25 Years After The FBI Firefight: The Late-Emerging
Eight FBI agents shoot it out with two well-armed murderers, in a legendary gun battle, which changed law enforcement weaponry and training alike.
Learning points that were instantly apparent, remain so … but a quarter century later and we’re still learning more that can keep good people alive, when they face evil incarnate.
April 11, 1986. A rolling stakeout squad of 14 FBI agents was trolling a section of the Miami, Fla. metroplex for armed robbers believed to have committed murder. Their MO: befriend shooters in local “rock pits” used for informal target shooting, then kill them for their guns and vehicles, which they would use to rob banks and armored cars. Their most recent victim had played dead and survived, and they were looking for his black Chevrolet Monte Carlo with known license plate. All the agents knew it was a long shot, but they were desperate enough to stop the perpetrators’ crime wave, and they were taking any opportunity possible.
Against all odds, Special Agents Ben Grogan and Jerry Dove spotted the target vehicle. Four additional agents in 2-man unmarked cars were close enough to the scene to respond in time to help surround the suspect vehicle, as were two more agents, including the operation’s supervisor, each alone in an unmarked unit. Others on the assignment raced to get there, but only one extra car with two agents aboard would arrive in time to participate in the cataclysmically violent encounter to follow.
It lasted for over 4 minutes. We’ll never know exactly how many shots were fired, for reasons we’ll discuss shortly. By the time the two bad guys were down and dead, two good guys were too. All but one of the surviving agents had been wounded, three of them sustaining permanent injuries.
I was in Miami a few weeks after the shooting, teaching at the Metro-Dade (now Miami-Dade) Police Academy, and my friend Dr. Joe Davis was kind enough to lecture in my class about what was learned on his end. Dr. Davis was the legendary Chief Medical Examiner for the community then, and the supervisor of Dr. Jay Barnhart, who performed the actual autopsies in the case. I was able to review the FBI’s definitive LE-only training film on the incident, Firefight, as soon as it was made available. I reviewed the exhaustive newspaper reports and reconstructions contemporaneously.
In 1989, I wrote an unprecedented double-length Ayoob Files on the incident and in 1992, another. By then, I had sat at the feet of Special Agent Edmundo Mireles, the hero of the incident, for hours; exhaustively reviewed the tape of Supervisory Special Agent Gordon McNeill’s debrief on the incident for the New Hampshire Police Standards and Training Academy; and attended a detailed debriefing by legendary detective Dave Rivers, who led the investigation for Metro-Dade Homicide. Subsequently, the FBI finally released its files on the incident, and in the years since, researchers such as John Hearne have studied the case in great depth. I had the opportunity to see Hearne’s reconstruction at the National Tactical Conference in May 2011.
Though this incident is worthy of several books, only one has been written: Forensic Analysis of the April 11, 1986, FBI Firefight, by Dr. French Anderson, a gene therapy researcher by vocation, and a shooter, martial artist and supporter of police by avocation. Dr. Anderson paid out of his own pocket traveling to Miami to study the incident. His book — still in print from Paladin Press — is an excellent account of what happened in those terrible minutes, though he’s made clear several times, some of his conclusions are speculative. I took Dr. Anderson’s class on the incident and his reconstruction of it at an international conference of the American Society of Law Enforcement Trainers. And, with all of that, a quarter century later there still remain unanswered questions.
A Brief Synopsis
After Grogan and Dove spotted the stolen car and called in the others, John Hanlon (driving) and Ed Mireles in one car moved into support positions, along with McNeill and Special Agent Richard Manauzzi, each in their 1-man vehicles. McNeill paralleled the pursuit on an adjacent street and came toward a slow-speed pursuit, involving the other agents, passing the car and seeing perpetrators — later determined to be Edward Matix (driving) and Michael Platt — in the front passenger seat. Matix stared at him with a look of grim determination, and he observed Platt loading a long gun, a fact McNeill relayed by radio to the other agents.
