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Special Agent Man
My Life in the FBI as a Terrorist Hunter, Helicopter Pilot, and Certified Sniper
By Steve Moore
Chicago Review Press Incorporated Copyright © 2012 Steve Moore
All rights reserved.
"Hi, My Name Is Steve, and I'm Addicted to Adrenaline"
THE PREDAWN AIR was crisp and cool, and the breeze across my face refreshed me and wicked away some sweat that had soaked my black flight suit, even in the fifty-degree night. The streets were empty, the dutiful traffic lights just going through the motions.
I loved this time of the morning. I was exhilarated, I was happy, I was determined. My feet stood on a steel grate about eight inches off the ground, and the asphalt I saw between my feet was disappearing behind me at forty miles per hour.
I looked across at Ryan and saw the same excitement, the same contentedness, and the same intensity. He looked ahead, his goggles down, and he was in the zone. I loved the zone. The Chevy Suburban ahead of us suddenly slowed, the brake lights as bright as road flares. The team on the lead Suburban held on to the rails above the windows to keep from sliding forward. Four operators on each side. I looked back at the vehicles behind us: two more Suburbans with eight operators each on the rails, the mount-out truck carrying any other equipment we'd need at the site, and a dozen police and FBI cars behind that. It was an exciting sight. LAPD black-and-whites blocked each intersection as we sped through.
Jeff Hughes, next to me, yelled over the rush of the wind and the sound of the trucks: "One-fourteenth Street coming up!"
All operators began going through their own personal checklist to ensure that they were ready to dismount. Helmet strap on, goggles down, balaclava pulled up, covering the face except for the eyes. I slapped the butt of the ammo magazine to check that it was seated into the Heckler & Koch MP5 submachine gun. A quick check that my muzzle light was working and a glance through the sight to make sure the red dot had reported for duty. A look down at my tactical belt confirmed that my Springfield .45 was secured and my reserve mags were locked down.
Jeff radioed in to the command post. "Thirties at yellow," he announced to the CP.
The yellow — the last place that the agents have the luxury of concealment and cover before the site of an operation — had been chosen from aerial photos and street diagrams two hours earlier at the SWAT briefing room in the garage/special operations structure of the FBI office in Westwood, just down the hill from a sleeping UCLA. The briefing had begun at 2:30 AM on the dot. Forty SWAT operators crowded into the briefing room.
To say that my teammates were my friends would be inadequate. We trained together, we worked together, and at times we depended on one another for our lives. I loved these guys. On the face of the Earth that morning, there was no place I'd rather be.
Five individual teams made up the entire Los Angeles FBI SWAT team. They were numbered: the Twenties, Thirties, Forties, Fifties, and Sixties. Each team consisted of between eight and ten operators, depending on staffing, and each thought it was the best team on Los Angeles FBI SWAT.
I, fortunately, was one of the Thirties, which actually was the best team on L.A. SWAT.
The Thirties were the primary team for this operation, and the Thirties' team leader, Jeff Hughes, got ready to begin the brief at the front of the room. Behind him was a whiteboard with a detailed drawing of an apartment floor plan, both the first and the second floors, as well as a map of the block, along with any environmental obstacles — fencing and the like. As Jeff got ready to speak, the SWAT secretary passed out a stack of twenty-page operational plans.
The room quieted down.
"In your packets you can see that we have a night-service warrant for Mr. Reginald 'Weezy' Stokes and his baby mama, Rachelle 'Shaazz' Washington. They reside within the confines of scenic Nickerson Gardens."
Several hoots followed. Nickerson Gardens is the largest public-housing project west of the Mississippi, with more than one thousand apartment units. The place has an armed-gangster-to-resident-population percentage probably as high as any place on Earth. It is not a safe place for anybody to be, really. An op at Nickerson Gardens carried with it more risk than other raids, which was fine by the operators, because nobody joins SWAT to be bored.
"Mr. Stokes and Ms. Washington have been running a business out of their residence in the fourteen hundred block of East One-fourteenth Street. It's a pharmaceutical business."
"A crack house?" asked somebody from the back.
"That's a vulgar term," Hughes scolded with mock propriety. "The Thirties are primary on this hit, the Forties are secondary, and the Fifties will cover perimeter."
"Dogs?" someone asked.
"None that we're aware of, which means there probably are."
After a full brief of the operational plan, the meeting broke into smaller individual team briefings, and we Thirties went over our specific mission.
"Hamlin will be the breacher. Looks like a solid-core door with no bars on it."
"No bars on a crack house in Nickerson Gardens? Are they crazy?" Bobby Hamlin wondered aloud. Hamlin was newer on the team than all of us and bigger than most of us, and his responsibility as the "breacher" would be to open doors for the assault team.
