By MARK WALLACE
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) calls them “lone wolf shooters,” whereas homeland security and other agencies call them “active shooters.” The United States Department of Homeland Security’s Active Shooter: How to Respond booklet defines an active shooter as an “individual actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a confined and populated area.”1 This is what happened at the McKinney (TX) Public Safety Building (PSB) on August 17, 2010.
McKinney, Texas, is about 35 miles from downtown Dallas and has experienced rapid growth over the past 10 years. Four years ago, the McKinney Police Department and McKinney Fire Department headquarters moved into a new, two-story, 84,000-square-foot PSB at 2200 Taylor-Burk Drive. It sits on a 16-acre site with secured employee and public safety vehicle parking. This building houses the fire department’s administration, operations, emergency management, and fire prevention personnel as well as the combined public safety communications center, police records, and the city’s primary emergency operations center.
As with most public projects today, this one used a value-engineering process to cut costs and meet the capital improvement project’s budget limitations. The fire and police command staff succeeded in keeping most but not all of the proposed homeland security safety features in the final building design.
Features such as an extensive system of bollards, perimeter walls designed to prevent vehicles from driving right up to the building, bullet-resistive glass, security fencing, and Kevlar® panels under the drywall in all public areas and lobbies were retained. Omitted were several perimeter security cameras, bulletproof transaction windows in fire headquarters foyers, and solid wing walls and fencing in several areas (ornamental iron fencing was used instead). They provided a level of safety that some argued at the time would not likely be needed in this relatively safe community. After all, who would attack the police department?
On August 17, 2010, at 9:00 a.m., Patrick Gray Sharp, 29, drove a pickup towing a utility trailer into the public parking lot of the McKinney PSB. A review of video from the surveillance cameras after the event showed that he drove through the lot three times for an unknown reason. Postincident investigations revealed e-mail and social media postings that indicate he intended to drive his pickup truck and trailer containing an improvised explosive device (IED) directly into the PSB lobby in a manner similar to that of a Terminator movie, open fire with his weapons, and ultimately set off his IED. However, the building’s bollards, landscaping, and perimeter walls prevented this.
He parked in the fire lane directly in front of the main entrance, which was also directly under an exterior surveillance camera, with the driver’s side of the truck facing away from the building.
At 9:02 a.m., Sharp set the driver’s side cab of the pickup on fire. Either by mistake or for an unknown reason, he dropped his cell phone on the ground next to the truck. It is suspected that his plan did not work out because of unforeseen circumstances, though we will never really know what his ultimate plan was. It seems that he didn’t follow through or got excited and probably improvised once his truck was really burning.
After setting the truck on fire, he walked across Taylor-Burk Drive and out into the field across the street from the PSB. Wearing a tactical vest loaded with ammunition and carrying an AR-15 type, .223-caliber rifle equipped with a scope, a shotgun, and a .45-caliber semiautomatic pistol, he was prepared to be a “lone wolf shooter.”
The two-acre field is part of the Central Campus of Collin College. Along the east side of the campus is a thick brush- and tree-lined drainage creek separating the campus from a commercial shopping area to the east. South of the field are the college buildings. McKinney Fire Station 2 is on the southwest corner of the campus, along with part of the college’s fire science program.
Sharp’s intended sequence may have been disrupted when McKinney Police Officer John Walls drove up to the PSB, approaching from the west, to take a citizen’s “counter-report” just after the fire was started. He drove past the burning pickup and parked. As Walls approached the vehicle and looked in through the open driver’s door, Sharp opened fire with the scope-equipped rifle. The officer immediately ran for cover behind his patrol car, positioning himself between the car and the PSB. He radioed that he was being fired on by an unknown person. Initially, he did not know where the suspect was and simply took cover to radio for assistance.
Initially, observers and responders did not perceive the gravity of the incident.
