Episode One: April 11, 1986: The bloodiest day in FBI history
2 FBI agents killed, 5 more wounded in Suniland shootout
A suburban tree-lined street looks unassuming in the Miami suburb of Pinecrest. It's an unlikely place where a bloody gun battle between cops and bad guys would have taken place.
The only way you might know anything happened 32 years ago is to take note of the street sign on the corner. Three decks of lettering reads, "Agent Jerry Dove Ave.," then "Agent Benjamin Grogan Ave." and then SW 82nd Ave. If you ask folks in the neighborhood if they know that the street has three names, they say, "Nope. I wasn't aware of that" or "I always just call it 82nd Ave."
There's a dedication marker a few feet away from the street sign. It's one of those historic commemorative signs affixed to a white post. Green with gold lettering. You wouldn't take notice of it unless you were looking for it. It is surrounded by colorful, tropical plants and a wooden frame that cordons it off. The sign has an authoritative seal: "The Village of Pinecrest." Below that it reads: "Special Agent Jerry Dove. Special Agent Benjamin Grogan. The Pinecrest Village Council dedicated this portion of Southwest 82 Avenue on 15th day of May 2001 in memory of these two FBI agents who gave their lives in the line of duty during a gun battle at this site on April 11, 1986."
But on April 11, 1986, it isn't the Village of Pinecrest. That happens 10 years later. In 1986, it's on the books as an unincorporated region of what was then just Dade County.
Whatever its designation, the spot is one that sticks in the history books. It's where, at about 9:30 a.m. on a spring April morning in South Florida, one of the bloodiest shootouts ever happens right here, behind South Dixie Highway, behind the Dixie Belle shopping center, when FBI agents and two armed-and-dangerous robbers exchange 150 gunshots between them over five minutes. Yet, for what the survivors tell The Florida Files, seems like an eternity.
Gun battle in Suniland
"The area where the shootout took place is called Suniland, along 82nd Avenue and 122nd Street, one block east of U.S. 1," Local 10 News, then known as Eyewitness News, reports. "It is a quiet neighborhood of large, single-family homes with well-manicured lawns and lots of children."
William Russell Matix and Michael Lee Platt are, without a doubt, cold-blooded killers. The bank robbers have no mercy. They don't just steal money. Even after getting bags of cash, they shoot -- and shoot to kill. They sometime dress in military gear, wear fatigues and war paint.
They shoot with high-powered weapons in broad daylight, and they don't care if there are civilians around. Get in their way, and they will cut you down.
The FBI report says they have two men on their radar, but they don't know much about them. When they begin robbing banks and armored cars in October 1985, it is the beginning of 18 months of fear for people who work and live along a stretch of Miami's South Dixie Highway.
"The shootout here (is) linked to a story we told you about two weeks ago tonight … we reported on two men who would shoot target hunters out practicing alone in the Everglades, steal their cars and then rob mostly armored truck guards at banks, restaurants, even a grocery store," Connie Hicks, reporting for Local 10 News at the time, tells viewers. "Last month, police got a composite of the two. A victim pumped full of bullets and left for dead survived and gave their descriptions. He said they were good-old boy types who weren't good."
Series of robberies
At 1 p.m. on Oct. 7, 1985, an armored truck guard fires four shots at two men trying to rob him at Dalts restaurant at 11625 N. Kendall Drive.
The same courier is confronted by two men at noon while making a pickup at a Steak and Ale restaurant on 97th Avenue in Miami on Oct. 9, 1985. The guard tells police that two men are wearing military gear and they have automatic weapons. They rob him of a bag of money he is carrying. The men shoot at the truck as it speeds off with an automatic rifle believed to be an AR15 or M16.
On Oct. 16, 1985, Matix and Platt target a Wells Fargo armored truck, which was parked in front of a Winn-Dixie store on Southwest 104th Street. It's about 12:30 p.m. and shoppers are coming out of the store, driving through the parking lot. The guard is shot in the leg. The robbers get away with nothing.
On Oct. 17, 1985, another robbery of a Loomis armored car happens at the same Dalts restaurant.
On Nov. 8, 1985, at 10:33 a.m., the pair holds up a female teller walking from a main bank building to deliver money to an outside teller station. They take $10,000 in cash. Then, only a few hours later at noon, the pair enter a Professional Savings Bank just blocks away. They order customers and tellers to the floor. Witnesses say one is carrying a large revolver and the other has what appears to be an M16 or AR15 rifle. They get $41,469 in this heist.
The robbers, though, favor armored cars because it is quick cash and they don't have to enter a bank. In a bank, there are more witnesses. More chances to get caught. So, on Jan. 10, 1986, at 10:30 a.m., there's a Brinks armored trunk in front of a Barnet Bank, again not too far from the other robberies. This is at 13593 S. Dixie Highway. One of the two men shoots the guard in the back with a shotgun. It's not enough though. His partner in crime comes up and shoots him again at close range with a rifle. They remove a money bag containing $54,000.
