Episode Five: Putting the pieces together
After Suniland FBI shootout, April 11 will never be the same
One investigator calls William Russell Matix and Michael Lee Platt a modern version of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. They are the two daring robbers who, when confronted by FBI agents on a suburban street in Miami-Dade County, come out shooting. They turn a neighborhood into a battlefield in broad daylight on a sunny April morning.
Then-Eyewitness News reporter Vickie Frazier reports that people in the area are puzzled by the sounds erupting in their neighborhoods, something they had not heard before.
"Some say it sounded like firecrackers or a scene out of 'Miami Vice' -- a loud popping sound that lasted for 10 to 15 minutes," Frazier says.
After two FBI agents are killed, five others wounded, three seriously, and two killers are finally struck down after a lengthy gunfight, the dust settles. Sort of.
Suburban family men behind robberies
Stunned is how police describe their findings when they learn that these two suburban family men are behind almost a dozen robberies of banks and armored cars. It's believed they are responsible for killing one man, leaving him dead in the Everglades after stealing his car to use in heists and shooting another, who survives, also to take his car.
Before everything comes to a screeching halt, police spend 18 months trying to figure it all out. The FBI is involved because of the bank robberies, and Miami-Dade police are investigating the stolen cars, a homicide and the attempted murders of one man and armored guards.
Is this gang-related? Are they targeting bank to get cash to fund terrorist groups? Is it some extremist plot?
Miami-Dade police Sgt. Tony Monheim says it did, at the time, seem likely.
"I had been in robbery for 10 years by then and there were a lot of armored car and bank robberies," he recalls. "When we are searching for these guys who are committing robberies up and down U.S. Route 1, I remember we were brainstorming. One of the things we talked about was how armored car robbers and bank robbers are so different. And it was unusual -- in fact, it almost unheard of -- for armored car robbers to rob banks and vice versa. They are two very different personality types. Bank robbers are much more professional, usually calm, and they go in with a note. On the other hand, armored car robbers are lunatics. Anyone that would take on an armored car has to be crazy."
Monheim tells a local newspaper in the midst of looking for the robbers that maybe the violent acts were committed by an extremist group.
"We thought it might be a larger group," he says in an interview with the Florida Files. "Maybe there were some of individuals who were robbing armored cars and some robbing banks."
Monheim remembers thinking that the pattern of the robbery follows past history.
"If you look back at the Black Panthers, and the groups that Bill Ayers was part of, his Weather Underground, for instance, were historically into robbing banks to fund money to their causes," Monheim says. "We knocked that around that maybe these robbers were funding some sort of cause. (The crimes) were so frequent and they were getting quite a bit of money from each of these hits. We were so baffled. Of course, it ended up not being the case."
In the 1980s, Miami is the home of cocaine cowboys, people shot on city streets, body counts daily for drug deals gone bad. So how unusual was this raging gunfight at a time in Miami when it seemed commonplace?
Miami-Dade police Sgt. David Rivers agrees, but says while there was a lot of crime in Miami at the time, the Suniland shootout got a lot of attention.
What makes it so different, he says, is that it involved federal agents.
"There was national interest in that," he says.
Matix and Platt aren't part of a gang, involved in the Colombian drug cartel or working to funnel money anywhere except to line their own pockets. But, had they'd been investigated a bit closer, Matix and Platt may have come to the forefront of law enforcement's radar. The two men had pasts -- pasts that may have prevented them from being able to run amok robbing banks and shooting armored car guards. The trouble is no one ever much bothered to look into it.
William Russell Matix is known as a nice guy, military veteran, who finds Jesus and becomes a born-again Christian after the murder of his wife. When he moves to Florida, Matix joins the congregation at Riverside Baptist Church in Kendall. During a Sunday sermon, he speaks about what he left behind in Ohio after his wife, Patty, is stabbed along with her co-worker, Joyce McFadden, in a Columbus hospital. Riverside Baptist records it.
"I used to drown in my own pity," he says. "I'd look over and I'd say, 'God, what have I done to you, buddy, to deserve this? You take my wife from me.' And then one day it came to me: God didn't come down here and stab her 16 times and cut her throat. God didn't do that. Some bozo did that and if I'm here tomorrow, praise the Lord. But if I'm not I know where I'm gonna be. I'll be right up there with my wife and my father."
He blows out a lighted candle on the pulpit to make a point.
"You see that candle? Now, the way that candle was blowed out, her life was snuffed out just like that, so like I said, you just never know. One day you're here and the next day you're gone."
After Matix is identified as half of a dastardly duo of cold-blooded, killing bank robbers and one of the two men who turned a residential street into a battlefield, people who knew him at Kendall's Riverside Baptist Church tell police that there was something odd about Matix. They now think the churchgoer's devoted front was a way to pick up women and that he used the church like some men used a singles' bar. They say his portrayal of the grieving widower left with a small baby was another ploy.
