On July 31, 1997, a six-man Emergency Service team from the NYPD raided a terrorist cell in Brooklyn and narrowly prevented a suicide bombing of the New York subway that would have cost hundreds, possibly thousands of lives.
Seven Shots tells the dramatic story of that raid, the painstaking police work involved, and its paradoxical aftermath, which drew the officers into a conflict with other rank-and-file police and publicity-hungry top brass. Jennifer C. Hunt draws on her personal knowledge of the NYPD and a network of police contacts extending from cop to four-star chief, to trace the experience of three officers on the Emergency Service entry team and the two bomb squad detectives who dismantled the live device. She follows their lives for five years, from that near-fatal day in 1997, through their encounters inside the brutal world of departmental politics, and on to 9/11, when they once again put their lives at risk in the fight against terrorism, racing inside the burning towers and sorting through the ash, debris, and body parts. Throughout this fast paced narrative, Hunt maintains a strikingly fine-grained, street-level view, allowing us to understand the cops on their own terms—and often in their own words. The result is a compelling insider’s picture of the human beings who work in two elite units in the NYPD and the moral and physical danger and courage involved.
As gripping as an Ed McBain novel—and just as steeped in New York cop culture and personalities—Seven Shots takes readers on an unforgettable journey behind the shield and into the hearts of New York City police.
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SEVEN SHOTSAN NYPD RAID ON A TERRORIST CELL AND ITS AFTERMATH
By JENNIFER C. HUNT
THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESSCopyright © 2010 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.
KEITH RYAN DIDN'T ALWAYS PLAN TO be a cop. He didn't know Emergency Service existed until after he joined the force. It wasn't that police work didn't interest him. He'd grown up mesmerized by TV shows like Dragnet and Car 54, Where Are You? After Ryan graduated from Brooklyn College, he tried several jobs before joining the department. He followed his mother's wishes and tried being a teacher. He didn't want to disappoint her by pursuing his secret dream of becoming a cop. She had no love for the police.
A left-leaning equal rights and antiwar activist, Mrs. Ryan shared the views of a lot of the youth who came of age in the 1960s. She also had personal reasons for distrusting police. When Ryan was a boy, the screaming inside the house would sometimes get so loud that the neighbors would call 911. Time and again, his father would open the door, welcome the cops into the kitchen and offer them a drink. Together they would sit nursing wine or beer and commiserating about the moodiness of women. In those days, domestic violence wasn't viewed as a crime but a private matter between husband and wife. Besides, the police could see from the furniture built with his fine craftsman's hands that Mr. Ryan was a hard-working European immigrant who provided for his family. So the cops didn't pay much attention to the little boy locked in his bedroom or the bruised face of his small, young Puerto Rican mother.
Keith Ryan was the firstborn of four children. He has one brother and two sisters, all of whom have families and successful careers. Ryan was the only one of the siblings who was routinely beaten by his father. This puzzles him still. He imagines his father was jealous of his mother's love for him. Ryan thinks his father was ashamed of the craterlike scar punched in the side of his son's face, just above his cheekbone, a remnant of a tumor he barely survived at birth.
Ryan grew up in a blue-collar neighborhood in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, among hard-working families of Irish, Jewish, and Italian decent, with a few wise guys and their brash young children peppered in. He did well in school, excelled in sports, and had plenty of friends. Focused and self-contained, he didn't get into fights like some of his peers. The only time he might challenge some guy was if he threatened one of his siblings.
Grandparents from both sides of his family were generous people who helped him grow strong and survive the battles inside the house. Ryan recalls with fondness a kind and beautiful aunt. He remembers the rich, musty smell of her perfume and the warmth of her dark brown eyes. His mother was the backbone of the family. When he was small, she'd dress him up in a suit and take him to the park. He recalls the cool breeze and the warmth of the sun on his cheeks. A loving, intelligent woman, she tried to take care of her children and instill in them a sense of self-worth and independence. "I am what I am because of her," Ryan explained.
