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Interviews, radio traffic depict horrifying moments and harrowing rescues during Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood shooting

December 5, 2015 Updated: December 6, 2015 at 8:48 am
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Police respond to the scene with an active shooter near the Planned Parenthood at Fillmore and Centennial on Friday, November 27, 2015. Three police officers have been reporter injured in addition to multiple civilian injuries. Photo by Stacie Scott, The Gazette

A flurry of 911 calls broke the routine radio chatter. A shooter reported in a parking lot. Officers, with sirens wailing, speeding there.

"At this point, they've got a possible automatic weapon involved," a dispatcher said while another issued an active shooter alert across law enforcement channels. "One party's hiding in the bathroom."

More than a week after a gunman opened fire at Colorado Springs' lone Planned Parenthood, the clinic remains closed. The crime scene was being processed as of Saturday night, police said. And the suspected gunman will appear in court Wednesday. While the investigation continues, accounts from people inside and outside the building and from police radio communication archives give a more detailed glimpse of the fluid situation on Nov. 27.

During the harrowing five-hour standoff that dragged past sunset and ended with suspect Robert Lewis Dear Jr. in custody, the stories of those on scene intertwined.

A quick-thinking chef at an adjacent building pulled a bloodied victim to safety. A man faced the shooter in a parking lot. And a mother and daughter trapped and separated from each other inside the clinic could only hope that the other survived.

Officers dodged bullets trying to rescue people as the gunman fired at them. They plotted how to end the bloodshed without additional casualties, using an armored vehicle to break through the clinic's main door and directing officers to aim high while targeting the shooter so as not to hit trapped victims.

Much of what happens remains unknown. Dear's arrest affidavit and related search warrants have been sealed. Authorities have not released information regarding a timeline of events, nor the weapons used by the gunman or responding officers.

Dear reportedly told authorities "no more baby parts," a possible reference to videos released by an anti-abortion group over the summer targeting Planned Parenthood's practice of providing fetal tissue for research. Dear's attorneys have filed a motion in El Paso County court to place a gag order on all attorneys, law enforcement investors and officials connected with the case.

Despite the lack of official information, interviews and police radio traffic depict the terrifying moments and harrowing rescues.

The officers who first rushed to the clinic were met with a fusillade of bullets, police radio traffic indicates. People scrambled to help those injured and bloodied to find safety, witnesses said. Nearby businesses were locked down as employees and customers crammed inside. Officers wielding semi-automatic rifles hid behind buildings, yelling at those near the scene to take cover.

It seemed all too familiar for a community that a month earlier experienced another mass shooting involving a gunman who investigators said killed three people in a half-mile rampage downtown before dying after a shootout with Colorado Springs police.

While that shooting spree lasted about 30 minutes, the Nov. 27 attack stretched on for hours.

Disorder turned into a painstaking effort to locate the gunman and evacuate those sheltered inside the clinic behind closed doors and out of the shooter's site. Waves of vehicles, carrying hundreds of officers and emergency personnel, lined a nearby intersection to create a staging area. Ambulances and SWAT vehicles came and went as patients were rescued and taken to hospitals or a Department of Veterans Affairs clinic. Meanwhile, police called for snipers and additional tactical officers.

The attack and standoff ended with three dead and nine wounded by bullets.

Gunbattle continues

"All units, one woman has been shot," a dispatcher said over a police radio about 4 minutes after a call about an active shooter at 11:38 p.m.

Victims appeared to scatter, seeking help at a nearby medical office building and a King Soopers grocery store to the south. Responders were told to be cautious as they approached the scene, as the gunman was shooting at police cars and officers, according to witnesses and radio traffic.

The gunman was reported to have moved to the southwest corner of the Planned Parenthood building, aiming at officers and their vehicles, according to radio traffic.

While gunfire made it difficult for emergency personnel to reach the wounded, medical staff and witnesses at a building adjacent to the Planned Parenthood clinic tended to the injured in the aftermath of the initial barrage, witnesses said.

Samuel Meola, executive chef at the adjacent Center at Centennial building, heard reports of gunshots fired from a patient's family member and asked a receptionist to call 911.

He looked out of the building and saw a black SUV and a man in front of the car asking for help.

"I need you to pull me to that building," Meola recalled the man saying. Meola grabbed the man, who was shot in the shoulder, by both arms and dragged him about 20 feet behind the car. Meola was covered in blood when he left the man behind the car and returned to the adjacent medical offices at 3470 Centennial Blvd., he said. Those working at neighboring businesses heard shots ricochet and thought it was a bank robbery.

Meola said he went through the door and slid on the blood that covered the floor of the foyer.