Investigators talk to women who knew him from the church. They say he was proposing marriage to them after only a few dates. He was engaged to one woman, who ends up not going through with the wedding.
But Christy Lou Horne does go through with it. She meets Matix at a church volleyball game, he woos her and she falls for him.
Within weeks of their meeting, Christy discovers she is pregnant. Deeply religious, she prays to God.
"If there is some reason for me to have this baby the first time I went to bed with a man, there must be some reason. You want this child here," she is quoted in a People magazine article about the 1986 shootout.
Matix insists they marry, and she agrees. They wed in May 1985. But within two weeks of the marriage, Christy says Dr. Jekyll has turned to Mr. Hyde. She calls him a monster.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
After she learns of his killing, she tells a newspaper that she doesn't grieve for her dead husband. Not wanting to be seen on camera, she agrees to an interview on April 17, 1986, with then-Eyewitness News reporter Susan Candiotti. She is seen in a dark silhouette.
Candiotti says that Christy tells her she is "dumbfounded" and in shock after she finds out her estranged husband was involved in a life of crime.
"It's like we each saw one piece of the puzzle," she says in the interview. "By itself, it was insignificant … but when I took my piece, his sister's piece, with the housekeeper's, with his parents, when you start putting them down on the table, it made a picture."
Local 10 News reports that Christy Matix hadn't lived with her husband since the fall before the shooting. When she left him, pregnant with their child, they had only been married a few months.
Despite strong religious convictions, she said that problems she was facing at work and at home forced the split. Now she figures a greater force was involved.
"God took me out of a situation," she says. "I didn't even understand why I had left, quite honestly. It's not something I would have ordinarily done."
Columbus detectives search the home she had previously shared with Matix, searching for a link into his first wife's murder.
When telephoned recently, Christy Lou Horne isn't willing to meet to talk about her short marriage to Bill Matix. She says that the same still holds true now as it did then and that she has done everything she can to protect her son, the boy she had with Matix. She then hangs up the phone.
I try to find Melissa, the daughter Matix had with wife Patty. She was only 3 months old when Patty was murdered.
An obituary from Jacksonville Memory Gardens for Melissa Lynn Missy Matix-Fasone cites that she passed away on Oct. 5, 2009, a day before her 27th birthday, that she loved cooking and the culinary arts and had been employed by Ruby Tuesday restaurants.
Her dead father had a knack and interest in cooking. After service in Korea, he had gone to chef's school in New York. He had studied meat cutting.
The suicide of Regina Platt
The other half of the murderous pair, Michael Lee Platt, remarried after the suicide of his first wife, Regina.
Frazier reports that residents living in the Hammocks neighborhood where Platt lived with his wife and three children were surprised by his secret life of crime.
Monheim is assigned to deliver the news of the death to Platt's wife, Brenda. He talks to Local 10 News about showing up at the door.
"They considered him a family man. They didn't consider him to be the type of person that could be involved in activities such as this," Monheim tells Frazier on camera. "In fact, his brother, when he was told that (Michael) was dead, assumed that he had gotten hurt on the job by falling out of a tree or some kind of injury. They were all very shocked naturally. They considered this completely out of character."
Monheim remembers searching Platt's home looking for guns. He tells the Florida Files that they didn't find any.
"No guns, nothing," he says. "We didn't find a thing."
But there are questions that reemerge about Platt's first wife, Regina, and her questionable death on Dec. 30, 1984, in Miami.
Columbus-based crime writer David Meyers spent years delving into the death of Patty Matix and wrote about her murder at a Columbus hospital in his book, "Historic Columbus Crimes," but he also followed the trail of blood to Miami with Regina Platt's death, too. He says that the investigating officer on the suicide of Platt's wife believed she was murdered. He says that Matix was allegedly present in the next room when Regina took her own life.
"Police very much believed that Matix and Platt were sharing this woman and, in fact, it was suggested that Platt said she felt guilty because she had an affair with Matix," Meyers says.
But, he says, there was something that drove her to kill herself.
Miami-Dade police Sgt. David Rivers says the case is reopened after the discoveries of Platt and Matix's criminal dealings. But as quickly as it is reopened, all the facts come back to the same conclusion: Regina Platt took her own life.
He says forcible homicide is ruled out for a few reasons: there were no marks that she might have been tied down, no marks on her teeth or lips, "like someone tried to shove the gun in her mouth," and he says toxicology reports showed no drugs in her system.
Police learn something else from interviewing one of Platt's girlfriends, Rivers says.
"She told us this: that Platt was upset that she killed herself because he was going to kill her."
A real Hollywood story
With so many stories and the tragic loss of two special agents, FBI heroes that emerge and killers with mysterious pasts, the script of the Suniland FBI shootout couldn't have been better for a made-for-TV movie. Hollywood responds to the call.
"In The Line of Duty: The FBI Murders" airs on NBC on Nov. 27, 1988. It stars "Family Ties" actor Michael Gross as Matix and heartthrob David Soul as Platt.
