Episode Two: Shots fired, agents down
Agents who survived 1986 FBI shootout share their memories of fateful day
It's 9 a.m. on Friday, April 11, 1986. Traffic is traveling along a busy stretch of South Dixie Highway. Commuters are making their way to work in the many office buildings that share the landscape with strip shopping malls. South of the Suniland Shopping Center and behind the smaller Dixie Belle Shopping Center is one of Suniland's quaint residential neighborhoods. It's morning. The school bus rush is over. Newspapers tossed from canvas carrier bags by paper boys onto front porches have been scooped up.
Cars roll by with ladies heading to the courts for their daily tennis doubles game. Neighbors wave to each other as they walk their dogs.
There isn't even the faintest sign that not even an hour later this neighborhood will go from a sedate suburb to the scene of pandemonium.
At 9:35 a.m., Dade County police and fire-rescue start to receive a barrage of calls, one right after another, telling of the same story, about a gunfight in their neighborhood.
Local 10 News reporter John Scott reports hours after the shooting: "Two men were seen driving a stolen car believed used in recent bank robberies. After a short chase, the suspects were surrounded here by seven FBI agents. The two men could have given up, but instead came out firing a machine gun."
Scott interviews witnesses who live in the neighborhood. A shocked Billie Holloway and Bob Stebbins describe what they saw.
Holloway compares it to the "O.K. Corral."
"What else?" she says. "They're just in the middle of the street shooting. I mean, it's just unbelievable. You see the hand guns, you know, going in every-which-way direction."
"One fellow was crouched behind the trunk of his car," Stebbins says. "That was the white car. And he was crouched down firing over the hood. All of a sudden, he just got hit, a series of blood showed up around his neck and he just fell over like a jackknife."
Later, it would be discovered that it was Special Agent Gordon McNeill, when he was hit by Platt, who Stebbins saw fall to the ground.
When paperboys deliver the newspaper the next day on those same front porches, writer Carl Hiaasen's front-page story in the Miami Herald describes the aftermath: "One color of death was bright yellow," it reads. "Yellow were the police ribbons that stretched from tree to tree. Yellow was the color of the plastic sheets that covered the two FBI agents, who lay dead in the shade of a black olive tree. Occasionally the breeze would lift the sheets, and a policeman or federal agent would hurry forward to cloak them again. The dead killers lay bloody and uncovered."
Then-Eyewitness News reporter Peggy Lewis recounts to television viewers that employees of the business near where the shootout happened told her that they thought they heard firecrackers. One man she interviews says that his first impulse was to go out and see what was going on.
"Fortunately, reason took over and I didn't go out the back door," he says.
Lewis reports: "The residents of this neighborhood are still shocked by the shootout, but everyone we talked to expressed an understanding for the necessity of police undercover work. They say it could happen any time, any place. Especially in a city with an ongoing war against crime."
How it all began
Miami Division Special Agents Benjamin Grogan and Gordon McNeill are on the FBI's C-1 Miami bank robbery squad.
McNeill is the supervising agent. It's Thursday, April 10, 1986, and the two are at firearms training. McNeill tells Grogan what's been rattling around in his head. It's the pattern that the two brazen bank robbers have begun to reveal. The FBI has been investigating them for more than a year now.
The ruthless killers have started to get a bit predictable. Later identified as William Russell Matix, 34, and Michael Lee Platt, 32, they had been showing up on Fridays, holding up banks and armored cars in the morning between 9 a.m. and noon.
McNeill's thinking tomorrow, Friday, April 11, might be one of those days. And the robbers hit banks all within a 40- block radius. It's later discovered that the places they were robbing weren't far from where each of the men lived.
While canvassing the area on surveillance, FBI agents spot them driving a stolen car that that they had used in at least one bank robbery.
"Two weeks ago, Eyewitness News reported that police were looking for two men who would shoot target hunters in the Everglades, steal their cars and rob armored cars and banks," Lewis reports. "Police believe that Platt and Matix were those two men."
