Run and Gun: The Oscar Plasencia Incident

16

Situation:

You and the cop-killer are running at each other, guns in hand. One of you is going to die.

Lesson:

Preparation is the mother of survival. Expect the unexpected. Know when to run, and when to shoot.

January 20, 2011, Miami, Florida. Sergeant Laurick Ingram meets Detectives Amanda Haworth, Roger Castillo, Diedre Beecher and Oscar Plasencia for a briefing at the Miami-Dade Police Department’s Northside Station. They’re members of a squad assigned to apprehend violent career criminals and they have a warrant for the arrest of one Johnny Simms. The two female officers are the lead on the case; the two males have been chosen because they’ve arrested Simms in the past for parole violation and know him by sight. Simms, 22, is wanted for murder. He’s believed to have cold-bloodedly shot a man dead for disrespecting Simms’ sister. The plan is to visit the homes of the suspect’s mother and last known girlfriend. They hope to gain information as to his whereabouts, and to urge them to contact Simms and convince him things will go easier if he turns himself in.

Arriving at the mother’s duplex, the cops alight from their vehicles. They’ve planned a “soft” contact: No helmets or shields, no long guns, no kicking down doors. They’re wearing conspicuous tactical Kevlar vests identifying themselves, marked POLICE and MARSHAL because they’re also special deputies of the U.S. Marshal’s Service due to their frequent fugitive task force duties. Each wears an exposed sidearm. Castillo and Haworth carry department-issued GLOCK 17 pistols while Beecher has a privately owned/department-approved Smith & Wesson Model 3913. All three 9mm pistols are loaded with ammo which has worked particularly well on their mean streets, Winchester’s Ranger-T 127gr. +P+. Plasencia, always more comfortable with a .45, is authorized to carry his personal GLOCK 21 loaded with Federal HST 230-gr. +P.

They know the girlfriend’s house is only a couple of blocks away, and if he’s there and the mother calls to warn him after the police leave, he’ll “rabbit.” It’s decided the sergeant will drive to the girlfriend’s place to discreetly surveil it while the others talk to the mom. Because they’re the ones most likely to recognize Simms if he tries to exit through a back door, the two male officers — who usually work as partners anyway — flank to the side of the duplex while Haworth and Beecher go to the front door.

They identify themselves, and the suspect’s mother welcomes them inside. Castillo begins moving forward, toward the front of the building. Out on the side Castillo hears Haworth say over the hand-held radio, “He’s inside, everybody come around.”

He has heard Amanda Haworth’s last words.

Suddenly, there’s gunfire from inside the duplex.

Rapid Response

Plasencia, 53, reaches reflexively for his GLOCK as he races toward the front of the house. The shots are still breaking, coming fast.

As he rounds the corner, he’s inside a corridor formed between the target house and a 10-ft. high wrought iron security fence. Shots are still going off. Plasencia sees Detective Beecher tumbling out the front door and falling to the ground and a man coming out the same door behind her, shooting at her in her disadvantaged down position. The light-complexioned African-American man is tall, muscular, clean shaven with close cropped hair, wearing jeans and stripped to the waist exposing his gang tattoos. Plasencia recognizes him as Johnny Simms and recognizes also there’s a GLOCK pistol in his hand.

Endgame

Simms turns to see Detective Plasencia running at him, gun drawn, and charges at the lawman full speed, raising his own stolen pistol.

For Plasencia, the world suddenly goes into slow motion. There’s time to assess the background behind the gunman, an auto repair shop with many people visible. He knows he has to get closer to guarantee hitting the only safe backstop, the body of the assailant. The gunman is racing toward him, firing now.

Plasencia jumps to his left, coming to a stop in a deep, coiled crouch — the fastest way to cease a headlong rush and maintain balance. Strong-hand only he levels his GLOCK and, using the top of the slide to aim, opens fire.

He has heard the gunfire coming from inside the duplex, but now the world has gone silent. He cannot hear Simms’ gunfire, nor his own. But he can feel the recoil, and — focused on the opponent’s body and gun — he can see his .45 slugs strike home. Simms’ body flinches and jerks as each of the big bullets hit him, and spins away from the cop as the last shot strikes home. Seeing him turn away and fall heavily to the pavement, Plasencia ceases fire.

They are now some five yards apart. Simms is on his back, motionless, the medium-sized GLOCK still in his hand. Plasencia covers him with the G21 and, after a couple of seconds, kicks the weapon out of the vanquished opponent’s hand. It skitters under the wrought iron fence and into the adjacent parking lot.

Simms’ face bears an expression of surprise. Looking down at him, Plasencia sees his foe’s consciousness fade, seeing him take one last breath. He realizes Johnny Simms is dead.

The Scope Of The Horror

Oscar Plasencia had rounded the corner in time to see DeeDee Beecher fall, and to see Simms shooting at her before Plasencia diverted the gunman’s attention to himself. He will soon learn of the horror which has taken place inside the duplex in the first flurry of gunfire.