When the truck fire was first ignited, the slight breeze blew the thick black smoke into the portico area of the entrance between the second-floor windows of the PSB’s police and fire administration wings. A fire department staff member noticed the smoke just before the public safety dispatchers set off the fire tones dispatching McKinney Truck 2 (a quint) to the vehicle fire in front of the PSB. She and other staff joined me in my office to watch the fire response (photo 1). We all went to the window, joking that the citizens were now driving truck fires to the fire department instead of the other way around.
|(1) Photos by author|
We saw visual and audible mini-explosions occurring within the cab (thought to be igniting ammunition), and the cab was immediately fully engulfed. At the same time, Walls was approaching the pickup’s driver’s side when shots rang out. I saw them hit the grass near his feet; his immediate reaction was to take cover. I didn’t immediately realize that he was being shot at. At this point, I turned away from the window to head down to the truck to advise Walls to move back until the ammunition explosions had subsided.
As I did, the window shattered and sent glass shards flying throughout the office, covering us with shards (photo 2). A bullet ripped through the bullet-resistive glass, penetrating above our heads, and everyone hit the floor. We heard and felt additional rounds hitting the brick walls of the building and the crash of breaking glass as more windows were shot out. After firing on Walls, the shooter aimed his rifle at those watching the fire from the PSB windows. Based on later analysis of the bullet’s trajectory, Sharp had not yet reached his “sniper’s nest” when he opened fire. Because we had focused on the truck fire, we didn’t see the shooter in the field directly across the street, even though he would have been in plain sight when he fired at my window.
After the first bullet came through the window, personnel moved away from the window offices, made sure no one was injured, and gathered in the relative safety of the office’s center core.
I crawled back into my office to retrieve a portable radio that was on my desk to warn the responding fire apparatus to stop and take cover until the scene was secure. Then, I quickly moved past other offices along the front of the building as bullets continued to crash through the windows. I could hear and feel the bullets strike the brick exterior. As I passed the mail room, a bullet came through the window, showering me with glass shards. The next office to the east was that of Emergency Management Coordinator Karen Adkins. Several items were sitting on her windowsill, and the window was still intact (photo 3). I thought I could peer out of the window without being seen by staying no higher than the items on the windowsill. From this window, I had a great view of the entire area south of the PSB, where I believe the shots were coming from. It was now 9:05 a.m.
At 9:02:09 a.m., McKinney Truck 2 had been dispatched for a pickup truck on fire in front of the PSB. By 9:03, Fire Training Chief Ron Moore and Interim EMS Chief Greg Cox were heading down to the PSB lobby from their second-floor offices. As Cox went outside, Moore saw the PSB windows breaking. Cox took refuge behind a brick column; Moore, still in the lobby, stayed inside. Moore was giving prearrival instructions to the responding fire personnel over the radio, advising them that burning ammunition in the truck was causing windows in the PSB lobby to break. Moore requested another engine and a battalion chief (BC) to respond, advising the BC about the situation.
Meanwhile, Walls was told that the fire department believed ammunition was going off in the truck fire. He corrected the report, saying that someone was shooting at him. Because the police officers were on a different talk group from that of the responding fire apparatus, the dispatchers received two conflicting messages, which police officers monitoring both channels also heard.
Police officers who heard both Walls’ radio call for help and Moore’s prearrival information for Truck 2 also assumed that the explosions were probably ammunition in the truck cooking off. But with Walls’ insistence that he was taking fire, everyone in the police department realized that the building was under attack and began reacting by 9:03:30 a.m. Police Deputy Chief of Patrol Kim Lee, Sergeant Joe Hooten, and others from the patrol division responded to aid Walls from the PSB’s north wing, running through the open lawn area to the southeast pedestrian gate, where they saw and heard the suspect firing wildly.
I waited for free “air time” on the radio. I peered above the window ledge and immediately saw the shooter step out from behind a group of three trees across the street, southeast of the PSB. Sharp fired seven to 10 shots and ducked back behind the trees.
I then saw Hooten move behind Walls’ patrol car and Lee advance from the east side of the PSB into the public parking lot, headed toward the shooter. She immediately drew fire and dived down on the parking lot, taking cover behind the six-inch concrete parking lot curb with her weapon in firing position. As the shooter focused his firing on Lee, the 6-foot, 2-inch Hooten took a similar prone position protected only by the six-inch curb. He then moved toward the shooter. At this point, I could not tell yet if these officers saw the shooter or not. Lee later indicated that they saw him immediately as he opened fire on them. Hooten and Walls returned fire and were the only two McKinney police officers who fired their weapons, firing a total of 11 shots at Sharp.