Grogan, a former head of the local FBI office’s SWAT team, said over the radio: “Felony car stop — Let’s do it!” Hanlon swept his vehicle adjacent to the stolen Monte Carlo and attempted to force it off the road. Manauzzi rammed the Monte Carlo from behind, spinning both the Hanlon/Mireles and the fugitives’ vehicles out of control. As the suspects’ car appeared to be back under control and fleeing, Manauzzi ran it completely off the road, jamming it between a car parked in the driveway of a house on its right and Manauzzi’s government car on the left.
Platt, in the passenger seat of the Monte Carlo, brought up a Ruger Mini-14, stolen from his last rock pit victim, and opened fire past the face of his partner, driver Edward Matix, pouring .223 rounds into Manauzzi’s car. Wounded and having lost the service revolver he’d put in his lap in preparation for the fight, Manauzzi ran for cover and spent the rest of the encounter looking for a gun to fight with. SSA McNeill pulled in behind, drawing his 2.5″ S&W .357 Combat Magnum, and opened fire from the left-front of the Monte Carlo, as Platt raked his position with rifle fire. McNeill got off four shots before a .223 slug smashed his hand upward. McNeill brought the gun back down and emptied the rest of his revolver rounds, attempted to reload but couldn’t due to the flesh and blood from his shattered hand pouring into the gun and blocking cartridge insertion. By now though, he had wounded driver Matix.
As this was happening, Hanlon and Mireles emerged from their car, which crashed across the street after the spinout. Hanlon had also drawn his primary .38 and put it under his thigh, but lost it in the impact of the crash. Mireles, who already had his Remington 870 out and ready, jumped from the car and ran to assist McNeill. Grogan pulled his and Dove’s vehicle in behind the trapped Monte Carlo; he emerged from the driver’s door and Dove from the passenger side, both opening fire with the S&W Model 459 9mm pistols each were issued as FBI SWAT. The car blocked Dove from Hanlon’s view, and seeing Grogan apparently alone in the street, firing at the suspects, Hanlon drew his backup S&W Model 36 from his ankle holster and ran across to help Grogan.
Simultaneously, seeing McNeill alone shooting over an car hood, Mireles ran toward Grogan. Realizing the muzzle of his 870 would cross McNeill, Mireles raised it as he arrived there, and was hit with a .223 round on course to his heart, which instead was interdicted by his forearm. He fell to the ground and looked down to see what he later described as a left forearm “turned inside out.”
In the moments that followed, many things were happening at once. Another FBI car, driven by Special Agent Gil Orrantia with SA Ron Risner on the passenger side, reached the scene and stopped across the street. Jerry Dove, firing his S&W 459 from behind the cover of his vehicle’s open door, hit Michael Platt as he was climbing out of the window of the jammed-in Monte Carlo. The bullet tore through Platt’s arm, into his chest (the 115-grain Winchester Silvertip 9mm pierced his lung and stopped just short of his heart). It is believed, as well, that a .38 round fired by Orrantia from the driver’s seat of the newly arrived car also hit Platt. At that point, the gunman disappeared from view.
Strong sunlight from the far side of the gunfight scene combined with a cloud of dust thrown up on the roadside by the colliding cars created a visual curtain that shielded the now-running Platt from the view of the agents. Matix, still trapped in the car, deployed a pistol-gripped S&W Model 3000 shotgun and fired at least one shot at the agents.
While McNeill was trying to make it to his car for his shotgun, Platt shot him in the neck. The .223 slug skidded down his spine into his liver, dropping him on his back, temporarily paralyzed and completely out of the fight. Platt with an emptied carbine, fired three shots from a Dan Wesson .357 he carried in a shoulder holster, then dropped the revolver to reload the .223. Hanlon reached the right rear bumper of one of the FBI cars and emptied his snubnose .38 at Matix. While attempting to reload, he was shot in the right hand and arm by Platt, causing him to lose his gun. He shouted that he’d been hit and tried to roll to cover, blood spurting from his injured limb. Platt ran at the car Grogan, Dove (who moved through the front seat of the FBI vehicle, emerging on the driver’s side) and the downed Hanlon were using for cover. His blood spurting across the white FBI vehicle, Platt fatally shot Grogan and Dove, and shot the downed Hanlon again.