A woman was there, writhing in pain. He wanted to return for the man behind the car, but he was advised to stay inside.

The woman screamed for 45 minutes as the gunbattle continued in the background before dying, Meola said.

Captives fearful for their lives

Angelica Llaca, 41, waited inside the Planned Parenthood waiting room for her daughter's appointment to wrap up. That's when she heard the pop of gunfire and saw the shattered glass in front of her, she said. Immediately, she, a man and another woman scampered into a waiting room bathroom.

The man, who was bleeding with an apparent gunshot wound below his chest, hurried to ensure the bathroom door was locked, she said.

Minutes later, the doorknob jostled. She does not know, and may never, if it was another victim or the gunman.

The man inside the bathroom called 911, told a dispatcher he was shot and urged the women with him to remain calm and quiet, Llaca said.

Llaca gave him her scarf to help stanch the bleeding, which seeped through the toilet paper he had been using.

They were among the 24 captives - 15 of them clinic employees - spread across conference rooms, suites and bathrooms, authorities said. One of them was her daughter, Lexi, who was in the back of the building, hiding and fearful for her life.

"All I wanted to see was my daughter," Llaca recalled.

While muffled, Lexi, 19, said she could hear the gunshots as she ducked below a sink.

They would stop, then resume in rapid succession.

Lexi, who declined to say why she was the clinic, recalled feeling the vibrations of the gunshots on the floor as she hid with a nurse and another woman.

About noon, Lexi sent her mother a text message saying she loved her, she said.

"I was crying the whole time because I was worried about my mom," she recalled.

Ozy Licano, 61, who accompanied the Llacas to the Planned Parenthood from Manzanola, was in the parking lot when the shooting rampage began, he said.

Licano said the gunman appeared to shoot a man crawling into the clinic.

As he faced the gunman, bullets tore into the windshield of his car and passed by his head, he said. He escaped the scene as gunfire erupted while he drove away.

Licano went to King Soopers, 3250 Centennial Blvd., and sought help. A nurse shopping in the store tended to his injuries, he said.

About 300 other people found shelter inside the grocery store and surrounding businesses during the standoff, authorities said.

"I just got shot at, he's behind Planned Parenthood," said an officer, over the police radio.

It was about 11:45 a.m.

'One officer down'

While the wounded were being accounted for, officers who arrived near the Planned Parenthood parking lot were met with gunfire, radio traffic indicated.

"He's shooting," said another officer. "He's shooting at you if you're coming in."

As officers were bombarded with bullets, they were unable to pinpoint what direction the gunfire was coming from. At least one officer was hit in the opening moments of the shootout.

"I've been shot," an officer said a minute later.

At 11:50 a.m., a University of Colorado at Colorado Springs police officer responded to support Colorado Springs police, the university said.

Garrett Swasey, 44, did so after hearing the call of an officer down, Swasey's training officer said at his funeral Friday. The six-year veteran of the department was on duty at the campus when he drove the clinic, which is about a 10 minute drive away from school. Students were on break for the Thanksgiving holiday.

What happened next is unclear.

"We got one officer down behind that building to the south. He's not moving," came across the police radio about 12:14 p.m.

Jennifer Markovsky, Ke'Arre Stewart and Swasey all were shot to death, authorities said. Five law enforcement officers and four were hospitalized with gunshot wounds. They are expected to recover. Multiple people, including three officers, were injured in other ways, such as from shattered glass.

About 12:18 p.m., after SWAT officers and armored vehicles were called in to respond, the gunman shot through a Planned Parenthood window at propane tanks set up by a vehicle, according to radio traffic.

Swasey was then referenced on the radio.

"It's a UCCS officer we are trying to get," an officer said over the radio as they tried to get medical attention there.

An El Paso County Sheriff's Office deputy was hit in the leg trying to reach Swasey, according to his training officer and radio traffic.

Spurts of gunfire lapse

"There's no shots being fired now that we can hear," someone radioed an hour after the shooting was first reported.

Officers identified a group of 10 people ready to be rescued with one of the armored police vehicles on scene, according to radio traffic.

It was 12:45 p.m., a little over an hour after Llaca ran into the room for safety.

Her anxiety rose and migraine headaches emerged as she heard rapid gunfire. But Llaca and the others there were unaware of what was going on outside the bathroom, she recalled.

Two patients were loaded into ambulances in the staging area near Centennial Boulevard and Fillmore Street. More and more vehicles, with sirens blaring and lights flashing, came on scene.

Representatives from the Colorado Springs police and fire departments, Colorado State Patrol, the El Paso County Sheriff's Office, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and the FBI were there or en route. Fort Carson later sent armored vehicles, which did not reach the scene before the suspected gunman was detained.