Lewis interviews one of the detectives who is working the case.
"The robberies they committed and the shootings in the Everglades were very brutal, very cold-blooded," the detective says.
FBI Special Agent Edmundo Mireles is assigned to the surveillance.
"People have asked us, 'Hey, what caused you guys to be out there that day?' It's just happenstance, like chance," Mireles says. "Gordon (McNeill) had been at firearms training on Thursday with Ben Grogan and they were kicking the case around and Gordon asks Ben, he says, 'Hey, listen? How about if we run a surveillance tomorrow?' And my understanding is that Ben said, 'Yeah, sure, Gordon. What's up? What do you know?' He said, 'I don't really know anything. I just have a hunch,' and that's exactly the word he used, 'hunch.' He said, 'Hey, these guys can hit any day of the week, but they hit on Fridays 50 percent of the time.' So that is an intuitive educated guess, I guess you could call it. So, 50 percent of the robberies were on Fridays, and he said, 'The last time they hit a bank was three weeks prior, and they only got $8,000.' So, Gordon says, 'It's my hunch, my opinion, that they probably ran out of money already.' So he says, 'I think they are due and tomorrow is Friday, so I think we should probably run a surveillance.' And that is exactly the way it started. No tip. No information. Nothing from another law enforcement agency or a bank, just Gordon with his intuitive police work."
The hunch pans out
Acting on McNeill's hunch, it's decided. On Friday, April 11, 1986, 14 agents in 10 FBI cars are to meet to at "0900 hours to get their assignments for surveillance of a section along South Dixie Highway."
Ben Grogan relays to dispatch. "This is the FBI, we're staking out banks along South Dixie Highway."
Only a few minutes later, he would radio that he had spotted the car they were looking for. Then, only a few minutes after that, someone radios to dispatch. "We have shots fired! Shots fired!"
"The blood stains remain tonight in the middle of this Kendall street -- the blood from one of Dade County's worst multiple shootings," Scott reports from the scene that evening. "Two agents died here this morning and three others were wounded while trying to apprehend two bank robbery suspects. The two dead agents are identified as 53-year-old Benjamin Grogan, a 25-year-veteran, and 30-year-old Jerry Dove, an agent for just four years."
An FBI spokesman tells reporters at the scene: "Apparently, when they believed they had sufficient assistance, an attempt was made to pull this vehicle over. At that point, a confrontation ensued, shot were fired, which resulted in the killing of the two individuals that were pulled over by the agents, the killing of two FBI agents and the wounding of five other agents ... two of them superficially."
Like it was yesterday
Three of the agents who took part in that stakeout that day tell The Florida Files that they remember it like it was yesterday and that they still have flashbacks about it. They confide that their emotions range from anger to gratitude to guilt and back to gratefulness.
Agents Edmundo Mireles (his fellow agents call him Eddie) and John "Jake" Hanlon tell harrowing stories of what it was like to stare death in the face that day. Agent Brian Jerome admits to survivor's guilt. He could have been in the car with Grogan, who first spotted the bad guys in a stolen car then alerted the others. Grogan was the 26th agent killed in the line of duty that day. Jerome knows he could have ended up being a statistic. Instead, Dove was riding with Grogan.
Dove becomes the number -- the 27th FBI agent killed in the line of duty.
To provide some history: The FBI calls them "service martyrs," a designation which began in 1925 with Special Agent Edwin C. Shanahan being named the first after he is murdered by a car thief in Chicago.
These are the survivor's stories from the bloodiest shootout in FBI history, when about 150 shots were exchanged in five minutes between bad guys and cops.
The agents say their day starts out like any other day, but that their lives and the lives of their comrades dramatically change in a matter of minutes.