Their final holdup is on March 19, 1986, at 9:25 a.m., again at the same Barnett Bank. Investigators believe the robbers watched as an armored car makes a stop just 30 minutes before the heist. They enter the bank, go to a teller window and get two money bags. They only make off with $8,000 in cash.
They take off in a 1979 two-door black Chevrolet Monte Carlo that has been reported stolen. The license plate is Florida tag NTJ 891.
The trail of the black Monte Carlo
The black Monte Carlo belongs to Miami resident Jose Collazzo, who is target shooting on March 12, 1986, at a lake near the Tamiami Trail. Two men engage him in conversation. The men have guns, too, not unusual to Collazzo until they threaten him with a Ruger Mini 14 and a .357 Magnum. They demand his wallet, car and Collazzo's own guns. They take his Smith & Wesson Combat Masterpiece Model 14 and .22 caliber rifle.
One of the men shoot Collazzo three, possibly, four times with the Magnum. He plays dead after they toss him into a rock pit near where he is target practicing. When he is sure they are gone, he drags himself for miles, bleeding, to get help.
I try to find Mr. Collazzo, who would now be in his 70s, but after making calls and knocking on doors, I couldn't find the man who survived the terrible ordeal.
A northwest Dade County resident, Emilio Briel, 25, isn't as fortunate. He tells his family he's going to a rock pit south of the Tamiami Trail to target shoot and disappears on Oct. 5, 1985. The robbers use his car, a gold Chevrolet Monte Carlo, in some of the robberies. Briel's bones would be found by a fisherman in the Everglades in May 1986.
Chase and shootout
"It started as part of an ongoing investigation -- the FBI looking into a series of armored car heists, robbery and bank stickups in South Florida over the past several months," former Local 10 News reporter Susan Candiotti, who would later become a national correspondent for CNN, reports. "Agents spending the morning looking for suspected cars they had a line on in this neighborhood and they spotted one."
One of the agents on the scene that day is John Hanlon. He recalls hearing Grogan's call over the radio.
"We were in front of a bank perpendicular to Federal Highway, Route 1, in front of a bank they had robbed before," Hanlon says. "The homicide captain's son was sitting in a marked car and we were both at a light. Grogan and Dove were in front of us. And we took a right. We were going to set up at a bank. We made the right turn and that's when Ben came on the horn."
Late Miami journalist Bill Cooke posted the audio file of the FBI radio transmission on his Random Pixels blog. The recording is a chilling minute by minute account of what happens. Special Agent Grogan checks in with dispatch, then minutes later he reports that he spots the stolen Monte Carlo on South Dixie Highway. It would be the last time anyone would hear Ben Grogan's voice.
Operator: 11 April 1986, 9:20 a.m. Southwest frequency.
Grogan: Advise the area two units that the FBI is staking out the banks along the highway.
Operator: Attention area two units, the FBI is staking out banks along the highway.
Operator: 9:32 a.m.
Grogan: This is an FBI unit. We've got a black Chevy under surveillance going north on South Dixie Highway at about 120 Street, northbound lane. We believe that it's the black Chevy we've been looking for. Tag number is November Tango Juliet 891. We're gonna stop it.
Operator: It's got a hold on it for our robbery units.
Grogan: We believe it's maybe planned to be used in an armed 29 in the next few minutes.
Grogan and Dove are heading north on South Dixie Highway when they spot the black Monte Carlo. Grogan tells dispatch, "They are making a right turn on 117th Street, right on 117th." Matix is the driver and Platt is the passenger. The FBI report of the investigation, File No. 62-121996, tells much of the details: That the subjects become aware that they are being followed and then slowly begin driving on side streets that they know, and that Grogan and Dove activate their blue light and siren to signal a felony car stop. But the robbers are not phased.
Investigators learn later that the robbers are heavily armed, most likely because they are outfitted for another one of their morning hits at a nearby bank. Platt is armed with a .357 Magnum and Matix has a .357 Dan Wesson revolver. They have a Smith & Wesson 12-gauge shotgun and a Ruger Mini-12 semi-automatic assault rifle.
The chase weaves in an out of side streets in the neighborhood behind Dixie Highway.
Special Agent Richard Manauzzi is following in another vehicle, as Special Agents Edmundo Mireles and John Hanlon pull up alongside of the subject's car. They all attempt to box in the Monte Carlo. As the cars speed down 82nd Avenue, Manauzzi slams the driver's side of the robbers' car. It ends up pinned between a parked car in a yard in front of 12203 SW 82nd Ave. A fifth agent, Gordon McNeill, pulls up to assist. At this point, the car that Grogan is driving with Dove as his passenger has made a U-turn and is parked behind the back of the stolen Monte Carlo.
