ARMED AND DANGEROUS
April 11, 2014
By Mike Rigert
Got nerves? Luckily for a relatively new 9-1-1 telecommunicator, he had them in spades when recently engaging in an approximate 40-minute conversation with an armed suspect during a standoff with police on Oct. 26 at a CVS pharmacy in the Charlotte, N.C., area.
Chase Fowler, 25, a telecommunicator with the Gaston County Communication Center in Gastonia, N.C., for 1 and a half ½ years, was calm and collected during the call that came into him at 1:42 a.m. He learned from the caller, a pharmacist, that there was someone with a gun in the store in nearby Belmont, and that there were a couple of employees in the store with the man. But then the line went dead. Fowler redialed the number repeatedly trying to re-establish contact with the initial caller or someone in the store. Eventually, a person picked up.
“At first I was in shock,” Fowler said. “Then I was thankful and surprised.”
But it wasn’t very long into his chat with Ryan, a store employee, when a rapid succession of gunshots rang out in Fowler’s headset.
“Back up! Back up! He’s going to kill me, back up!” a now frantic Ryan is heard shouting to Belmont police, who had arrived on scene and attempted to enter the store, according to a recording of the 9-1-1 call.
Worse than that, Fowler didn’t know who had fired the rounds or if anyone had been hurt. Only later did he learn that two Belmont police officers had exchanged fire with the suspect, 46-year-old Edward Russ, and that no one had been injured. Though it sounded to Fowler like only three rounds had been fired, in actuality Russ had fired two shots from his rifle when officers attempted to intervene, followed by the officers returning fire, expending nearly a dozen bullets before pulling back.
“I didn’t know if the guy would take his own life,” Fowler said. “That normally happens in these situations.”
He resumed questioning Ryan, who confirmed there was someone in the store with a gun.
“He said, ‘Yeah, he’s right here in front of me,’” Fowler said. “They were right beside each other. Everything the suspect said I could hear in the background. I could hear his footsteps coming to the phone.”
That’s when Ryan told Fowler that Russ wanted to talk to him. But that scenario is nothing new for Fowler, who during his short stint with Gaston County 9-1-1, had previously spoken with other violent suspects during calls, including one wielding a knife.
“If they’re willing to talk to you, it might help,” Fowler said.
During his conversation with Russ, they exchanged names, Fowler learned a bit about the suspect’s family, and Russ told him that he had had a “bad night.”
“I asked him to put the gun down a few times,” Fowler said. “I don’t know if he did. He told me that he didn’t want to hurt anybody. At that point, I think it hit him, ‘You can’t take it back, and you’re in for the whole ride.’ He said ‘Just give me some time to calm down.’”
Fowler took the call solo for the first 40 minutes before a police hostage negotiator joined him at his side for the remainder. Six hours from the time Fowler had answered the first call from the pharmacy store, Russ surrendered peacefully to police.
By 5 or 6 a.m. that morning, the story of Fowler’s heroics hit first the local and regional press, and then national media outlets, including CNN and Fox News.
“I walked outside and took a deep breath,” Fowler said of his marathon 9-1-1 call. “All the people at work were proud of me. They knew it was my first big call. But it wasn’t just me.”
Fowler said with the combination of his dispatcher training and his education while earning a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, he was well prepared for the ordeal. The next day, back at the comm. center, Fowler said he was a little “shaky” on the first call, but after that, it was like riding a bike.
“I signed up for this job, and that’s what goes along with it,” Fowler said, downplaying his role in the call. “I wouldn’t change my decision at all. Some get news, and some don’t. I’m just glad that it went the way it did.”
Lloyd Moskowitz, director of the Gaston County Communication Center, said the agency covers a countywide population of approximately 210,000.