Mireles and Hanlon didn't think they'd even be here to tell the stories of what it was like to go up against the two "never-say-die" killers who were hellbent on not giving up. The agents were hellbent, too. They recall their motivation to fight until the end. And, for one agent, he says he lives with the fact every day that, as fate would have it, Grogan changed his mind.
"You know, it was just a routine day," Mireles says. "It was kind of like the quiet before the storm, but no one knew the storm was coming."
Mireles wrote a book titled "FBI Miami Firefight: Five Minutes That Changed the Bureau." It took him years to finish it, he says. For one reason, because he had to wait until he retired in 2004.
"A federal employee writing a book is considered outside employment and you can't have outside employment," he says.
The other is because publishers told him the original manuscript was overwritten with too much of his own backstory, so he ended up cutting out a lot about the "small town boy from South Texas who does good." But he finally did it. He released the book in 2017. He wanted to "set the record straight about what happened that day."
Mireles, who was awarded the FBI's first-ever Medal of Valor, has been lauded as the hero of the Suniland shootout, a designation he has, from the very beginning, downplayed. But the facts are the facts. The truth of the matter is, he was the one that ended the gunfight for good. He was the one who delivered the final shots that killed Matix and Platt.
"As a police officer, you have to know that you can run into problems any day," Mireles says. "Honestly, I mean, I don't think anybody had a clue, an inkling, of what was going to happen in the next 30 minutes."
'Cosmic dominoes fall'
Problems yes, but no one could have predicted the chaos. Special Agent Richard Manauzzi, who had put his service revolver on the seat next to him in an agency blue Buick, ready for action, loses his gun when it falls to the floor of the car. Hanlon's service revolver, although in its holster, is lost somewhere in the gold Plymouth he's driving with Mireles as his passenger. The car that ends up crashing into a wall across the street from where the shootout begins and ends. All Hanlon is left with is his five-shot Smith & Wesson snub-nose revolver in his ankle holster.
Another of what Mireles calls in his book "cosmic dominoes falling" is Grogan's glasses, which get knocked off during the collisions in the car he's driving with Dove as a passenger. It is a white agency Buick. He needs his glasses to see, let alone shoot straight. Grogan, however, is credited with the first hit of the gunfight -- a bullet that hits Matix in the arm.
McNeill, who is one of the three agents seriously wounded in the Suniland shootout, talks in an FBI training video about the glasses being lost. The training video was filmed interviewing the agents involved as a sort of post-mortem of what happened. The training video has valuable interviews because two of the agents who appear in it are now deceased. McNeill died in 2004, 18 years after the shootout, at the age of 61 from cancer.
FBI Supervisory Special Agent Wade Jackson asks McNeill: "Gordon, there was something you wanted to say about Ben and his glasses."
McNeill responds: "If there ever was an FBI agent that I met in my 21 years in this organization that prepared his entire life for April 11, 1986, it was Ben Grogan. Formerly the head of the SWAT team. Probably the best shot we had out there. Probably the most experienced and highly trained agent we had out there on April 11, 1986, but in a very tragic irony, when Grogan's car came skidding into a halt prior to the shooting actually starting after Manauzzi had already taken the subjects into the trees, Grogan stopped so abruptly in his automobile, the agent who had prepared his whole life for this incident, his glasses flew off his face and they later found them under the brake pedal of the car. And what it came down to at the end, with myself down, Ed Mireles down, Manauzzi was injured, Hanlon was down, Orantia was injured, Ben was there with his weapon in his hand, and he was asking, 'Where is everybody?' Because as I was later told by associates of Ben that he couldn't see 10 feet without his glasses."
Despite a deep dive of studies and graphs and video reenactments by the FBI, the hows, the whys and the whats of went wrongs, the stories straight from the survivors paint the best picture of what happened in those fateful five minutes.
McNeill sums it up on the FBI training video.
"No one anticipated this," McNeill says. "I know you always have to expect the unexpected, but I don't know if anyone really anticipated being involved in the violent collisions that Manauzzi ended up in and that John Hanlon and Ed Mireles ended up in across the street."
