Sunday, June 27, 2010

Friday, June 25, 2010

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Small town siege

To Leanne Merrill, it sounded like firecrackers.

She was watching television when she heard the pops, at first indistinct but recognizable in that way where the brain processes information without completely making all the connections. Firecrackers, and much earlier in June than expected, she thought. A peek out the window revealed nothing but an empty street golden with the setting sun, so she opened the door and stepped outside.

Justin Arpin, Merrill’s neighbor to the east at 408 Lincoln, also thought firecrackers were to blame. Earlier he had seen kids playing outside so it was possible they had got their hands on some, but these reports sounded different. A rapid volley sounded and then another. Something slammed into the house with a thud that reverberated like glass on metal.

No, he decided, they weren’t firecrackers.

A rattle of explosions jarred Merrill. Across the intersection from her house at 409 Lincoln, a sheriff’s deputy was firing a pistol. Another man fired back. Glass shattered.

Merrill dashed back into the house, locked the door and headed for the bathroom.

From the front window Arpin watched a Marshall County Sheriff’s Department patrol car speed away. Like his neighbor, Arpin stepped out to see what was going on. A Kansas Highway Patrol vehicle roared past, heading east. People were swarming out of everywhere, out of nowhere, curious neighbors and law enforcement officers and more law enforcement officers. The street in front of his house was a hive of activity.

Wayne Whitesell was at his in-laws’ house when his cell phone rang. A deputy had been shot in his driveway, his son told him. At first Whitesell thought it was a joke, but then he remembered hearing the odd firecracker sounds a little earlier. He jumped in his car and headed for home.

Arpin walked over to his back door and found a short tear in the sliding screen and a fifty-cent size hole smashed into the lower frame. Pieces of vinyl lay about like broken pottery. Not far away rested a single spent bullet.

His grandmother, Lindsay Woodside, joined him. She did a double-take when she saw the damage to the door.

“I just had that door replaced two months ago,” she said. “I couldn’t believe this was happening. I mean, we’re in Blue Rapids, Kansas, midway nowhere USA. Nothing ever happens here.”

Whitesell found a strange vehicle parked in his driveway. The driver’s door stood open. The rear window was shattered.

For Whitesell, Arpin and Merrill—for most of the population of Blue Rapids—it was going to be a very long night.


It was supposed to be a routine traffic stop for Marshall County Sheriff’s Deputy Fernando Salcedo. What he didn’t know when he hit the sirens was that driving the white 2001 Mazda four-door was Stephen Macomber, wanted for questioning in a murder that had happened that afternoon in Topeka. It was around 8:15 p.m.

There was nothing routine about what happened next. The vehicle skidded across the intersection of 5th Street and Lincoln, jumped the curb and tore across Whitesell’s lawn before coming to rest in his driveway. Macomber engaged Salcedo in a short gunfight. Both were wounded in the exchange, Salcedo shot through the left wrist and back, Macomber with an undisclosed wound. Macomber then stole Salcedo’s patrol car and fled the scene.

As a manhunt extended throughout the region and law enforcement agencies responded in full force, with deputies from Riley, Nemaha, Brown, Pottawatomie, Clay, Washington and Marshall counties as well as members of the Kansas Highway Patrol and the Kansas Bureau of Investigation pouring into Blue Rapids, the 911 center in Marysville was jammed with calls. Some were hysterical, others seeking information. One in particular caught the attention of an alert dispatcher: a neighbor reported seeing a bleeding man back a cruiser into a garage at 414 E. 5th St. in Blue Rapids.

Marshall County Sheriff Dan Hargrave ordered the house surrounded. It was a large two-story brick home, neatly kept, on the east end of town. The question was whether the owner, Hedy Saville, was inside, and also whether Macomber was there or if it was just another rumor. Hargrave had several options for finding out, and chose the easier, and safest. He called the house.

Saville answered. She was calm and unhurt, she said. And then she told Hargrave that someone wanted to speak to him.

It was, Hargrave said, one of the worst moments in his career. “This is the real deal,” he thought. The situation suddenly veered from bad to worst: they now had a hostage situation.


The KBI set up a command post and began coordinating responses. The town was sealed with roadblocks to the east and west. As night settled in, officers began evacuating residences for two blocks surrounding Saville’s house. A reverse 911 call went out advising residents to remain inside and to lock their doors.

