ANATOMY OF A SHOOTING
Chris Penley's last day at Milwee Middle
Two officers -- a negotiator and a marksman -- had sharply differing views on the risk the boy posed before he was killed.
Orlando Sentinel Staff Writer
April 30, 2006
Like a caged animal, 15-year-old Chris Penley paced nervously inside the boys bathroom, holding what appeared to be a real gun.
Milwee Middle School was in lockdown, and cops were everywhere. For Chris, however, only two of the officers mattered.
One was a marksman, armed with a scoped assault rifle and responsible for protecting students and teachers cowering in classrooms all around him. The other was a seasoned negotiator, trained to keep Chris calm and persuade him to put down the gun and walk out.
How they viewed the threat Chris posed was as different as their duties, according to their sworn statements, obtained last week by the Orlando Sentinel.
During the 20-minute standoff at the Longwood-area school, Seminole County sheriff's Sgt. Kevin Brubaker, the negotiator, saw a scared kid uncertain what to do, he later told investigators with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
Lt. Michael Weippert, the marksman, said he saw a teenager who not only acted as if he knew how to use a gun but also was getting ready to pull the trigger.
In the end, only Weippert's opinion mattered. The eighth-grader left the bathroom on a stretcher, shot once by Weippert just above his left eye. Chris died two days later, kept alive that long only so his organs could be harvested.
Sgt. Brubaker's take
The morning of Jan. 13, a Friday, Sgt. Brubaker was off duty but working, directing traffic at a church just around the corner from Milwee. A 20-year employee of the Sheriff's Office, 10 years on the hostage-negotiation team, his curiosity was piqued as he watched patrol cars race past him on Dog Track Road.
He changed channels on his radio and picked up chatter about a student running around the Milwee campus with a gun. He immediately headed to the school.
A code red was in force. Students and teachers were huddled inside classrooms -- doors locked, lights off. Minutes earlier, Chris had pulled a gun in a first-period reading class, struggled with another student and then fled from a school resource officer.
As Chris raced around Building 7, he came face to face with a school worker who said the teen stared at him "coldly" while holding the gun at his side. The worker said he begged for his life and is seen in school-surveillance videos running away.
Chris darted into the boys bathroom, an open area with eight stalls, in Building 7. Directly across a courtyard are the band, chorus and art classrooms.
When Brubaker arrived, he was immediately pointed toward the bathroom. Other officers were already there, with at least one trying to coax Chris out.
Brubaker took control and tried to make contact with the teen.
It was clear, Brubaker said, that Chris was "nervous." The boy walked back and forth, side to side inside the bathroom, coming into view and then disappearing, sometimes ducking into a stall.
But Chris "never appeared to be very aggressive," Brubaker said. Although refusing to say more than his first name and age, the boy did most of what he was asked.
"If he went . . . in the bathroom where I didn't see him and I asked him to come back out," Brubaker said, "he always complied."
There was no compliance when Brubaker begged the boy to put down the gun.
The officer stepped close to the bathroom, taking a position about 20 feet away, just beyond a short hedge and wheelchair ramp to an adjacent portable classroom full of students.
He said he put himself in "an unsafe location" so he could see Chris and engage the boy in conversation.
At first, Brubaker could see Chris pointing the gun at his own neck and chin. Later, Brubaker said, Chris was no longer aiming the gun at himself, but he couldn't tell where it was pointed.
Still, Chris "never made any furtive movements toward us or anything," Brubaker said. "I did not actually see him pointing the gun toward me."
Midway into the standoff, another deputy brought a bulletproof shield to provide cover for Brubaker as he continued trying to talk the boy out of the bathroom.
Weippert, the marksman, also initially positioned himself near Brubaker, to the right of a 4-foot-wide doorway into the bathroom. But he moved to the other side of the opening and then farther back, to an alcove leading to the chorus and band rooms.
Now across the courtyard -- 651/2 feet from where a "pool of blood" would later be marked -- he saw a very different Chris Penley.