As much as you read the FBI reports, newspaper stories, Mireles' book, it's mind-boggling what went on in a matter of minutes. It's a lot to take in. A barrage of bullets are flying. Platt is riddled with bullets and not giving up the fight. He had shot 42 rounds from the Ruger Mini-14, plus six rounds from two different .357 Magnums. Matix had shot only one round from a 12-gauge shotgun.
Manauzzi is the first hit when Matix fires his shotgun. It is, apparently, the only shot Matix got off. Platt is hit numerous times as he climbs out of the window of the Monte Carlo's passenger door and slides across the hood of the civilian Cutlass sedan.
The shots that hit him are believed to have been from Dove's 9 mm. But Platt puts an end to that as one of the bullets hits Dove's gun and renders it inoperable.
Some reports say that perhaps that's what gave Platt the advantage to come up on Grogan and Dove as they were trying to get Dove's gun back in working order. But it's speculation, as the only people who could have seen what happened, Grogan and Dove, ended up shot and killed, and the third agent nearby, Hanlon, was severely injured.
Manauzzi tells Local 10's Mel Taylor from his hospital bed the day after the shooting what he remembers.
"I couldn't see his hands at all," Manauzzi recalls. "It was very dark. I was aware he had a weapon. I had my weapon drawn, but I was kind of reluctant to shoot until I was sure that my life was in danger. Next thing I heard was two blasts. I felt one of them hit me, but I really didn't feel any damage. I didn't feel the second one. Then I just went into what we're trained to do and I shot six shots at the subject and I reloaded my revolver, took cover and watched him to see if he would pop up again. That's when I noticed that I was hit."
McNeill is shot by Platt in the hand early in the gunfight. As he is trying to reload his gun with his good hand, he's shot in the neck by Platt's high-powered Ruger Mini-14.
Mireles, with a revolver and a 12-gauge shotgun, remembers scanning the scene.
"I decide to run across the street to reinforce Ben and Jerry," Mireles says. "My reality wasn't ordinary. Right now, I'm talking to you and I'm looking at my office here. It's normal perception, but I could tell that as I'm running across the street that my perception was altered."
Mireles recalls that everything felt as if it had slowed down.
"Well, not completely, but slower than normal," he says. "Because I remember looking across the street and I remember very clearly and looking at Ben Grogan and it was like 20/20 vision. He had his weapon up and he was firing, and he would fire and I could distinguish his gunshots. I look out of the corner of my eye to the right and I see John Hanlon running to reinforce Ben and Jerry. And I think to myself, 'Well, this is not good.' If John and I go to Ben and Jerry's position, there will be four agents on the right side of this line, and there will be only one agent on the left side of this line. So, I made an instantaneous decision. I veered off to the left and I went to try to reinforce Gordon and as I'm running, I'm looking and I'm listening. You can hear the pop pops and the bangs. Then I heard this, 'Kaboom! Kaboom!' And it was like a cannon, it sounded like. I'm thinking, 'Oh shit, someone's got a shotgun that they are using it against us.' It was an intimidating sound. And a funny thing happened to me on the way to the gunfight. I didn't make it. One second I'm running and looking at Gordon's back and the next second I'm on my back looking up at blue skies. And I'm thinking, 'What the hell happened, you know?' I didn't realize I had been shot."
Two more agents, Gilbert Orrantia and Ron Risner, have joined the gunfight and are firing from across the street. Orrantia is hit, but not seriously injured.
Staring death in the face
Hanlon, who worked as an assistant state attorney for Broward County among other jobs after he left the FBI, says it's strange the things you think about when lives are hanging in the balance. He says he has a simple reason why he ran to Grogan across Southwest 82nd Avenue to take the position he did.
That decision would almost cost Hanlon his life.