Though a small crowd formed in front of Whitesell’s house—about the farthest one could go into town without being turned back by a roadblock—the real audience gathered on the Internet.

As the events unfolded, it became a social event on an unprecedented scale. Residents and outsiders alike tweeted minute-by-minute updates while others chatted on Facebook and other websites geared toward the dispersal of personal—and often hysterical—ruminations. Others discovered (and immediately shared, posted or tweeted) a weblink that tapped into police communications for a blow-by-blow account.

Rumors flourished like bacteria in a petri dish. The perp was holed up in the nursing home, in a residence on the west side of town. For many armchair quarterbacks whose knowledge of police procedurals extended only to overhyped Hollywood episodes, the question most asked was why weren’t police battering down the door and ending the standoff once and for all so they could safely return to their cozy beds and drift off into dreamless sleep. By allowing the suspect full run of the house, not a few clamored, the police had effectively surrendered control.

The reality wasn’t that simple.

The first rule was to stabilize the crime scene. The suspect was surrounded with no means of escape. Negotiators tried to convince the suspect to release his hostage unharmed, thus relinquishing his only ace and assuring the safety of the innocent. Once the hostage was successfully released—shortly after midnight the door opened and Saville was allowed to leave—the suspect’s options narrowed in an ever-tightening noose.

At 2:18 a.m. negotiators were told to advise Macomber that if he didn’t immediately come out, tear gas would be deployed. “Let him know it’s coming,” they were told.

Macomber replied with threats to kill himself and to take officers with him.

The conversation continued for several more minutes. Officers were ordered to prepare their gas masks. By 2:33 they were ready.

The radio transmission described the unfolding stranglehold in crystalline sound bites as delicately crafted as Japanese haikus.

0246: He’s still in the basement, let’s do the main floor.

0247: Are they still on the phone with him?

0248: Move on with the next volley.

0252: Any way you can drop some CS in there?

0253: We’ll put a sting ball in there.

0254: He’s moving right now.

0256: Ready for the sting ball.

0256: Okay for the sting ball. Two in, two in.

A sting ball is a grenade containing a flash charge that produces a brilliant flash and loud bang while simultaneously blasting rubber balls in a 360-degree pattern.

0258: Any other windows in the basement we can spread the good joy?

Officers reported that a side fence obstructed their view. “Take it out,” they were told. “We’re running out of time here.”

Five minutes later a light went out in a room. Three canisters were fired through the window.

0307: Just so everybody knows, he’s still talking.

0307: Is he talking or coughing?

0307: He’s coughing.

A light went on in a front window. More canisters were fired through the window. Macomber might be moving from room to room or even floor to floor, but his options were running out. In effect, officers were trying to herd him.

To the west lightning flared in strobic pulses. The National Weather Service in Topeka issued a severe thunderstorm warning for the area, predicting 60-mile-per-hour winds, hail and heavy rain. Officers watched the approaching storm with concern. Severe weather would definitely impact the siege.

More gas canisters were ordered. Rain began falling around 0330. Suddenly, the weather became a topic of radio traffic.

Five more canisters were fired through the front windows. By now a solid plume enveloped the house, lit into bone-white incandescence by explosions of lightning.

0358: Let’s get them in there, it’s getting close.

0359: Okay, guys, he says he doesn’t want to come out. We’re going to rotate teams so they can get some rest. We’re obviously not going in after him.

As thunder boomed and rain began pelting down in a biblical deluge, officers settled down to wait it out.

Two houses to the west, Allen Yungeberg was fuming. He’d loaded his shotgun—”Ol’ Bessie” he called it—dimmed his lights, and now his home was command central to SWAT teams and law enforcement officers. From the back porch they had a clear vantage of Saville’s back yard. What he hadn’t done was roll up the windows on his truck. Nor would KBI agents allow him into the yard to do so. Neither would they do it for him, even though he offered them the keys. So he ranted and paced the floor, and then the rain hit.

Suddenly, he could see no officers in the yard. He looked into the darkness and waited for lightning to see and when it came the yard looked deserted.

Screw it, he thought, I’m going to do it myself.

The only real problem he saw was the dome light coming on when he opened the door. He would have to be quick as a fox to turn it off. He also realized he could get shot.

Out the door he crept. Keeping a low profile, half-crouch and half-crawl, he slithered to the truck in a pouring rain. It was black as pitch so he felt hidden.