Advancing toward the driver’s door of that vehicle, Platt dropped the rifle, most likely hit at that point through the right forearm near the wrist, by a bullet from Ron Risner’s 9mm. By now, his partner Matix made his way to the right front door of the same vehicle. But Ed Mireles, crawling on his back, spotted them and fired his 870 1-handed, sending a blast of buckshot into Platt’s foot. Gaining a kneeling position and pumping fresh shells in by bracing the butt on the ground, working the slide right-handed and resting the fore-end on the bumper of McNeill’s car, Mireles sent four more rounds of 00-Magnum buckshot toward the suspects, injuring both, but not with neutralizing wounds. Platt pulled a S&W .357 from Matix’s shoulder holster and staggered from the vehicle, firing three shots toward the positions of Mireles and McNeill, none connecting, then tottered back into the car.
At this point, with other agents in their field of fire, Orrantia and Risner could no longer shoot, but the nearer Mireles forced himself to his feet, drew his S&W 686, and lumbered toward the car, firing right-hand only with his shattered left arm hanging at his side. Five of his six shots connected solidly, two into one of the suspects and three into the other. Both slumped unconscious and dying and, at last, it was over.
This “FBI Firefight” was to the 20th century what the OK Corral shootout was to the 19th: a high profile, complicated gunfight that possibly will never be perfectly reconstructed. Questions that remain include:
What was the exact round count? We do not know. People at the scene reported onlookers picking up spent casings for souvenirs before responding LE could get the “Police Line/Do Not Cross” barriers up. Twenty spent casings that track to the extractor marks of Agent Dove’s 459 were found on the scene. But it was also reported confidently, an empty 14-round magazine of Dove’s was found on scene and another in his pistol, which was recovered at slidelock and hopelessly jammed by a bullet-strike from Platt’s .223, damaging the gun. Some have theorized he only had 10 rounds in each of his magazines. All who knew him, described Jerry Dove as a highly competent FBI agent. I doubt he would have downloaded his magazines that far for any reason.
Though some of the FBI reports indicate Matix may have fired as many as three shotgun rounds, only one spent shell traceable to his 12-gauge was recovered at the scene by evidence technicians. Whether he fired more will remain open to speculation. Early reports indicated he was firing buckshot, but the recovered shell was from a #6 birdshot hull. Since none of Platt’s fire effectively neutralized or impaired any agents, it seems to be a moot point.
Did McNeill fire .38 Special or .357 Magnum ammunition, from his personal Bureau approved .357? The crime scene reports released by FBI in the late 1990s indicate .38 Special +P casings were recovered from the position where McNeill attempted unsuccessfully to reload. However, the authoritative FBI reconstruction film Firefight from the 1980s, includes Mireles discussing the popping sounds of other agents’ .38s and 9mms as sounding distinct from the louder reports of McNeill’s .357 Magnum rounds, and what he called the psychologically devastating Ka-Booms of Platt’s .223 rifle. Thus, we have two authoritative artifacts from the FBI’s own study of the encounter at odds with one another. Did Mireles’ recollection simply differ from the evidence or did a FBI clerk type in the wrong headstamps from the evidence reports? Unless and until FBI addresses these opposite accounts, we simply won’t know.