"The entry team will be three-two, three-six, myself, and three-one. Three-eight, three-three, and three-four will follow."
My call sign was Sam 36, or simply "three-six." It identified me as a member of the SWAT team and, more particularly, the Thirties team. That morning, I would be the second operator through the door. Ahead of me would be James Benedict, a former US Marine; behind me would be team leader Jeff Hughes, and fourth in the door would be my friend Ryan March, a former Army Ranger captain.
"Sparky, if we have a rabbit, he's yours," Jeff advised, using the nickname I was given after an aircraft incident. "Mark, you back up Spark." Mark Crichton was a bulldog of an operator who sometimes chafed at the bawdy behavior of SWAT. But if Mark was backing you up, you never had to check to make sure someone was there.
A SWAT operator in full gear has no chance of catching a rabbit — a fleeing suspect — in open ground. They wear approximately fifty pounds of gear, including a Kevlar helmet and tactical boots. But in a house, you can run but you can't hide. In my heart, I secretly hoped that somebody would run. It made things more fun.
The briefing adjourned at about 3:30 AM, and we moved into the garage area to stage our vehicles and gear. This was my favorite part of an op, and the thing I would miss the most, because this was my last SWAT operation. SWAT operators in the FBI spend approximately 25 to 30 percent of their time on SWAT training and operations, and the rest as regular FBI agents working cases, and my caseload had grown to the point where I could no longer do both. If I neglected my cases — the death penalty case of a man who machine-gunned a preschool class; the investigation of a nut who was planning to blow up an oil refinery — innocent people could get hurt. If I neglected my SWAT training, my partner could get killed (as an operator, your main job is to cover your partner). I couldn't quit my cases, and I wouldn't risk the lives of my friends. To this day, it is one of the most painful decisions I made in the FBI.
Breachers loaded their one-man rams, the "master key" for most doors. Best described as a three-foot-long, five-inch-diameter concrete-filled steel pipe with handles, the ram will open most doors very quickly. In case of a security-bar door, common in places like Nickerson Gardens, SWAT breachers also carry a hydraram, a mini version of the "jaws of life" used by the fire department. If needed, they also have torches, metal saws, and, everybody's favorite, a strong hook and chain connected to a truck. Other agents loaded CO fire extinguishers, which seem to intimidate even the most aggressive guard dogs. Of course, if that doesn't work, a 10mm slug always will.
We rode inside the Suburbans to the staging area a mile from the Gardens. Once in the neighborhood, we got on the boards and headed out. Three minutes later, we were sitting at yellow, a block from the target location. The tactical operations center (TOC) a few blocks away provided the last intel brief before the hit, courtesy of the FBI's surveillance team, the Special Operations Group: "SOG reports lights on and movement in the target location."
It was 4:30 AM — did they ever sleep? I found myself taking a very deep breath and exhaling. At that second, the overall SWAT team commander, "Big Daddy" Dan Kurtz, came on the radio. This was it. I knew the next order by rote:
"I have control ... all teams move to green and execute."
I snapped the condition lever from SAFE to BURST (which fires three rounds with each trigger pull), and Crichton, our driver that morning, accelerated briskly down the street, turning sharply onto 114th Street. As we turned onto the street, headlights were doused on all vehicles and we sped quickly down a narrow street with parked cars whizzing by on either side.
Stay in the middle, I silently begged Crichton.
The lead Suburban carrying the Forties came to a stop, followed by our truck. Silently, we dismounted from the vehicle and trotted toward the front door of the target residence, our rubber-soled boots muffling our steps. The Forties hurried to their perimeter position, moving around the side of the building, always careful to avoid the neck-high clotheslines endemic to the projects. I found Benedict and tailgated him to the front door as quickly and as quietly as I could. Behind me, I felt rather than heard Hughes keeping up. At the front door, Hamlin arrived simultaneously, carrying the ram. March, the number four operator, squeezed Hughes's shoulder, Hughes squeezed mine, and I squeezed Benedict's. We were ready.
I saw Benedict nod to Hamlin, who began a mighty backswing with the ram. He put his body into the incoming arc of the ram and hit the door perfectly, right above the door latch, and the door gave way as if blown into the room by explosives. Benedict leaped forward like a car at a drag race, and I struggled to keep up.
The lights were indeed on in the first room, which was the living room.
"FBI! FBI! FBI! Get down! Get down!" we screamed, as much a tension release as it was a warning to the occupants.
Benedict turned hard right deep into the room, clearing the corner in front of him as I turned left, clearing my corner. Hughes was by me so fast I never saw him; I only saw March enter out of the corner of my eye. Clearing the corner took less than a second, and I turned long to address the subjects in the room. Several fell to the ground, hands over their heads; others stood frozen, panicked. A tatted-up, muscular kid, probably eighteen years old, wearing only boxers and low-hanging basketball shorts, ran.