The dome light was like a signal, a beacon, a flare. He slammed the door and feverishly fiddled with the light, trying to find the off switch. It seemed an eternity before it flickered out. Breathless, he rolled up the windows and snuck out the door.

Halfway across the yard a bolt of lightning showed a group of KBI agents studying him from his garage. They did not seem amused.

Hail struck a half hour later.

The scene was like something out of a nightmare. Though the area was plunged into darkness, flashes of lightning illuminated the house bathed in plumes of tear gas erupting from smashed windows. How Macomber could stand it nobody knew.

Officers retreated to nearby garages or watched from vehicles. More than a few were caught in the open and hunkered down miserably.

0435: Are you guys able to get out of this?

0435: No, not really. We’re okay.

For almost an hour a sort of respite prevailed. There were a few tense moments when officers discovered a basement window ajar, with questions centered on whether it had been open all along of if Macomber might have tried escaping. There was nothing to do but wait out the storm, though, and they settled into an uneasy reconnaissance.

By the time the storm passed, many officers were drenched. Additional tear gas had arrived, and now officers responded with renewed energy. The dispatcher announced that they were trying to get coffee for everyone.

At 0539 more gas was deployed. Negotiators tried calling the house but got no answer. “He’s taken the battery out of the phone,” they announced.

0539: First rounds in the attic.

0540: We’re hearing yelling coming from inside the house.

0540: He’s screaming--shots fired.

0546: Completed another volley. Want us or Riley County to do more?

0546: If you can.

0551: I can hear a lot of coughing and hacking.

0551: Shots fired, shots fired, everybody hold your position.

0552: He’s saying something about coming out.

0552: That last round got him good.

Officers pointed out a bullet hole in a basement window. An armored vehicle which had provided cover and use for deploying sting ball grenades moved into position to drop more gas through the window.

A muffled report was heard.

By now dawn was lightening a sky heavy with ominous clouds. Birds were singing. For almost ten minutes the house grew silent, and then more screaming.

0606: He’s still alive and kicking.

Alive, yes, but Macomber was contained. His few remaining options drifted away like the plume billowing from the shattered windows. He surrendered about 40 minutes later.


“The determination was made to slowly work into more aggressive tactics while eliminating exposure to danger for both the suspect and officers,” said Marshall County Attorney Brian Carroll.

Because the suspect was in contact with police negotiators for the duration of the night, it was decided to continue to increase pressure through various kinds of tear gas or shock devices. That it worked was due to the flawless collaboration of law enforcement agencies and the direction of the KBI and Kansas Highway Patrol, as well as assistance from outside deputies.

“We don’t like to take a life,” Carroll said. “There were no other hostages, so it became a waiting game. Fortunately, it paid off in the end. We had a peaceful resolution.”

After being treated, Macomber was booked into the jail at the Riley County Police Department in Manhattan. Deputy Salcedo was being treated at a Lincoln, Neb., hospital for non-life-threatening injuries. He is expected to recover. Marshall County Sheriff Dan Hargrave said Saville was unharmed and staying with family.

For Whitesell, Merrill, Arpin and the rest of the population of midway nowhere USA, the long night was over. There was work to be done and, if possible, a sense of innocence to be regained.

“You expect this in the big city, but not here,” Whitesell said. “This doesn’t happen here.”

Except, of course, for when it does.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Road trip redux

The fanciest root cellar in all of Kansas: Kalida

Truck: Fredonia

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Last ride of the codgernauts (Part 4): Best laid plans

To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive. – Robert Louis Stevenson

The difference between a traveler and a tourist, according to historian Daniel Boorstin, is that the former is active and the latter passive. The traveler pursues people, adventure or new experiences while the tourist expects interesting things to happen with minimal effort expended. I’m reminded of a cartoon where two vultures are sitting on a fence and one says, “Screw this, I’m going to kill something.” Aggression generates momentum to propel the traveler forward. The tourist, on the other hand, “goes sightseeing,” and waits almost vicariously for others to feed him.