"I didn't want Ben to be myself," Hanlon says. "When I lived in New Jersey back in the 1940s, my mother used to let me go to the movies the day before Christmas. I saw this movie with Alan Ladd, 'O.S.S.,' and there was a scary scene in that. I must have been 7 or 8 maybe, and it scared the hell out of me, but I thought as long as I had somebody with me, I'd be OK. Strange things that go through your mind."
By the time he got there, he says, Platt had disappeared.
"I lost my big gun in the wreck and I have this silly five-shot ankle thing, and I empty that at the driver, and I went down to reload," Hanlon says. "And then he shot me through the fingers and threw shrapnel into my thigh and the back of my arm, and that must've hit something because the blood geysered out of my arm."
Hanlon says he knows he was the last person to talk to Grogan.
"I said, 'Ben, I've been hit.' I was laying on my back behind the car. (Platt) came up behind the rear fender of Ben's car," Hanlon recalls. "As he came around, you can see when he's pumping out. He comes around behind Grogan's car and there's big splats of blood and that's when he came around and stood between my legs and I tried to kick him and he shot me in the groin. I said (to Ben), 'The son-of-a-bitch shot me in the balls.' I went over on my side and that's when Jerry fell down, and the only thing separating my head from his was his right shoulder blade. I was looking in his ear, and he tried to raise his head. He dropped his head down. That's when I saw the hole in the back of his head. And then Ben said, 'Oh my, God!' and fell down and went 'ugh.'"
Hanlon says it's the closest he's ever come to death.
"I thought he was going to kill me and I was shaking," he says. "I got a little depressed because I didn't want to die and I couldn't get up. I thought to myself, 'He's going to shoot me, but if he shoots me from a distance I'll just hear a bang and that will be it, but if he puts it against my head, because he was standing right over me, I'll know it's coming and that'll scare the shit out of me.' I said, 'I gotta settle myself,' and that's when I flopped over on my back and tried to stop shaking. That's when I saw Ben. He was laying down at my feet. Somewhere along the line, I heard the 'pow, pow, pow, pow,' which I learned later was Eddie finishing them off."
Risner, who died in 2002, from what Mireles says in his book was complications from an Alzheimer's-like illness possibly brought on by his exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam, tells a story in that FBI training video about the moment when he believes Ben and Jerry's lives could have been saved. From his vantage point, from across the street, he could see exactly what was going on, but with so much sound from all the gunfire, his warnings of Platt closing in were never heard.
Jackson asks Risner: "Ron, how did you feel when your shouted warnings to Ben and Jerry appeared to go unnoticed?"
Risner responds: "That's the worst part of it all. Obviously, if they would have heard me and had the time to react, it would have been a different story."
For Special Agent Brian Jerome, fate intervened on his behalf on April 11, 1986.
"I've worked with Ben and I was on the SWAT team with Ben," Jerome says. "Prior to coming to work every day we would work out. I was assigned to another building because, at the time, Miami was growing so rapidly. We couldn't house all these agents. Ben was in the main office, and I was two blocks down from the main office. So, that day, Ben and I were planning on working out. And he called me and said, 'Hey, look, I gotta go out on a surveillance.' I said, 'I don't mind going out on a surveillance because it beats looking at bank records for another eight hours.' So, he said, 'I'll come over and pick you up.' He was coming over to pick me up, and then he called me back. He said to me, 'I'm going to keep this as a squad thing. And I'm going to go with Jerry.' I said, 'Are you sure, because I have all my gear?' He says, 'Nah, I'll just go with Jerry and I'll pick you up later.'
Years later, Jerome still mulls over the exchange with Grogan.
"You know, I was one phone call from going in the car with him because he had called and said, 'Yeah, I'll pick you up,' and then he called back about two minutes later and he said, 'Never mind,'" Jerome says. "I was literally getting my stuff out of my car for him to drive over and to throw my stuff in his car. And I have that little bit of survivor's guilt going. Why was it Jerry and not me? And I don't know. Maybe it just wasn't my time. The good Lord said, 'No.'"
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