Mireles recalls what happens just before the Monte Carlo is forced to come to a stop.
"Ben is in front of them trying to slow them down to keep them from speeding away, and I think they saw that," Mireles says. "I guess they were trying to push us off the road so they could make a U-turn. That's the only thing I can think of. One thing leads to another, we lost contact with the car and we ended up crashing up against the wall on the right side of the street. They lost control of the car temporarily and they ended up on the left side of the street and they made a U-turn. I don't even think their car ever stopped moving. And then Manauzzi … I spoke to him after the incident. He said, 'You know, I rammed them from behind. I already damaged the car so I had nothing to lose. So, when I saw them making a U-turn, I said what the heck? I already hit them once. I should just hit them a second time and keep them from escaping.' So he rammed them a second time. That's how they ended up pinned up against a tree."
"There was a point when all the cars came to rest. Manauzzi pinned them in. Jammed in there. And Gordon comes in from the north and parks next to Manauzzi's car. There was a time there, I couldn't tell you if it was a second or five seconds, a point where everything was silent. No cars. No RPMs. No engines revving. No crashing. No tires spinning. Or anything else. Everything was just dead silent. And I spoke to Gordon and he said that when he came out of his car to take a cover position behind Manuazzi's car, he said he was yelling, 'Police, FBI, put your hands up, put your hands up.' He was giving commands. And as soon as he got into a position where the two subjects inside the Monte Carlo could see him clearly, there was this God-awful gunshot blast that sounded from inside the car. He said it was a huge weapon, a huge blast. When he told them to put their hands up, their response was to fire. To shoot. And that was the beginning of the gunfight right there."
Operator: Attention all units. I have shots fired with machine guns at 120 Street, 82 Avenue.
The battle takes place behind the Dixie Belle shopping center. Workers in offices nearby and neighbors call 911, frantic to report what they hear.
"There's a gunfight going on outside my office window," one caller tells the operator. "They have guns and machine guns. A car knocked down a tree."
The operator says she can hear gunfire in the background.
"They are still shooting," the caller says as gunshots can be heard. "It's right outside of the Florida Power & Light substation on 82nd Avenue."
Another caller: "There's someone shooting a gun off here. At least if it's not a gun, it sounds like one. Like rapid fire. I can't be sure, but I'm not going outside."
A man breathing rapidly calls 911.
"There's some kind of a gunfight going on outside of my house at 12203 SW 82nd Ave. There's a lot of gunfire going on. It's right outside my front door."
Another caller says: "I am in an office building on Southwest 124th Street. Someone says there are bodies in the street. What's going on?"
Cars in the neighborhood make their way around the shooting scene, merely slowing down. Witnesses say they didn't stop because they thought it was the filming of a scene from the popular TV program "Miami Vice," which was shot in and around the city from 1984 to 1989.
"Eyewitness say that while the shooting was going on, unsuspecting people were still driving through the area and FBI agents were trying to hold their fire," former Local 10 News reporter Peggy Lewis says at the time.
When all is said and done, Grogran and Dove are dead and five other agents are wounded. The bad guys? Both riddled with bullets, Matix shot six times and Platt shot 12.
Not just another shootout
In 1986, Miami has taken a beaten, its reputation as a place for fun in the sun is been black-eyed and bruised with a reputation worldwide as nefarious playground where bloody, daytime shootouts are a daily occurrence. Notorious as a haven for "cocaine cowboys."
Just five years before, Time magazine publishes a cover story titled "Paradise Lost," chronicling a crime rate out of control from Colombian drug wars. With so many dead bodies, the medical examiner is forced to create a morgue annex using a refrigerated truck.
So what's another gunfight in Miami-Dade County?
This is something law enforcement prepares for but can never imagine. In this case, the FBI is outgunned, too, and it would change how the FBI arms its officers from that day forward.
Matix shoots only one round from a 12-gauge shotgun. Platt shoots at least 42 rounds from the Ruger Mini 14, plus six rounds from two different .357 Magnums.
The agents are firing from revolvers and semi-automatic pistols, which the FBI later says lacked adequate stopping power. Mireles, despite being seriously wounded, his left arm torn apart by gun blasts, manages to engage a Remington 870 slide-action shotgun using only one hand -- not an easy way to maneuver a long gun. He shoots off five rounds, but eventually can no longer rack rounds into the gun's chamber. So, Mireles stumbles to his feet, draws his revolver -- a Smith & Wesson 686 -- and staggers towards an FBI vehicle, which the robbers have taken over to use as their getaway car. At close range, Mireles delivers the final six shots that kill the renegades.
Next on The Florida Files: The minute-by-minute account of the bloody shootout from the agents who survived the gun battle and from a news reporter who arrived at the scene.
Video vault and audio archive for The Florida Files from WPLG Local 10 and Miami Dade College's Wolfson Archives.
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