Determining which camp you belong to can be humbling depending upon your personality and destination. (Admitting that the two overlap only fuels the angst.) As we three avowed travelers navigated the steep grade into Mesa Verde National Park it was nearly impossible to separate our elevated view of ourselves from the masses cloying the place. After all, Mesa Verde is all about sightseeing, with most of its ruins restricted to ranger-led tours. While we weren’t necessarily averse to being participants, it certainly crimped our guerilla style. Our ace in the hole was Wetherill Mesa, an offshoot of the park with hiking trails leading deep into the rocky canyons. We were sure to leave behind the majority of the polyester-and-poodle crowd and focus on the less-traveled areas.
Or such, at least, were our plans. We had others, brilliant we felt, such as being first into the ruins to beat the tour bus groups. “They’ll get a late start while everybody is still ordering their bagels and lattes,” we crowed.

We couldn’t have been more wrong. As we waited for the visitor center to open, a string of tour buses hove into view, followed by a long convoy of cars. What had been an empty parking lot suddenly looked like a swarm of ants erupting from a disturbed mound. Our solitary perch on the balcony became standing-room only. I tried ignoring the others by concentrating on warblers flitting around in a thicket below us. Jim, looking surlier than usual, joined me. Chod, easily the more voluble member of our trio, pointed out a wild horse on a hillside and identified birds for those who asked. He was in his element, a one-man tour guide, glad to share his knowledge of local fauna and flora. Jim muttered imprecations under his breath.

When the doors finally opened we were herded inside like cattle to a slaughter house. Traveler and tourist alike—whatever the designation—we were all the same to the National Park Service. We were meat to be processed. We were the fuel that kept the fires of commerce stoked.

Which was all the most disturbing when the ranger, already looking harried by the throngs, many of whom could barely speak English, announced that the road to Wetherill Mesa was closed until Memorial Day. “We don’t have enough staff to open it,” she said.

Aghast, we looked at the electronic billboard listing tours to the three main sites and the number of participants enrolled. Some, with 60 already signed up, were full. We settled on a tour of Cliff Palace with a paltry 14 listed, reasoning that it must fall between tour bus operating times.

After a leisurely two hours spent birding practically undisturbed, we arrived at the trailhead to find dozens of vehicles already lined up. More appeared almost magically. They came in RVs and rental campers, motorcycles and cars, trucks and buses, they came singly and doubly and quadruply. A dozen languages filled the air with a Babel-like dissonance.

“And this isn’t even tourist season,” Jim spat.

“I suspect,” I said, “there are more than 14 signed up for the tour.”

One of the biggest drawbacks to being a traveler, and in particular a codgernaut (a subcategory known for its latent crankiness and elitist posturing), is that it’s nearly impossible to amalgamate into any sort of cohesion with tourists. Occasionally the codgernaut is forced by dint of necessity to put aside, however temporary, any distaste at being coerced into mingling with the rabble—certainly the case at Mesa Verde—though that does not mean he must act as if he were enjoying himself. In fact, so ingrained is the curmudgeon persona that rendering enjoyment is nearly impossible. The effect can be crippling.

As a long ragged line formed leading down to a platform overlooking the canyon, we lagged behind, and not merely in an attempt at jockeying for position. For his part, Jim decided he’d had enough: he would remain behind, happily chasing black-throated gray warblers around the deserted parking lot.

Chod and I had one last plan. In retrospect it was pathetically hopeless. From an initial observation of earlier tours, it was clear that the last photographers in line had the most opportunities for getting shots of ruins without people. The few moments separating groups might be fleeting but they held the most potential, indeed, the only potential.
That position, unfortunately, was claimed by an elderly woman dragging an oxygen tank. Since we clearly couldn’t trump her excuse nor toss her over the cliff, we made sure we were directly in front of her.

From there it went downhill, literally. When the tour bunched up to wait its turn, we noted with some disgust that the forward position was actually the better deal. And when the group finally made its way into the ruin, our ranger gathered us in a circle around the kiva to regale us at length about the history of the palace, the Anasazi, the Pueblo people of the southwest, the role of the park service, the sun and moon and stars and just about everything else she could think of, so that another tour began trickling in to make space for yet another that was waiting, and every square inch of trail was packed like sardines. So much for our plan.

We tried one last trailhead. It was even more crowded.

“I’ve seen all I need to see,” Jim said.

He pulled out a map and charted a course into the wilds of Utah. If we hurried we could make it by mid-afternoon. I cruised through the mob and kicked up the speed. From the back seat I heard Jim utter a few choice words, followed bitterly by the codgernauts’ mantra: “I hate #$@*^! tourists.”

(To be continued)