A smile lights up his face when he envisions the kindly eyes of the neighbor who raised pigeons, not the noisy pests that litter the parks and contaminate the city's air conditioners, but the sleek multicolored homing pigeons that are born and bred to race. He loved watching them spiral up into the sky, free of any encumbrance but the band they wore on their leg. He liked their loyalty, their long flights home from anywhere. He got a kick out of watching them lay their eggs and seeing the babies emerge. When he was eight years old, Ryan approached his neighbor and asked if he could buy a pigeon. The man told him no but offered instead to take him on as an apprentice. From that day on, he treated the boy like a son. Keith sat with his neighbor's family at dinners to celebrate racing events. When one of their pigeons won, Keith proudly stepped on stage and picked up the trophy.
Ryan recalls the first pigeon he owned, a half-blind, banded bird from Holland that he rescued from the steeple of the church. He named the bird the Dutchman and nursed him back to health until his father took him away. Keith thinks his father let the bird go but deep down knows that he killed him. A bird with compromised vision can't survive alone.
His parents divorced when Keith was eighteen. By the time he was twenty-one, he had built his own pigeon coop in the garage behind his mother's house. "I would go and get lost for hours. I felt safe there," he explained. I saw a film of Keith as a young man working in the coop. The camera caught him at his best angle, highlighting his bone structure and unblemished left check. His body was long and lean, like a runner in peak condition. His face looked intense, solemn, and fiercely handsome.
* * *
In 1986, Keith Ryan took the test to become a New York City police officer. He graduated from the Police Academy in 1987 and was sent to the 7-9 (79th) Precinct in Brooklyn, a neighborhood that was so bad that "people with guns were afraid to live there." After his probationary year was complete, he transferred to Coney Island. It didn't take more than a few weeks on patrol before he realized that policing was a natural calling that would always claim his heart no matter how bad things got or what fate had in store.
I know cops today who view such devotion as a symptom of the Stockholm syndrome. The department holds its officers hostage for a twenty-year term with the promise of benefits and a pension. In time, the cops become attached to their keeper, forming a painful bond. Uncertainty, petty tyranny, and punishment come to be viewed as signs of caring; the smallest gesture of human kindness is mistaken for love. I don't mean to suggest that love and kindness do not exist in the New York Police Department. There are plenty of wonderful bosses who treat their men with warmth, dignity, and respect. The men respond with loyalty, working hard to make their bosses shine in the face of superiors. The problem mostly lies in the system. Few curbs exist to stifle the actions of bullies who "kiss up and kick down." One bad boss can wreak havoc with a cop's career. A group or consecutive series of them can tear his life apart.
I am insufficiently cynical to believe Keith Ryan was a hostage victim. In some ways, the job set him free so he could become the man he'd always wanted to be. On the other hand, there are ways in which the department did hold him captive. It took only a few months on the street for the job to become as much a part of who he was and how he defined himself as the image he saw in the mirror when he shaved in the morning. A lot of the best cops in the NYPD share a similar burden. They cannot imagine their lives without a shield and gun, the keys to city history, a front seat to world events, and the special bonds they share with their partners.
After a few good years in Coney Island, Ryan began to think about changing assignments. Emergency Service was appealing. He liked the type of jobs the unit handled, the SWAT work, requiring special weapons and tactical expertise. The rescue work also interested him, as well as answering calls for help from other cops. Emergency Service cops respond to the most dangerous events, including natural disasters and terrorist incidents.
Ryan's thoughts of a transfer percolated unnoticed for several years. Few secrets are kept long within the NYPD. Spies lurk in unexpected places. Rumor and gossip, some of it unfounded, transcend the boundaries of rank. It was only a matter of time before the captain of the precinct got wind of Ryan's interest in pursuing a new position. Some bosses would refuse to give up productive officers and quash their hopes for a transfer. Ryan's captain believed that good cops should be rewarded in the little ways he could: choice vacation picks and days off; the most lucrative overtime gigs; and if they so desired, transfers to alleviate personal stress or advance their careers. The captain knew that Ryan had no red flags by his name, pending investigations, civilian complaints, or command disciplines (a type of formal reprimand). He was an active cop with stellar evaluations and good relationships with his bosses. In recent months, he'd made two collars (arrests) for homicide. He'd fired his gun once in the line of duty, grazing the suspect and stopping a rape in progress, Ryan recalled when I asked him about his activity and firearms experience.
He remembered the day the captain called him into his office and said, "Keith, you're one of my best cops. You don't complain and you do your work. Why didn't you tell me you wanted Emergency Service?" Emergency Service falls within the Special Operations Division, and the division chief was the captain's friend. With a phone call and good recommendations from additional bosses, Ryan was on his way to his new command.