Lt. Weippert's take
Lt. Weippert, a district commander and SWAT leader who has been on the team for 161/2 years, was in his office in Forest City when the police radio took on an urgent tone.
"I heard the excitement in his [officer's] voice, which I stopped all conversation in the office just to listen," Weippert later told FDLE investigators.
"Once I heard 'school,' " he said, he raced toward Milwee.
He was told an armed student was in a bathroom.
"Knowing he was there," Weippert recalled, ". . . I went ahead and took the time to take off my uniform shirt and change out to my entry vest, choose . . . my rifle, the AR-15 [assault rifle], which has a scope, and deploy."
Once he neared Brubaker, he could hear the negotiator talking with Chris.
"From what I could tell," Weippert said, "he could see him," though not really well.
Seeking a better vantage point, Weippert circled around with his rifle and got into position in the alcove to the band and chorus rooms.
As he heard Brubaker tell Chris to "put the gun in the sink, come out and talk," Weippert got a glimpse of the boy.
"He [Chris] was looking through the [gun] sights," Weippert said, "aiming directly at me."
The gun, which turned out to be an air pistol that fires nonlethal pellets, looked real as Chris held it with both hands.
"I mean, it looked like he had training and was holding the weapon like we would hold our weapon at target practice . . .," Weippert said.
"He would slow, and he stopped looking at the negotiator and only looked in our direction. He knew who was pointing at him with a gun."
What Weippert saw next was alarming.
"I could see he was kind of getting that fixed stare, that idea: 'I've got to do something now.' He would never answer the negotiator, which worried me.
"I wasn't going to let him [Chris] shoot us first."
Like the portable classroom to his right, the classrooms in the building where Weippert stood also were occupied by students and teachers. The doors to the band and chorus rooms have small glass inserts. Several feet away, the art-class door is all glass, with a full-length window next to it. Four-foot-deep windows run across the upper half of the building.
"I felt my life and certainly those lives around me were in danger," Weippert said. "And I was really worried about him just firing ambiently into those windows and above and to my right where there might be children."
Weippert was feeling eyestrain from looking through his scope from his shaded position, across a courtyard doused in sunlight, and into the dimly lit bathroom. "I had to come off the scope a minute, knowing he [Chris] may pop out any minute, but I'll just keep it [rifle] in that direction."
Chris crossed the opening three times, and Weippert told Deputy Sheriff Chris Maiorano, who was in the alcove with him, to watch the edge of the opening and tell him when he saw the boy's shoulder.
When Maiorano gave the word, Weippert raised his rifle.
"He came out pointing the weapon at his chin level and waited," Weippert said.
Looking through the scope, Weippert aimed just above Chris' gun and squeezed the trigger.
He later told investigators that he worried he had missed. Behind him, however, Maiorano said: "I saw him drop."
The school's surveillance video shows Brubaker rushing toward the bathroom but quickly retreating. Deputies then converge on the bathroom, still using shields to protect themselves. One of them yelled, "I see feet. I see an injury."
Chris' body was found a third of the way toward the back of the bathroom, the gun several feet away.
A head injury immediately incapacitates a gunman, said Chattanooga, Tenn., police Capt. Mike Williams, a nationally recognized SWAT expert. Although a shot to the abdomen might be fatal, it also could allow a gunman a few seconds to fire back, he said.
Williams, a SWAT officer for 27 years, read Weippert's and Brubaker's statements at the request of the Sentinel. Based on that review, he called the shooting a "good job by a veteran officer. He was reading body language well and was very focused on what the suspect was doing."
Based on FDLE's investigation, the State Attorney's Office found no criminal wrongdoing in the shooting. An internal investigation is under way at the Seminole County Sheriff's Office to determine whether Weippert, Brubaker and other deputies followed department policies. Neither officer could be reached for comment.
Sheriff Don Eslinger wouldn't speculate on the outcome of his probe, but he was quick to say, "There are things that could have been done differently.
"I didn't like the way it ended."
Gary Taylor can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 407-324-7293.