"You have a right to be angry." That understatement, issued by the Rev. Mike Wacht, well represented the sentiment of the hundreds gathered at Taft United Methodist Church for the funeral of Andrea Hall, the 40-year-old mother who was accidentally shot by a sniper during last week's hostage standoff south of Orlando. Wacht urged the family to turn this tragedy into something positive -- an idea echoed by several "amens" from the congregation -- but it did little to calm the grief and quell the unanswered questions that hung thick in the humid afternoon air.
Maybe the situation would be easier to deal with if the fatal shot had come from hostage-taker James Petron's gun. But it didn't -- and what led Orlando Police Department sniper Christopher Savard to pull the trigger is still a mystery.
"It's a command decision `to shoot at a hostage-taker`," says OPD spokesman Orlando Rolon, who spoke in generalities about hostage situations, but refused to comment on the specifics of this incident. "But the action falls on the individual `sniper`. In this one, I still don't know how it went down." Neither, really, does anyone else. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is investigating, and neither they nor the OPD or Orange County Sheriff's Office were willing to disclose any information. (Orange County Sheriff Kevin Beary was actually in charge; the OPD snipers were pinch-hitting.) The family, meanwhile, has retained famed attorney Johnnie Cochran's law firm in preparation for a certain multimillion-dollar lawsuit.
Petron had taken Hall and four children hostage on the morning of Saturday, July 22, while trying to evade police, who wanted him for the murder of a convenience store clerk in South Florida. As the day wore on negotiations went nowhere, with Petron once falsely telling negotiators he had killed a hostage, and with snipers unsuccessfully trying to kill Petron.
On Sunday morning, police answered Petron's demand for food by placing doughnuts and orange juice outside the kitchen door. Petron had Hall retrieve it.
Althea Mills, a 16-year-old hostage and Hall's niece, recounted the events in her eulogy at the funeral. When Petron gave Hall the order, Hall gave her kids a hug and said, "Keep praying, you're going to be all right." Mills, though, says she knew something bad would happen. As Mills and the other kids watched, shots rang out and Hall collapsed to the kitchen floor. She died quickly.
"Her eyes were open," Mills said through tears. It was, she added, as if her aunt were looking up to God. Mills moved forward and closed her eyes. "I was the last one to touch her," she said.
What happened outside the house is clouded in uncertainty. Usually, Rolon confirms, snipers work in pairs -- a spotter and a shooter. In this case, however, unidentified sources told the Orlando Sentinel there was no spotter available at the moment Savard pulled the trigger. But the question remains: If there was any doubt about the identity of the person, why was the shot taken?
Ron Watson, spokesman for the National Tactical Officers Association -- a SWAT-team training provider and clearinghouse -- says incidents like this are the exception, rather than the rule.
"Overwhelmingly, the number of shots fired goes down dramatically when SWAT comes on the scene," says Watson.
After Hall was shot, Petron called a local TV news crew and insisted the SWAT team was to blame. Though the cops knew soon thereafter that Hall had been shot, the family wasn't told until day three of the standoff, after Petron had released two hostages and finally shot himself, ending the ordeal. The night before, however, Hall's ex-husband Karl Hall called the cops to ask about her. "I found it strange," Hall later told a reporter, "that `the police officer told me`, ‘If anyone tells you your wife has been shot and killed, don't believe it.'"
The cops said they didn't mean to mislead the family; they just didn't have answers at the time. Rolon, meanwhile, defends his SWAT team's record. On the same day the Petron incident ended, he says, the SWAT team responded to another call and successfully negotiated the situation. And he points to a SWAT competition held last year in which Orange County and OPD teams finished third and fourth, respectively.
"That says a lot," Rolon says. Because of the "excellent" track record, he doubts this latest incident will alter how Orlando's SWAT team does business. "No one can be perfect," he says.