The seemingly constant radio transmissions stopped for a second, giving me a moment of free air time. I immediately transmitted over the fire radio channel the location and description of the shooter and that he was firing a rifle. It was 9:05:12 a.m.
I saw Truck 2 turning the corner onto eastbound Taylor-Burk Drive when I radioed for it to stop and get to a safe location. The driver immediately slammed on the brakes; backed up; and proceeded to a location out of the shooter’s line of sight, west of the PSB. Moore staged other responding units in a safe location.
While all this was happening, based on the radio traffic, Assistant Chief of Police Randy Roland and other personnel in the second-floor police administrative offices believed there was an active shooter inside the PSB. Donning heavy bulletproof vests, they began to search the PSB to hunt down and “neutralize the threat.” They planned to find the person shooting within the building and shoot him before he could shoot anyone else. As they approached the lobby, they first encountered Moore. Instead of hunkering down to hide from the threat thought to be inside the building, Moore was operating from a safe position to assist in his normal role as the fire department safety officer. Several two-member police officer teams each quickly searched the PSB’s public spaces and then systematically searched the secure areas of the building.
During this time, they heard two different locations given for the shooter, and they did not know whether there was more than one shooter. So, they completely cleared the building, moving the fire and police personnel they encountered to safe areas that had already been searched. In the end, it was found that Sharp was a “lone wolf” and had never entered the PSB.
Detectives from the Criminal Investigation Division (CID) and the Narcotics Division, located on the first floor, gleaned from the radio traffic that the shooter was in a tree line; they believed it was west of the PSB, just outside of the ornamental iron security fencing adjacent to a parking area.
Several officers exited the west side of the building and searched that area for the reported active shooter. These plainclothes officers, some wearing bulletproof vests and others not, each carried either a pistol or a patrol rifle if one was immediately available. Police tactical unit (SWAT team) members rushed back to their ready room to suit up and grab their tactical weapons and to deploy their armored vehicle.
Citizens called 911 and reported seeing men with rifles running through the trees in several areas during or soon after this incident. Sharp was actually across the street from the southeast corner of the PSB in a different tree line (between the college campus and the shopping area to the east), where Walls and Hooten were engaging him. After the incident, it was determined that Sharp fired at least 163 rounds. It is believed that the men with guns reported running through the trees south of the incident were actually patrol officers (some uniformed, some not) who had cordoned off the area and were searching for a second gunman that 911 callers were reporting. Some were uniformed and in marked patrol cars while other reported “suspects” in the trees were most likely plainclothes police officers. No evidence of a second gunman was found.
Deputy Chief of the CID Ron Jones and division members also first thought the broken windows resulted from shrapnel from the burning ammunition reported by Moore on the fire channel. Jones soon realized that Walls was in fact being pinned down by someone shooting at him. Detectives advanced into the lobby and out through west entrances of the building. When he entered the lobby, Jones did a cross-lobby “face-to-face” briefing with Moore. This was just after I broke into the prearrival fire radio discussion to warn personnel that there was an active shooter using a long rifle in the trees to the south of the PSB.
Jones quickly moved the people in the lobby watching the truck fire to a safe location. They didn’t realize that a shooter was firing at the building. Jones finally yelled, “Those are real bullets and they WILL kill you!” to convince spectators to move out of the line of gunfire.
Outside of the building, at least three people were pinned down, Cox and two off-duty dispatchers who had not yet started their shifts when the incident began. Detective John Woodruff exited the building while under fire to protect the dispatchers as they retreated to the safety of the PSB.
As I looked out the window, I was now sure that the police officers saw Sharp as he again stepped out from behind the trees and fired another burst of seven to 10 semiautomatic rifle shots.
Hooten returned fire. As the shooter ducked back behind the trees, Hooten jumped up and advanced toward the shooter, stopping briefly behind the concealment of the landscaping bushes, and then sprinted across Taylor-Burk Drive to take cover behind a telephone pole. As he did, Walls opened fire as well. The shooter then came out from behind the trees again and fired another burst of shots. As the shooter ducked back behind the trees this time, Hooten came out from behind the telephone pole and ran out into the open field where he knelt and fired more rounds at the shooter.