Special Agent Ed Mireles tells me the film takes plenty of dramatic liberties. They dress his character in red stretch pants.
"I never wore red spandex pants in my life," he says. "I thought it was quite funny."
He says no one from the movie called him for an interview.
"They took our statements from the case files, and that's what they used," he says.
Mireles says that half the story was "made up." He recalls the beginning of the movie.
"Ben Grogan is riding a bike to work and someone almost runs him over," he says. "Well, that was totally made up. Ben Grogan rode his bike, but on trails in the Everglades and state parks. He wouldn't ride a bike to work. They got so many parts of the shooting incident messed up, too. I'm generous when I say the movie was 50-to-60 percent correct."
Hollywood doesn't come to Miami, either. The movie is shot in Tampa.
More documentary than a fictional account is "Firefight," part of "The FBI Files" TV series that airs on March 26, 2000, on the Discovery Channel. Mireles is interviewed for that movie. He's the only agent shown on camera wearing a black hood over his head.
"I was working undercover, and I didn't want people to see what I looked like," he says.
David Culver, Matix's former friend and pastor, has his own reactions to the films. He says the reenactments were difficult to watch.
"For the most part, it was pretty good," Culver says. "But I could only watch it once, and that was pretty painful. It was very painful."
Culver says he wasn't contacted for any of the movies, but People magazine and other print publications contacted him.
"They wanted to get what they could about (Matix's) past," he says.
Agents of change
The reality of what happened on that residential street has far reaching implications, from how law enforcement arms its agents to the area where the shootout occurred getting its own police force.
"It was a watershed moment for the FBI. I know this as a former agent: we didn't carry those kinds of weapons, the kind that Platt had," recalls James E. McDonald, a former FBI agent and now in his sixth year as a Pinecrest councilman.
According to PoliceMag.com, the FBI begins phasing out revolvers and .38 special ammo after the shootout. Bill Vanderpool of Gun Digest writes: "The Miami shootout of April 11, 1986, led to bullet penetration and ammo tests for the FBI."
Vanderpool is part of a group that is tasked with determining how the training and equipment the agents had that day performs.
"One striking flaw was discovered: the performance of the ammunition," he says. "Key to this was a shot taken by Jerry Dove, whose .9mm projectile hit one of the subjects in the arm, penetrated the chest and then stopped just short of the heart. That is when it became apparent that more penetration was critical."
There is much talk about how so many gunshots didn't stop either of the men. Matix is shot six times, and Platt 12, but they are still not incapacitated enough to stop the gunfight. In fact, they were able to crawl into Grogran and Dove's car to try to make a getaway, until Mireles finally was able to shoot them, almost at point-blank range, to stop them.
"Because of what happened here, FBI agents now carry .9mm semi-automatic handguns," Local 10 News reporter Rad Berkey says in a 2006 report commemorating 20 years since the shootout. "Because on that morning here 20 years ago, they had to fight back using only six-shot revolvers."
Special Agent Gil Orrantia, who was injured during the shootout, remembers: "I was having to go back to reload, which took me out of the fight for a while."
It was a defining moment, too, for what is now Pinecrest, but what is then on the books as an unincorporated region of Miami-Dade County.
McDonald says although he wasn't part of the incorporation group, he does believe the FBI shootout had an influence on the area becoming its own entity.
"I think it was part of a continuum," McDonald says. "Probably the No. 1 issue for our community was better law enforcement, our own police department, and that has been the hallmark of Pinecrest. We have an excellent police department, detectives, sworn officers, motorcycle patrol. The shootout is part of our history here. When it comes to our community, what happened on 82nd Avenue, there's no question in my mind that it was part of the overall building blocks of why we wanted to incorporate."
April 11 never forgotten
At the end of the FBI's training video, "Firefight," Special Agent Wade Jackson asks the agents who were part of the bloodiest day in FBI history this: "If we can leave the people who will view this presentation with a parting message based on the experience that you had on April 11, what would that message be?"
Ed Mireles answers: "I think the will to survive basically says it all. When I was reminiscing about the incident, I was reminded about of a poem by Dylan Thomas. It is a poem about dying, and it goes, 'Do not go gentle into that good night, rage, rage, rage against the dying of the light.' That poem had an impact on me as a young man, and I guess you could say that I was raging against the dying of the light on April 11.'"
When asked if he commemorates the event each year, Mireles says he does tell his wife, Liz, that it's like celebrating a second birthday and that he'll never forget he was part of a team that day.
"I was just helping them, you know, in the fight," he tells Berky in the 2006 interview. "The fact that I was the last-man standing, you know, just happened to be chance, is what it was."
Mireles says every April 11, he exchanges telephone calls with the guys who are still around.
"We kind of keep the memory going and we reminiscence about Ben, Jerry, Gordon and Ron," he says. "At some point and time, there will be a last-man standing. So who will it be that will have the last living memory of the event?"
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