exactly what had happened, all police units not involved in the downtown sniper shooting were advised to switch over to a secondary frequency.
Within minutes the entire downtown Reno area was literally crawling with cops, and it began to look like a war zone. Police cars were blocking off traffic so that the affected area could be isolated, allowing no one, except for police and paramedic units, in or out of the area. As the area was being locked down and sealed off on the ground, helicopters circled the area and offered whatever assistance they could from the air. As the police continued to take control of the situation and get organized, courthouse employees began to report that bailiffs had charged into Judge Chuck Weller's chambers, guns drawn, and literally threw another judge, who was curious about what had happened, onto the floor for his own safety, in case the sniper began shooting again.
Before long, reports began coming out of the family court building, which sits adjacent to the main Washoe County Courthouse, where some of those seeking to provide assistance had come running from, indicating that Weller had been shot while standing in front of a window inside his third-floor office. According to those who were providing information updates, Weller's office faced the parking garage located to the north and was clearly visible from the family court building. Investigators would determine later that the shooter had a straight shot into many of the building's windows, including those of Weller's chambers.
Initial reports indicated that Weller had been hit in the torso area of his body, and it appeared that one of his staff members, Annie Allison, who served as his administrative assistant, had also been injured. However, police officers soon clarified that Allison had most likely not been shot at directly, but rather had been hit by glass or bullet fragments, or both. At one point during all the activity, Weller was said to have stood up and calmly instructed that someone notify his wife of what had happened and to instruct her to get out of the house, because the judge feared that the shooter might come after her next.
The injured judge and Allison were promptly taken by paramedics to a nearby hospital. During the short drive, Weller reportedly told one of the paramedics that he thought he may have been shot by "Darrell" Mack, who he claimed was a likely suspect. Although he hadn't realized it at the time, he had incorrectly identified the alleged shooter's first name, and would later state that he had meant to identify the suspected shooter as Darren Mack, a man whose divorce case he had recently presided over. Throughout the entire shooting ordeal, as tense as it had been, Weller had remained calm-so calm, in fact, that a fellow judge had characterized him as "the calmest person there."
By the time that Weller and Allison had entered the emergency room of the nearby hospital, the Reno PD had set up a command post near the area of the shooting, and the methodical search for the sniper suspect was well under way. Additional law enforcement personnel were brought in, including deputies from the Washoe County Sheriff's Office (WCSO), and the city's SWAT team was ready and standing by in the event that the sniper had not left the area and began shooting again.
The scene in and around the Mills B. Lane Justice Center was chaotic, with people running out of the building to reach a place of safety, making calls on their cell phones, as they tried to make sense out of what was happening. Washoe County undersheriff Mike Haley was among those who were in the midst of all the confusion and pandemonium.
"We're certain the shot came from outside," Haley later told news reporters. "We can't speculate now where it came from. We have to establish the height of the window. It could have come from a variety of locations to the north."
A tourist told the reporter for the Reno Gazette-Journal that he had heard a loud explosion while parking his car inside the First Street parking garage, shortly after 11:00 A.M. The tourist described the explosion as sounding like that of an electric transformer blowing up. It was noted that if the tourist had been inside the same parking garage as the shooter, the sounds of the gunshot or gunshots would have appeared amplified dramatically because of the echo effect inside the structure and may very well have sounded more like an explosion than a gunshot.
One witness told KRNV-TV's News 4 reporters that he had heard two gunshots prior to all the commotion inside the justice center and that which occurred a short time later outside on the streets. He described getting into an elevator in the building and how "people started scattering up there on the third floor." He explained that "a deputy got in front of us and somebody said, 'Someone got shot. We heard a pop.'"
Another witness described how he had hidden behind a concrete pillar as "everything was starting to go crazy all over the place." Cops, he said, were suddenly everywhere.
"We were walking downtown near the building, and we heard a gun," said yet another witness. "We all just ducked."
Another witness described how he had seen an armed man inside a parking garage located near the justice center at the time of the shooting.