Where did McNeill hit Matix? Unquestionably, one of Gordon McNeill’s shots struck Matix in the chest/shoulder area early in the fight, severely impairing his ability to shoot. Many years later, Dr. Anderson came to agree with original official reports that a lead projectile in Matix’s head from Mireles’ buckshot, fired into the vehicle toward the end of the fight, had marks construable as rifling striations and, therefore, came from a lead .38 slug fired by McNeill. It is clear from Dr. Anderson’s book, however, he became friends with McNeill and sympathized with McNeill’s sense of having failed his brother agents. Clear review by the original analyst said it might be a fragment of a .38 slug, not that it was. To believe Matix was shot in the cranial vault by McNeill is to believe Matix performed conscious, purposeful physical activity in carrying gear from the stolen car to the FBI car he and Platt were attempting to escape in, all the while very wounded. I simply find that exceedingly hard to believe.
Did killer Platt neutralize his own partner, Matix? Shortly after the shooting, chief medical examiner Joe Davis told me, Matix sustained a ruptured eardrum injury from Platt firing the .223 rifle 13 times directly in front of his face, as he attempted to kill Manauzzi and McNeill. McNeill, in the lecture given years after the shooting, said the same thing on record. Some have questioned this because the official autopsy report does not mention blood in the ear canals of the dead Matix. Conversely, some medical professionals have noted ruptured eardrums do not necessarily leave blood in the ear canals. This one is going to stay open to question.
A Matter Of Courage
Not until I interviewed John Hanlon in December 2010, did I learn Richard Manauzzi had risked his life ramming the Monte Carlo from behind because he saw Platt raising his rifle to shoot Hanlon and Mireles during the initial moments of the encounter. It was the impact that sent his revolver spinning out of reach, and it left him unable to shoot during the rest of the encounter. It saved the lives of two agents, including the one who ultimately ended the fight. That, in my opinion, is courage.
Hanlon, 48, ran across the street to fight and pitted a 5-shot .38 snub against a powerful, long-magazine, semi-auto rifle. Courage. McNeill did the same with a snubnose six-shooter: courage. Dove and Grogan knew they had pistols against long guns when they engaged to protect the public: courage, which ultimately cost them their lives. Orrantia and Risner drove into the fight pitting their handguns against a rifle, both shooting the evil rifleman; Risner almost certainly firing the shot that smashed Platt’s gunhand and stopped the killing: courage. And Ed Mireles, shooting them 1-handed with his shotgun and finishing the evil bastards 1-handed with his revolver, his arm blown away, charging toward their guns — courage!
Only in 2010, did I learn from John Hanlon that while shots were still being fired, arriving Metro-Dade deputy Rick Frye ran through the live battlefield to assist Hanlon. Courage!
The ability to fire and reload with only one hand was reinforced as a lesson by Hanlon, McNeill and Mireles. The need for handguns that fire more than five or six rounds was reinforced too. After this incident, Mireles switched to a SIG P220 .45, McNeill to a SIG P226 9mm and Hanlon acquired a Glock. This incident provided impetus for LE nationwide to switch to autos.
The .223 auto rifle in the hands of Platt was a terribly effective force multiplier, and today’s cops have .223 patrol rifles, in large part, because of the lessons written in blood on April 11, 1986. The current, almost universal adoption of handgun ammo that can penetrate at least 12″ in ballistic gelatin — which might have ended Platt’s life, saving the lives of Dove and Grogan — is possibly the best known lesson to come from this terrible incident — but not necessarily the most important. Cops are now taught better on how to take fugitive vehicles off the road, which has been a life-saving lesson, as well.
I’d like to thank Dr. Joe Davis, Ed Mireles, Dr. French Anderson, Dave Rivers, the late Gordon McNeill, John Hanlon (whose late 2010 narrative of his memory of the incident is available on a ProArms Podcast interview, downloadable at proarmspodcast.com/2011/01/10/065-an-interview-with-retired-fbi-agent-john-hanlon-on-the-1986-fbi-firefight-in-miami/), John Hearne, FBI and Metro-Dade personnel who cannot be named here, along with the many others who made possible this review of the tragedy of 4/11/86 and the lessons that still resonate today.
By Massad Ayoob