Hearing Mandy Haworth calmly say, “He’s inside, everybody come around,” Plasencia presumed the situation was contained. His partner Roger Castillo may have presumed the same. If so, it was a fatal mistake.

When the suspect’s mother indicated to Haworth who was in the living room that Simms was present and Haworth said so on the radio, the suspect was in an adjacent back bedroom and obviously overheard. With no warning he burst from the room, shooting at the officers from close range as he charged.
Haworth was the first to fall, shot in the head. As he ran past her body Simms fired a viciously gratuitous execution shot barely missing her vest and tearing through her thorax. The only other officer in the house, Beecher, reflexively moved to the front door to find a more tactical position, just as Roger Castillo gained the same doorway and began to enter. Simms shot him through the brain, killing him instantly, and the detective’s body fell backward and sideways out the door.

Beecher tripped and fell out the door, in an impossibly compromised position as the onrushing Simms fired at her. This was Oscar Plasencia’s first glimpse of the action as he came around the corner. Though it appeared to him — and probably to Simms — the killer had shot her down, her dropping out of his line of sight caused the thug’s .40-cal. bullets to pass above her, and she narrowly escaped being shot. With her knee badly injured in the fall, she ended up in an awkward position which compromised her ability to draw her own pistol and react.

It was at this moment Simms caught sight of Plasencia and turned his attention to him, probably thinking he had killed Beecher. When Simms turned and ran at Plasencia shooting, he would have been between Beecher and Plasencia, putting Plasencia now in Beecher’s line of fire.

Detective Roger Castillo died at the scene. He left behind his wife, also a Miami-Dade police officer, and three young sons. He was 41, with 21 years on the job. Detective Amanda Haworth was rushed to the hospital but did not survive. Detective Haworth, 44, had served for 23 years, and left behind her partner and her young son.

Time Factor

Oscar Plasencia told American Handgunner that according to the investigation, only 17 seconds elapsed between when Detective Haworth broadcast her last words and when Detective Plasencia said over the radio officers were down and the suspect was, too. He estimates his own shootout with the cop killer lasted perhaps four seconds.

Oscar told me, “I was asked how many rounds were fired. I thought I fired three rounds and Simms, one. In fact, I fired five rounds and Simms, two (at me). All my rounds connected. His went high right over my head and in the door and wall of a nearby unit. I was told one of my rounds struck him in the elbow, three center of mass, and the last as he spun, center of mass but landing in the back between the shoulder blades.”

Simms, armed with a stolen 14-shot GLOCK 23, had fired 10 shots at the initial shooting scene, and two at Plasencia as they closed in on each other in the final confrontation.

Aftermath

When responders arrived, Plasencia was placed in a police car isolated from the scene. By the time he was transported to the Homicide unit’s office, the Police Benevolent Association’s attorneys were already there. Today, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigates Miami-Dade’s officer-involved shootings but at the time, the county investigated their own. He wasn’t required to make a statement. “The attorneys gave a proffer on my behalf,” he recalls. A department psychologist was brought in for him, a doctor Plasencia knew. “He was helpful,” Oscar remembers. “He gave me all his contact numbers and told me to contact him anytime. Then he paused and said, ‘You probably aren’t going to call me, are you?’ I just smiled at him. I was pretty sure I could cope with it.”

Once fully investigated, the death of Johnny Simms at the hands of Detective Oscar Plasencia was ruled a justified homicide. The family of the deceased cop killer never filed suit.

The long-term aftermath was different.

“Roger was my friend, my regular partner,” Oscar told us. “I saw him lying there outside the door, the pool of blood under his head, the color drained out of his face, knowing he was dead. There was a long time where I just couldn’t talk about it. Now, eight years on, I still feel some survivor guilt. ‘Why them and not me?’ Roger and Amanda both had young children. My kids were grown. ‘Why them and not me?’ Could I have done something different?”

Plasencia completed his career, retiring at the rank of sergeant, and staying on part time as a reserve deputy. “The department was good to me,” he says. “They were very supportive of all of us, and our families.”

After you’ve killed a violent criminal, there’s always the possibility of vengeful retaliation. Simms had been a big-time gang-banger. Gang Unit intelligence soon revealed the Bloods had “green-lighted” Oscar, that is, had put out the order he should be murdered on sight by any gang member who spotted him. Plasencia and his family remained vigilant, but the threat fortunately never materialized.

The psychological aftermath of having had to kill a human being has two all but inescapable symptoms. One is sleep disturbance, and Oscar seems to be one of the few to escape it. The other, however, is what the great police psychologist Dr. Walter Gorski called Mark of Cain Syndrome: the awareness people are treating you differently after the shooting. If you’re treated badly and accused of police brutality as a killer cop, you don’t feel good about it. If you are treated as the hero you rightfully are, it still changes your identity in the eyes of others.