Meanwhile, the police continued to evacuate people from the justice center, but many other people, at least two hundred, were simply ordered to stay put and remained locked down for the next several hours. Employees at the justice center and at the adjacent courthouse had begun closing the curtains and blinds inside their offices, terrified that the shooter might not have finished what he had set out to do. Most of those ordered to remain in the various judicial buildings were inmates in the holding areas, as well as those who worked in various capacities at the courthouse and the justice center. They would not be allowed to leave until the entire area had been cleared by the police. The justice center, as well as the Washoe County Courthouse, would end up being closed for the remainder of the day as a WCSO helicopter continued to search from the sky the downtown area for the suspect, and two SWAT teams continued looking from the ground for the shooter. According to Reno's police commander Steve Pitts, one of those SWAT teams was inside the courthouse searching for the person responsible for firing the shots. The streets surrounding the justice center, including a wide area that extended from Virginia Street to Rainbow Street, and from Court Street to the Truckee River, remained sealed off to vehicles and pedestrians until late into the evening as the police asked visitors to the downtown area to stay away.
A police command post was set up near Sierra and Second Streets, and yet another SWAT team assembled at the Silver Peak Restaurant & Brewery. The downtown library was also closed, as was the nearby building for Washoe County Social Services. The people inside those buildings were also instructed to remain inside until the area had been cleared.
In the meantime, it was revealed by the Reno Gazette-Journal that family court judge Chuck Weller had indeed suffered a gunshot wound to the chest. He was reportedly stable, but doctors at Washoe Medical Center reported his condition as serious to critical. He remained in the hospital following surgery to treat his wounds. Annie Allison reportedly only suffered superficial wounds to her hip, left arm, and neck, and was released from another hospital following treatment. Because the judge was being treated at Washoe Medical Center, the emergency room there remained under heavy security, and everyone attempting to gain entry was carefully scrutinized.
Emergency room physicians who provided medical treatment for the injured judge discovered injuries caused by "bullet fragments" in the area of his chest. The injuries ranged in size from one centimeter to five centimeters and were discovered beneath the skin and in muscle tissue. Doctors also found "a sizeable foreign body in the lower left flank wound," which they believed might be useful for "forensic purposes." The "bullet fragment was removed from the lower left wound" and was sent to the investigators, according to police and medical reports.
Reno investigators soon learned that Allison, employed by Washoe County as Weller's administrative assistant, had hurriedly gone into Weller's office at the onset of all the commotion. From the information that had so far been obtained, it appeared-but was not yet confirmed-that two shots had been fired and that Allison had perhaps walked into Weller's office at the time of the second shot. She had been injured by broken glass or bullet fragments then.
According to Undersheriff Haley, there appeared to be some confusion as to how many times the judge had been shot.
"Anytime you are struck in the chest, you have the potential for serious consequences," Haley said.
Haley also said that he did not yet have any information on whether Weller had been shot by a random sniper, or if he had been targeted for a reason.
"Judges in the family court try a lot of cases, and some of them are volatile," Haley added. "But it could also be someone wishing to target anybody."
As the search for Darren Roy Mack continued, Reno deputy police chief Jim Johns confirmed that Mack was indeed the chief suspect in connection with the downtown shooting. Based on information gleaned from witnesses and other sources, such as video surveillance cameras, Mack was believed to be driving a silver Ford Explorer. It was pointed out that the vehicle may have been a rental. Mack's personal vehicle, police believed, was a 2003 orange Hummer, which was located in the driveway of a relative's home. Johns also indicated that the Reno Police Department's bomb squad was investigating whether or not explosives had been placed in or on Weller's personal vehicle parked at the courthouse, because a bomb-sniffing police dog had indicated the presence of such material in the judge's car. As the police investigation into the midmorning shooting at the Mills B. Lane Justice Center continued, the detectives looking into the background of their chief suspect, Darren Mack, learned that Mack was known to own several firearms. Since he had not been located to be brought in for questioning, police urged anyone who might have seen him to call 911.
Excerpted from RAGE by Gary C. King Copyright © 2010 by Gary C. King Enterprises. Excerpted by permission.
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