He sprinted right to left in front of me, directly up the narrow stairway, as we screamed uselessly for him to stop. The stairways in Nickerson Gardens are notoriously narrow. Maybe two to three feet wide.
"Rabbit!" I yelled, and started up the stairs as fast as I could move in fifty pounds of gear. I heard Crichton fall in behind me, and I heard his breath as we ran up the stairs. Halfway up the flight, we heard a loud slam.
Shit, he went to ground, I thought as I ran up the stairs. Why did he run? Why did he close the door? Was he running for a weapon in the room? Shitshitshit!
At the top of the stairs, I got bad news. The landing, all nine square feet of it, ended with three closed doors in a U pattern: one to my left, one to my right, and one dead-ahead of me. No matter which door he went into, we didn't have cover if he wanted to shoot through the door.
I had to think! What was the floor plan that morning? Which one was the bathroom — right, left, or long? Crichton was close behind me, but our bulky gear didn't give us enough room to stand in the hall together. He was on the top step before the landing.
Mark pointed two fingers to his eyes, then to each of the doors, quizzically: SWAT sign-language for Did you see which door he went into?
I answered his question with the unofficial SWAT signal for I don't know: I shrugged my shoulders and rolled my eyes.
It didn't matter. We had already been on the landing too long.
Just pick a door! I chided myself.
Nodding quickly toward the door on the left, Mark reached over to the knob. I locked the MP5 into my right cheek so I could see the red dot through the sight front of me. Silently mouthing and nodding, Three, two ..., Mark sharply twisted the knob and threw the door open. I took one step into the room, heaving most of my weight against the door to ensure that nobody was behind it.
It was the bathroom. I could clear the room with my peripheral vision alone. It was empty. Two doors left. Fifty-fifty chance. My heart raced. It wasn't from the run up the stairs, either. What was the asshole doing in that room!
I nodded toward the room ahead of me, and Mark bladed himself between me and the wall so that he could reach the doorknob. I had both my hands full with my MP5. Again, I counted down silently, nodding with each count. Mark swung the door open and I lunged into the room, hammering the door against the wall with my shoulder, clearing the corners as quickly as I could. But before I even got to the last corner of the small room, I knew from peripheral vision that no one was in there. The room was empty save for a solitary ironing board. I cleared the closet silently, then moved back to the hallway, where Mark was already covering the last door.
There was no question now where the gangbanger was. He was behind that door. He had heard us breach the other two doors, and he had an idea of how long it would be before I got to his door. There would be no element of surprise. He would be waiting for me.
I knew his heart was beating as hard as mine was. The difference was that he knew what I was going to do and where I was going to be. I had no idea of anything. Mark positioned his hand near the doorknob, ready to turn it at my signal. Once he was ready, I had the quickest, slightest thought that I didn't want to go in. No, I mean I really didn't want to go in. But if I thought about that for more than half a second, it would become a debate in my mind. It was a case of mind over matter — or wisdom. I began the silent countdown, Three ... two ... I didn't want to get shot in Nickerson Gardens. Not on my last op.
On "one," Mark threw the door open and I burst in, hitting the swinging door with my right shoulder. I instantly saw not one but two males in the room, and the one I chased up the stairs was leaping from the closet toward a bed to my left. The male on the left stood in a corner screaming. Things were moving all over the place, and the world seemed to slow down.
I followed the gangster with my red dot in his leap toward the bed, shouting, "Get down! Show me your hands! Show me your hands!"
He dug his hands under the covers, under a pillow, as if he was reaching for something hidden. I could not enter the tiny room deep enough for Mark to enter without having my MP5 within reach of the gangster, so I was in the room alone. The second male in the room was a boy, maybe eleven, and he had his hands over his ears and was shrieking, "Don't shoot me! Don't shoot me!"
He was not a threat, so I could concentrate on the idiot on the bed. He stared at me, then down at his hands. His head was shaved; he wore nothing from the waist up, and he was tatted all over his arms and back. The bedspread on the bed was brown.
"Show me your hands!" I screamed again.
He looked me in the eyes and ignored my command.
That was three times. I had no choice. He could have a gun. He could shoot me; he could shoot Mark. It wasn't a decision anymore; it was a trained response.
Time slowed even further. Sound seemed to stop. I put the red dot just below the top of his head, because from years of range time, I knew that inside of twenty-five yards, the red dot was skewed high at this close distance. If I put the dot between his eyes, the round would likely impact his chin or neck. I checked behind the gangster to see where any bullets would go if they continued on through him. A miss from eight feet was not going to happen. Long rounds would go through the front wall of the apartment, not into the next room.
Excerpted from Special Agent Man by Steve Moore. Copyright © 2012 Steve Moore. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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