It didn't take long for him to gain a reputation as an active cop who carried his load and excelled in certain kinds of jobs. He enjoyed using the Hurst Jaws of Life, a giant pair of hydraulic scissors that are used to cut people out of cars. He was also competent in other kinds of rescue work, including talking to "EDPs," police shorthand for emotionally disturbed persons, or "psychos," as they were once called. The work he liked best involved making the fast, fluid, tactical entries that Emergency Service cops use to executive warrants for crimes involving drugs or weapons.
It was during these often dangerous, tension-filled missions that Ryan once again became the competitive athlete he had been in high school. As soon as the job began, he got into the zone; his mind and body focusing on the action ahead. Knees bent, crouching slightly, positioned in the "SWAT squat," gun raised and extended in front of his face, he moved as gracefully as a dancer, stepping heel to toe, a perfect demonstration of the "Groucho" walk Emergency cops use to secure their balance and proceed into the eye of the storm. Once in the flow of the action, his mind and body as one, he could suspend the flurry of thoughts that often swirled in his head.
Of course there were occasions when he did dumb things, particularly during the early months when he was learning the job. His first week on patrol, he got a job involving a "jumper," a suicidal man, perched on the ledge of a window. Ryan rushed in, climbed up on the sill, and grabbed the man's hand.
"I'm holding on to this guy and he turns round and punches me in the face, three or four times and I'm hanging out the ledge of the window, no safety equipment, nothing. It's a hot summer night and my hand is sweating and the guy starts slipping.... I'm looking down at this guy and he doesn't say a word.... Suddenly "whoosh," he's falling twenty-eight stories and lands on the garage roof. I was black-and-blue, and my hands were shaking when I walked out of the room," Ryan explained.
When the lieutenant learned what happened, he checked to see how Ryan was doing, then gently reprimanded him. "Now I'm going to tell you this again, and I'm not going to give you a real hard time about it because I think you know that you are lucky you are standing here, but you gotta be prepared, Keith. If you want to be in the game, you have to think of your own safety first, more than anyone else. Your safety is paramount. Don't do what you did ever again. If he goes to the window, he goes to the window. That's his choice. I don't want him to take one of my men." The lieutenant patted Ryan on his shoulder and walked him down the stairs.
Never again would Keith Ryan jump on the ledge of a window without proper equipment. Nor would he ever feel again the same sense of amused chagrin when he heard the hysterical laughter of veteran peers and discovered the twenty Butterfinger candy bars they'd taped to his locker. Nevertheless, it would not be the last time he would find himself on the edge of a precipice, barely hanging on. In 1997, when he led a six-man team into the most dangerous job of their career, he would find himself there again.
PAUL YURKIW WAITED TO SEE IF THE ringing would stop before picking up the receiver. Crank calls and false alarms were the bane of Bomb Squad detectives' existence, and "If the phone don't ring, don't pick it up" was the philosophy of least resistance. The silence resumed, and he sunk his head into the pillow and went back to sleep. When the ringing started again and grew persistent, he reached for the receiver, which sat an arm's length away on a chair, next to a pen and notebook.
"Good morning. Detective Yurkiw, Bomb Squad, can I help you?" Yurkiw answered with the same ten words he'd used since he was transferred into the Bomb Squad in 1993, right after the World Trade Center was bombed. Now they were so ingrained in his head that he sometimes said the same thing when he picked up the phone at home.
It was 1:00 A.M. on July 31, 1997, and he and his partner, Rich Teemsma, were resting in "the Cave," a small room located next to the Bomb Squad's main office. The room, which doubled as a galley and a lounge, contained two sets of bunk beds, stacked foot to foot. A refrigerator and other kitchen appliances were built into the opposite wall. Teemsma and Yurkiw were working a double tour in the squad's 6th Precinct quarters in Chelsea and had been there since 2:00 p.m. the afternoon before. Both were looking forward to 8:00 a.m. when Yurkiw would go home and Teemsma would report to the range to shoot for his annual pistol qualification test.
At 6'2" and 250 pounds, Yurkiw retained the powerful build of the defensive tackle he'd played on his high school football team. His head was upholstered in short red hair. He had a red mustache, an oval-shaped face, and puffy cheeks that were burnt pink from playing outside with his two young sons. Before he'd left for work, he had tenderly kissed their faces, a gesture he would repeat throughout their college years.