As Hooten advanced on the shooter, I saw police officers streaming out of the building with pistols and patrol rifles at the ready. They took cover behind bollards and the cars in the parking lot and moved to flank the shooter.
As Hooten continued shooting, the shooter started to run to the south toward Collin College. Sharp had stopped firing the rifle and was now firing a pistol. After about 10 to 15 yards, he slowed to a walk and then went down to his knees before falling to the ground. He never moved again. From my vantage point, I could not tell whether Officer Hooten or Walls shot him or he shot himself. But the shooting was over. Although the shooting seemed to last for 10 to 15 minutes, it was in reality just less than five minutes—it was 9:07 a.m.
Officers cautiously but quickly advanced on the subject. The area was searched for a possible second shooter, and the PSB interior was locked down and searched by the police tactical team. The chief of police had already notified the city manager about the incident and recommended that all city facilities be locked down. The concern was that we did not know why the attack had occurred and did not know if this involved one or more perpetrators. Nearby schools and Collin College buildings were also locked down temporarily as well.
The city’s information technology department locked down the buildings electronically, disabling the proximity card readers used for building access. This resulted in a major problem: Either police officers had to be posted to open the entrance door to allow personnel to enter the building, or the door had to be blocked open, which would have negated the building’s security, especially if there was more than one shooter.
A second shooter was not found, and it is believed this incident was the act of a lone wolf shooter. No one except the shooter in or around the PSB was injured, with one slight exception. Lee received an abrasion on her forearm when she hit the concrete curb as she dived for cover while drawing fire from the shooter. No one else reported even a scratch. Everyone looking out of the PSB windows when the shooter shot at them were covered with small shards of glass but were not injured.
Two police department dispatchers arriving for work and Interim EMS Chief Cox had been pinned down outside during the shooting spree. Detective John Woodruff escorted them back to an area of relative safety within the PSB lobby. A firefighter was in the parking lot on the PSB’s east side with a civilian he was about to take on a tour of the fire stations when the attack began. They took cover behind parked employee cars.
Once police officers approached the shooter and the area perimeter was secured, the fire crew responded to extinguish the now fully involved truck at 9:10 a.m. (photo 4). The utility trailer behind the pickup truck had not ignited, but firefighters noticed that the pile of wood mulch in it was covered with what smelled like gasoline. In the trailer, they found a nearly empty three-gallon red plastic gasoline container and an unignited road flare.
Emergency medical service personnel went to the shooter to treat him or confirm that he was dead. Med 2 (a mobile intensive care unit/advanced life support ambulance) and Cox responded to where the shooter had fallen and confirmed that he was deceased. Sharp apparently shot himself with a 45-caliber semiautomatic pistol pointed under his jaw. He had also received a nonlethal arm wound from shots fired by one of the two police officers who had exchanged fire.
While all of this was going on, the assistant chief of police and deputy chief of CID established an initial incident command post (ICP) in the PSB lobby and took command of the incident. Unified command was soon established to coordinate police and fire activities and ensure there was not a second shooter. A brief tactics and unified command meeting was held to determine what needed to be done and make the necessary assignments. Unified command decided that the bomb squad should be called to ensure that there were no surprises in the trailer. McKinney relies on the Plano (TX) Police Department’s Bomb Squad for such events.
All PSB staff were moved to the safety and security of the Emergency Operations Center (EOC), a more secure, hardened, and windowless section of the PSB, and away from the windows exposed to the utility trailer as quickly as possible as the bomb squad investigated the trailer’s contents. Not everyone perceived the threat that might be hidden under the mulch in the trailer until it was explained to them.
All offices with windows shot out were taped off with barricade tape to preserve any evidence until police investigators properly documented the scene. CID investigators also collected all of the rifle bullets shot into the building. The building was photographed to document the damage. All personnel in the building were asked to write out a narrative statement to provide the details of the incident from their vantage point and experience.
After a couple of hours of carefully removing the gasoline-soaked wood mulch in 100°F weather, it was determined that the shooter had attempted to construct an IED using ammonium nitrate fertilizer and a petroleum fuel. However, the IED was incorrectly set up and would not have detonated even if Sharp had ignited the mulch with the road flare, which was his apparent plan. It is unknown why he did not implement this plan.
