December 13, 1997 in Nation/World

Hostage Saviors Thanks, Tears Flow In Heroic Rescue Of Two Florida Children Caught In Standoff

Phil Long And Martin Merzer Knight-Ridder
 

Two hours before dawn. The 68-hour mark. Thick fog and light rain muffle 626 18th Street. Three people remain inside the house - murder suspect John Edward Armstrong and his two hostages, Malcolm Phillips, 4, and Tedi Priest, 2.

Armstrong has a gun. He threatens to use it. He also promises to surrender. Three days now.

The cops eavesdrop on the house with a button-size microphone snaked through the Venetian blinds and dropped to the floor. They spy on the place with a tiny TV camera hidden next door. They wait, and they wait, and they wait.

One of them, Scott Perkins, 32, has a son nearly the same age as Malcolm. Soon, after a burst of improvised valor and a cascade of bullets, Scott Perkins will be called a hero.

Now, the police perk up. Something new. Armstrong finally - FINALLY - slips into a deep sleep. They hear his snores on that microphone.

The cops look at each other. Now, they whisper. Now.

They’ve been waiting for their chance. Only a few hours ago, though profoundly deprived of sleep by police and sinking out of a crack and heroin binge, Armstrong again refused to surrender.

“I told you, stop bothering me,” are among his last words. “I’m not coming out until I’m ready.”

Arrested 17 times since 1980, nearly always released early from prison, he faces a murder charge in nearby Winter Park. He crashed into the home Tuesday morning with police in pursuit. He evicted the toddlers’ mothers. He shielded himself with the kids.

Now, Police Chief William Kennedy fears that sleep will freshen Armstrong’s resolve.

Kennedy also knows that young Tedi is developing a cough and possibly a bronchial infection. He gives the order: Go in now. Get those kids out of there.

Dressed in black flack vests and other armor, Perkins and six other SWAT officers creep through the fog toward the house. They slip through the kitchen door. The lock had been picked, stealthily and skillfully, 48 hours earlier so it seems locked from the inside but opens from the outside.

They pause. They listen.

A block away, their commander, Frank Fink, and two deputy police chiefs gather outside the command post.

They form a circle. They lock hands. They bow their heads.

With the others, Fink prays intensely. He has three sons of his own.

Now inside the house, the commandos tip-toe to the bedroom door. They pause again. They look at each other.

One. Two. Three.

Boom. They kick it open.

And confront an ominous scene: Armstrong is in the middle of the bed. The two kids, in their pajamas, are asleep on either side.

He has a gun in his hand. He has his finger on the trigger.

Now, chaos.

Perkins, a six-year veteran, leaps atop Armstrong so he can’t point the gun at the kids. A shots resounds.

A bullet tears through Perkins’ left hand, ripping his fingertips. Still, the 5-foot-6, 165-pound officer scoops up the youngsters, one under each arm.

Then, it’s over in seconds. At least one bullet penetrates Armstrong’s heart.

Clutching the kids, Perkins hustles across the yard. They are met by two burly SWAT officers in combat fatigues and steel helmets. Each holds a white teddy bear wearing Christmas colors, green sweater, red hat.

Malcolm and Tedi, reunited with their mothers and relatives, bear no physical scars of their experience aside from a scratch on Tedi’s knee.

“I am so relieved,” said Margaret Vickson, Tedi’s grandmother.

Tedi’s uncle, Alphonso Wright: “I had faith they were going to come out OK.”

Armstrong’s relatives are outraged. Doretha Owens, his sister, repeatedly begged him to surrender, repeatedly implored police to remain patient.

“He didn’t have to die,” she said over and over.

The shooting is being investigated by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and so police refused to discuss details late Friday.

But they praised Perkins, the nimble savior of those children.

“He actually dove on the suspect so he couldn’t possibly point his weapon at the children,” said SWAT Lt. Bob Gregory. “In my opinion, he is a hero.”

Said Fink, the SWAT commander: “He was willing to sacrifice himself as a shield.”

And they did say that Armstrong gave them little choice but to act.

“We were concerned,” said Kennedy, the police chief. “He had nothing to gain by giving up. He knew what charges were facing him.

“We gave Mr. Armstrong every opportunity to come out peacefully. He did not.”

They said they had to rescue those kids, which they did.

“You don’t have a heart in your body if you didn’t cry when we gave those kids back to their moms,” Fink said.

“We were all crying.”


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