Paul Yurkiw joined the NYPD in 1982 after he'd earned a college degree and almost completed an M.A. in special education. He, his wife, and two children shared a modest home in a suburb of Long Island not far from Jamaica, Queens. The kitchen, living room, dining room, master bedroom, and a den were on the first floor. The walls in the den were lined with Yurkiw's awards and medals, including the Medal of Valor. Recently, he expanded the attic, adding a new bedroom for the boys and an office for his wife. The sun shined through the skylight and brightened the blond wood of the bedroom furniture.
Yurkiw met Teemsma at the Midtown South Precinct, where both were assigned after they graduated from the Police Academy. During their first few months, they walked a foot beat. The opportunity arose to get a seat in a car when their boss announced he needed two cops to work the midnight to 8:00 a.m. shift in the 9th Precinct, known then as the "Fighting Ninth" because of heavy crime. When no veteran officers volunteered, Teemsma and Yurkiw grabbed the gig and became steady partners.
They enjoyed the routine, even the trips to take the prostitutes to Central Booking to be fingerprinted and locked up. After a long, dull night downtown, on their way back to the precinct, they stopped at Yurkiw's Ukrainian grandparents' apartment on East Seventh Street. As soon as the cops entered the building, they smelled the butter and cinnamon of his grandmother's freshly baked bread. Once inside, Yurkiw and Teemsma sat at the kitchen table and talked as the elderly couple prepared them a breakfast of eggs, kielbasa, and babka.
A few years after they started working together, Yurkiw transferred to Emergency Service with the help of a well-placed "rabbi" (connection). Teemsma got in later, using the names of the two Emergency Service cops the partners had met on patrol. The night Yurkiw nearly got killed, he was working alone.
Yurkiw was running late when he got in his patrol car and headed toward Queens, where he was assigned as fourth man in one of the unit's trucks. It was 1:30 a.m. the morning of June 21, 1989. Not far from a sign to JFK Airport, he saw a car parked on the shoulder of the Van Wyck Expressway. He pulled up behind, thinking the driver needed help. Yurkiw put his radio on the front seat and got out of the car but didn't call the job in to Central Communications, which broadcasts information to other cops.
"Are you stuck? Do you need a hand?" he asked the man, who had exited his vehicle and was approaching the front tire of Yurkiw's car. Before the man could answer, a call came over the radio and Yurkiw turned his head to listen. He heard a loud noise and felt the force of a sledgehammer smashing into his chest and thought he'd been hit by road debris. Then he saw the man's gun. At close range, it looked like a cannon.
Yurkiw used one hand to push the man's arm away from his face and, with the other, reached for his weapon, the Smith & Wesson 38 revolver issued at the time. The man fired two more rounds. Yurkiw struggled to push him away, fell back, and emptied six rounds, narrowly missing the man's head. He tried to reload his gun but dropped his speed loader. The man started to flee, then turned and fired again, hitting the ground below the officer's knees. Yurkiw leapt into the car for cover and started to load his gun, one round at a time. He grabbed the radio and called for assistance. The transmission was chilling. Yurkiw's frantic voice broke through, but his words were garbled. Every cop working that night recognized the choking sound of a "10-13."
"What unit's calling?" the dispatcher asked.
"Shots fired," Yurkiw responded, his pitch high and words muddled.
"Shots fired. What's your location?" the dispatcher asked.
"Van Wyck," Yurkiw responded, struggling to calm down.
"Van Wyck and where?" Yurkiw keyed the radio but his words were muddled.
"Unit calling, what's your location?"
"Rockaway. Past Rockaway."
"Rockaway Parkway and the Van Wyck. Shots fired over the air. Truck Nine Adam on the air?" the dispatcher asked.
"Adam Nine truck on the way, Central."
"Rockaway Parkway and the Van Wyck. OK, Lieu [Lieutenant]. You go. Rockaway Boulevard and the Van Wyck."
"He might have said northbound, Central."
"Central," Yurkiw said.
Excerpted from SEVEN SHOTS by JENNIFER C. HUNT Copyright © 2010 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of ContentsPREFACE STUDYING THE POLICE
RANK AND THE CHAIN OF COMMAND
3 Seven Shots
4 This Is Going to Hollywood
5 Blood Trail
7 Top Cops
8 Friendly Fire