The truck fire was extinguished before it could involve the trailer, which the shooter may have planned for by leaving several aerosol cans in the truck’s cab (the actual cause of the mini-explosions), to spread the fire. We will never really know for sure. Ammonium nitrate fertilizer mixed with a petroleum product properly will create an ammonium nitrate/fuel oil bomb, one of the main improvised explosives used today in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, Sharp used the wrong ingredients.
Air temperatures increased over the course of the investigation (9:15 a.m. until mid-afternoon) to nearly 100°F with a heat index of about 110°F. The fire department established a rehab center to assist the bomb squad members, who were prehydrated on arrival and closely monitored by paramedics throughout the operation. After only about 15 minutes in the bomb-blast suit, the bomb squad members returned to rehab, doffed the suit, and went through a thorough rehab process while another member donned the bomb suit and continued the operation.
Because two McKinney police officers fired at the shooter and it was determined that he was hit by at least one police round, the Texas Rangers led the incident investigation, supported by the McKinney Police Department; the Collin County Sheriff’s Office; the Collin College Police Department; the Texas Department of Safety Troopers; the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI); and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF).
This incident, according to standard procedures in Texas for every police-involved shooting, must be presented to a grand jury for a determination of Sharp’s cause of death. On February 17, 2011, the grand jury found that the two police officers’ actions were proper and presented a “No Bill” ruling. This process has been the cause of delay between the time of this incident and this information being available for publication.
As the initial investigation began and the bomb squad was called to clear the utility trailer for any possible IED, the ICP was moved into the EOC. Once the initial ICP was moved into the EOC, the employees who had been gathered there for safety were moved to other safe areas to complete their statements. Those whose offices were unaffected by the incident were allowed to return to their normal workspace if they so desired, but the damaged areas remained closed. Staff personnel not needed for the investigation, incident command, or dispatch were sent home at about 11 a.m. and asked to return for a critical incident stress debriefing scheduled for 6 p.m.
Some employees were personally affected more than others, and Public Safety Chaplain Rickey Hargrave made the rounds to talk with everyone. He continued to move through the PSB for several days after the incident to just check on individuals. The city’s employee assistance plan was made available and some recommendations to talk with the PSB-designated psychologist were made in the days following this incident. A few people, some not even in the PSB at the time of the attack, felt the impact of the event so deeply that it affected their ability to work in the building for some time. Providing them the needed assistance is an ongoing endeavor.
From the perspective of the firefighters responding to the truck on fire from Fire Station 2, they had what they later considered a near-death, near-miss experience. Because of the wind direction and location of the burning pickup truck, they had planned to drive east on Taylor-Burk Drive past the PSB and turn into the east entrance to the public parking lot. They intended to lay a five-inch hoseline from the fire hydrant at that location to supply the quint with the water needed to extinguish the fire. They would have passed directly in front of the shooter and less than 100 yards from his firing position (photo 5). The big red truck with the giant front windshield would have made the firefighters inside the responding apparatus sitting ducks. The firefighters may have been a planned primary target for the shooter as he continued firing when they arrived to extinguish the fire. Again, we may never know this for sure.
Had I not been able to transmit the warning that caused them to immediately stop, back away, and seek an area of refuge, they would have driven into the ambush and would have been in extreme danger. But they received the radio information in time and were able to move quickly enough.
At the same time this was going on, police officers were advancing and firing at the shooter. Fortunately, Sharp’s attention was directed more on the officers advancing toward his position than on the responding aerial ladder truck that was completely exposed to attack from the shooter’s sniper-like position.
The chief of police, the assistant fire chief, and the emergency management coordinator (EMC) were all away from the PSB at the time of the incident and initially heard about the shooting from others. The EMC was told that one unidentified person was dead; she did not learn that this was the shooter, not one of the public safety personnel, until she arrived back at the PSB. That made for a very long drive.
The police chief had basic information early from the assistant police chief and notified the city manager and recommended locking down city facilities until the scope of the incident could be determined. This included calls to the school district, which briefly locked down a nearby elementary school.
Collin College was locked down by its police officers after an officer was fired on as he drove into the area to check out the column of smoke from the burning pickup truck early in the shooting spree. His patrol car was struck by a bullet, which lodged in the headrest behind the driver’s seat after ripping through the vehicle’s C post. Registration for the next semester was going on that day, so there were a number of faculty and students around the campus at the time this incident occurred.