In the back of the Planned Parenthood building, Lexi had little idea of what was going on and her mind was a blur.

"Everything but nothing at the same time. I didn't know what to think," she recalled.

Lexi was hiding near a nurse and another woman. A group of clinic employees were in a nearby room, she said.

It sounded like there was a second shooter as the booming gunfire continued to erupt.

"I didn't know what to think of what was going to happen next," Lexi said.

A break in flying bullets

"The people in the bathroom, if you knock three times and then knock twice that will be the code for them to open," a man said over the police radio about 1:16 p.m. "We're getting them a text with that message."

The brief respite of flying bullets allowed officers to take a more calculated approach. Minutes before the knocking code was broadcast over the radio, officers went inside the Planned Parenthood building. As they navigated the clinic's hallways, they tapped into its internal video surveillance cameras to monitor the situation.

The short-lived break from firefights ended as the gunman announced his whereabouts with bullets.

"Shots fired," an officer said about 2:02 p.m. "We got two hits."

The scene returned to chaos.

"All tactical units, everyone behind me right now," an officer said. "Take a deep breath, slow down."

The shooter was contained to one office on the northeast side of the building, behind the counter in the clinic's main lobby, an officer whispered over the radio.

Officers were advised to shoot through walls, head high, to end the standoff.

"If it's the room you described, if we have to put gunfire into that room through the walls, whatever," said an officer over the radio. "We've got to stop this guy."

The spurts of gunfire lapsed as the gunman bunkered down.

He was seen sitting in a chair, sometimes he stood. It seemed as if he was waiting for officers as he held an assault rifle at his side or across his lap, radio traffic indicated.

Losing track of time

"Get that BEAR right through the front," an officer said. "Drive it right through the front and stay on a straight course."

The BEAR, a heavily armored personnel carrier, slammed into the building's front doors about halfway through the standoff - aiming to create a bigger entryway for officers to rescue people inside.

Waiting in the lobby bathroom, Llaca said she lost track of time. She and the two others heard gunshots but never faced the shooter in the three hours they huddled in the building, she said.

Outside, officers tracked the gunman's movements down a hallway and near the clinic's lobby as they planned their rescues.

At 2:42 p.m., someone knocked three times, then twice, Llaca recalled. Llaca said she saw a group of SWAT officers when the door opened. An armored vehicle was waiting for her by the bathroom door.

"He just told us to get down and don't look back and just go as fast as we could," Llaca recalled an officer tell her.

"EPSO BEAR is backing out," came across the radio as Llaca and the two others were taken away.

It's not clear when Lexi was rescued. She and a handful of others were inside a different bathroom when they heard a knock on the door.

"Oh God, I hope it's the police," she recalled thinking. "Please be the police."

A group of officers were stationed inside a room adjacent to the bathroom, guarding it in case the gunman tried to enter.

"If you guys hear bullets, hit the floor and stay behind me," she recalled being told. She and handful of others, including Planned Parenthood employees, were led out of the back of the building to an armored car. Tactical officers shielded them as they entered the vehicle, she said.

Lexi was taken to the VA clinic, where more than a dozen investigators and victim's advocates were awaiting those rescued, according to radio traffic. Inside, mother and daughter reunited more than six hours after they arrived at the Planned Parenthood.

Llaca said she has often told her three children that there's always a first time for everything.

"But I never thought this was going to be a big thing," she said. "Real scary."

Focusing on capture

"We've got two teams in that north-south hallway in the central of the building," said an officer about 3:53 p.m. "One on the very south side and one centrally located, just to the north of the door where he's at."

Using a map of the building interior, video surveillance cameras and snipers, officers focused on ways to bring the gunman down. Room by room, they checked for victims, even recommending punching holes through dry wall to communicate with survivors. They did it all while trying to avoid the gunman's line of sight.

As officers watched the shooter huddle in one room, others canvassed the building and prepared their next move.

"Before we initiate this, we'll do somewhat of a roll call," one officer said. "And make sure that we don't have anybody in any kind of crossfire."

Coming to an end

About 20 minutes later, the gunman stood up.

"The suspect's calling out, 'OK, you win,'" a dispatcher announced over the police radio.

"He says he's going to come out with his hands up."

Officers stayed on edge.

Snipers prepared to kill the gunman if they believed he was carrying explosives, radio traffic indicated.

But at 4:52 p.m., more than five hours after the bloody rampage began and minutes after the gunman surrendered, he was in custody. The standoff was over.

-

Gazette reporters Jakob Rodgers, Lance Benzel, Ryan Maye Handy, Wayne Heilman, Chhun Sun and Maria St. Louis-Sanchez contributed to this report.

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