In the wake of this incident, Oscar Plasencia received many well-deserved awards. Locally, he was awarded the Gold Medal of Valor and named officer of the year by his department, and by the Dade Chiefs Association, the Dade County PBA, the state Fraternal Order of Police, and the Florida Sheriff’s Association. He made Level One of the National Association of Police Officers Top Cops awards, presented at the White House. From the U.S. Marshals came a Law Enforcement Officer of the Year award, and the Marshal’s Task Force gave him a heroism award. There was also a Federal Law
Enforcement Association award presented in Denver, and Officer of the Year from the National Latino Peace Officer Association.

And today, Oscar Plasencia says with a catch in his voice, “I’d give it all back in a heartbeat to have Amanda and Roger back with us.” He still wears a wristband bearing the names of his fallen sister and brother.

Lessons

After the tragedy the question was raised of why they didn’t send a SWAT team. The answer is, tactical teams are sent in when they know there’s a dangerous person inside the given four walls. Fugitive warrant service involves a lot of desk time researching, and a lot of shoe leather visiting people who might provide leads on the suspect. This case was part of the latter routine. “You can’t call SWAT out on a ‘maybe,’” Plasencia would later tell a local reporter.

No one has thought about this more in the eight intervening years than Plasencia himself. He told me in retrospect, “I wish there had been more preparedness. I understood the soft approach (no helmets, no shields, no heavy armament). Maybe we could have had a shield and set it by the door just in case. I normally carried a short-barrel shotgun for entry but left it in the vehicle because I was covering the back. I don’t think a long gun would have made any difference.”

“How many rounds were fired?” is a question which should probably never be asked by investigators, nor answered by the involved party. In an adult lifetime spent studying these things, I can still count on my fingers the number of gunfight survivors who could keep an accurate count once it went beyond a very few shots. This case is a classic example.

Why close the distance? Greater distance usually favors the defender skilled in shooting, but in this case the danger a missed shot would present to bystanders and downed police personnel behind the murderer drove Plasencia to do what he did, and it had exactly the same benevolent result he intended. His movement toward the threat obviously distracted the killer from his attempt to execute the downed Detective Beecher, and very likely saved her life.

“When they see the armor, they shoot for the head.” That was the mantra of Richard Davis, the armed citizen and gunfight survivor who invented the soft, concealable body armor which has saved literally thousands of lives since. It was clear to investigators then and now Simms saw the officers were wearing ballistic vests, and deliberately targeted them for head shots. It was equally clear to Oscar Plasencia that in his final shootout with Simms, the cop killer was aiming high, for his head.

The always easy 20/20 vision of hindsight tells us if the body armor had been concealed under a POLICE-emblazoned light raid jacket, it might have turned out differently, and the killer’s mish-mosh of ball and jacketed hollow point ammo, which is typical of criminals, might have lodged in Kevlar instead of fatally piercing unprotected brains.

Expect the unexpected. The officers went to Simms’ mother’s house hoping to get leads to his whereabouts or to convince her to tell her son to give himself up. While they obviously recognized the possibility he might be present, they didn’t really expect it. Action beats reaction. A hand on a pistol, ready to draw against a sudden ambush, might have at least somewhat evened the odds.

Don’t let altered perceptions throw you. Well-trained by his department and studying these things on his own time, Oscar knew beforehand tachypsychia and auditory exclusion afflict well over half of people involved in such encounters. When things went into slow-motion silence, he didn’t let it distract him. He knew about tunnel vision too, and fought through it successfully, constantly vigilant to keep his shots from endangering innocent people behind the murderer.

Maintain your skills. Oscar Plasencia was a “gun guy” fond of 1911’s who would have carried one on duty if the regs allowed, and he practiced regularly with the GLOCK .45 he wore at work. The skill he maintained was evident in his 100 percent hit ratio under extraordinarily difficult circumstances.

Know when to run, and when to shoot. Oscar waited to shoot until he was certain he could hit his target and not send a bullet past the cop killer into the inhabited background the situation had given him. His fast jump-into-a-crouch gave him a stable firing platform from which to fire five fight-stopping bullets into a fast-attacking multiple cop-killer. He had “gotten off the X” because he was watching the opponent and the opponent’s gun, and successfully evaded the murderous gunfire directed at him.

Analyze in macrocosm as well as microcosm. Here, we’ve focused on the involved officers and the circumstances into which they were forced. Looking at the big picture, we need to remember Johnny Simms wasn’t just a member of the Bloods gang but a shot-caller there. The reason Plasencia and Castillo knew him was they had arrested him before on a warrant for violating probation arising from an armed robbery charge. Yet a judge had turned him loose, freeing him to commit one murder and then to murder two police officers and attempt to murder two more.

All of us at American Handgunner wish to thank Oscar Plasencia for sharing the lessons he learned so painfully. This article is respectfully dedicated to the memory of Detectives Amanda Haworth and Roger Castillo of the Miami-Dade Police Department.

Read More Ayoob File Articles

Purchase A PDF Download Of The American Handgunner Nov/Dec 2019 Issue Now!