During the four minutes and 52 seconds of the shooting spree, Sharp fired 163 rounds at the PSB, at the silhouettes of public safety staff looking out the windows, and at the police officers responding “toward the sound of the guns” to engage him in the brief gun battle. Two McKinney police officers fired a total of 11 shots at Sharp. The shooter, after he was hit in the arm by a shot from Walls, shot himself by pointing the .45-caliber pistol under his jaw and pulling the trigger, killing himself instantaneously.
The distance between his sniper’s nest and his pickup truck was about 150 yards, giving the scoped rifle a distinct advantage over the .40- caliber Glock pistols the police officers carried. The typical police department, including the McKinney Police Department, conducts pistol training for its officers at a maximum distance of 25 yards.
The ICP was established by Police Deputy Chief Jones in the PSB lobby. It was soon determined that the lobby was an area of the crime scene that had to be secured so that evidence could be collected (fired bullets) and damage documentation completed. The ICP was moved into the Emergency Operations Center. Since the EOC has no windows, there was a time delay while police and fire command staff completed initial task assignments and sized up the scene. Once the scene was confirmed to be secure, the personnel not directly involved with the investigation were moved out of the EOC rooms.
Areas of the PSB that came under fire include Fire Administration, Fire Operations, Fire Prevention (first floor of the PSB), the first and second-floor lobby areas and main second floor conference room, Police Administration, and Police CID.
More than 100 shots hit the PSB and 28 windows were shot through. The rest of the shots hit bricks, exterior insulation finishing system areas, roof tiles, and man-made stone coverings of the building (Figure 1). The number of shots fired by Sharp based on the shell casings found at his shooting positions exceeds the total number of bullet impact points on the PSB. Some rounds hit and were imbedded in the lawn in front of the PSB. It is unknown at this time how many rounds traveled over the building toward the neighborhood and schools to the north of the PSB.
Figure 1. Building Damage
|The McKinney Public Safety Building suffered damage to various building components from some of the estimated 163 shots the shooter fired during the brief incident. Source: McKinney (TX) Fire Department.|
It is amazing that even though 163 rounds were fired by Sharp and the two officers fired eleven shots during the brief shootout, only Patrick Gray Sharp was hit and killed. The fatal shot was self-inflicted.
Sometimes luck is the most important feature of successfully defending a lone wolf shooting spree at a public building. The second factor that provided the successful defense of personnel in the PSB were the building components.
The laminated, tempered glass in the windows slowed down the penetrating bullets enough so that when they impacted the vinyl wall covering in the fire chief’s office, the round dented but did not penetrate the vinyl. Extensive bollard and retaining wall systems in front of the PSB prevented Sharp from driving his pickup directly up to the lobby door and begin firing or set off an IED. Landscaping features designed into the site plan prevent vehicles from getting too close to the building’s exterior walls. Only the public parking area in front of the PSB is not secured. Public lobbies are lined with Kevlar panels, and nonpublic areas of the building are secured with a proximity card access system. These are but a few of the security features that were tested on August 17, 2010.
These building safety systems alone are helpful, but without effective policies and procedures and personnel, consistently maintaining the security of the building is nearly impossible. In the aftermath of this incident, McKinney is reexamining its security profile and making recommendations on systemwide improvements. As attacks nationwide become more sophisticated, frequently revisiting and revising site protection operations will now be an ongoing process. Since this incident, several other “lone wolf shootings” have been in the national news.
1. Active Shooter: How To Respond, Department of Homeland Security, October 2008. http://www.dhs.gov/xlibrary/assets/active_shooter_booklet.pdf.
● MARK WALLACE, AA, BS, MPA, EFO, CFO, MIFireE, CEM, is the state fire marshal of Oregon. He retired as chief of the McKinney (TX) Fire Department in 2011 after serving for 10 years. A 42-year fire service veteran, he is the author of Fire Department Strategic Planning: Creating Future Excellence, Second Edition (Fire Engineering, 2006), a frequent contributor to Fire Engineering magazine, and a speaker/instructor/facilitator for strategic planning and organizational effectiveness.
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