One of the things I really enjoy covering is law enforcement scenes, it amazes me how much stuff goes on that us in the media do not report. Crazy stuff happens on a daily basis, sometimes even an hourly basis but media organizations cannot cover ever single crime that happens. Even if we did we would be criticized for being “too negative” For me I want people to see what happens and I enjoy covering scenes like the one I am going to talk about today.
SWAT stand offs, robberies, murders, and assaults are scenes I have photographed many times before but this one was different. This scene was unlike anything I have ever covered before.
Here is my story.
I normally go to sleep very late, usually when people are waking up to begin their day I am going to bed. This night was unusual because I went to sleep at about midnight. Little did I know the bizarre and horrific crime spree suspect 24 year old Charlie Christopher Bates was allegedly committing.
He was busy terrorizing the University of South Florida (USF) area of Tampa and was the prime suspect in multiple home invasions, assaults and as many as 5 sexual assaults. Some of those sexual assaults were performed in front of the women’s boyfriends who were tied up and forced to watch the rapes at gunpoint. Horrific crimes that by daybreak left the USF area on edge as Bates had not been apprehended.
I woke up that morning to take my son to school and read the overnight press releases on my phone, my usual routine. I read what happened last night and saw that the then unnamed suspect was not captured. I started listening to the police scanner and heard K-9 units, patrol officers and helicopters searching and following up leads. I knew this would be something I wanted to cover but had an early morning assignment on the other side of town so it would have to wait. My plan was to finish the assignment and head over to the command post that had been established to organize the teams for the manhunt. Local law enforcement was taking this suspect very seriously and wanted him captured ASAP.
Law enforcement from multiple agencies swarmed the area and set up a tight perimeter around where the crimes had taken place. They searched all night and into the morning using helicopters, police K-9s and federal assets of the U.S. Marshals Service the suspect was still not located. Charlie Christopher Bates was positively identified as a suspect in a rape that happened a month prior. So the U.S. Marshals Fugitive Task Force was already looking for him when he was named as the prime suspect in the overnight assaults.
It is believed that Bates held a woman hostage overnight, cut his dreadlocks and then stole a friends vehicle in an attempt to evade capture. An officer spotted his vehicle Friday shortly before noon.
Here is where my story picks up again.
I finished my assignment and got into the car, it was an easy portrait of a blogger with a popular record website and an interesting story. As I switched from friendly portrait mode to spot news mode I pulled out my iPhone and checked the press releases to see if he was caught and if there was any more information.
Before I got to my assignment little was known. There had not been a suspect named or any motive of the attacks, I read that Tampa Police had released a photo of Bates. I started driving towards the command post while talking with my father on the phone. While talking with my father I got sidetracked and missed my exit! I ended up in a major traffic backup and got lost in a part of town I was unfamiliar with. Eventually I managed to get back on track with the help of my GPS.
I was about to stop at a gas station to buy a drink but turned on my Police Scanner (BC346XT)
to see what was going on with the search. Immediately I heard the cops tone of voice change and they announced that they were behind the suspect vehicle! This was a big deal, the man who terrorized the college town and who had eluded officers all night had now been located. My next question was, where were they and how quick could I get there.
I heard, “We are on Morris Bridge headed southbound towards Temple Terrace”. I knew exactly where that was, but was 20 mins away.
I heard the radio traffic pickup and units began to join the pack. At this time they were not pursuing the suspect. They were following him from a distance and he was driving about 35mph. Eventually at least four vehicles containing Tampa Police, Hillsborough County Sheriff, and the U.S. Marshals Fugitive Task Force got behind the suspect.
During this time he was in a relatively rural area but heading towards a more densely populated area of town and towards a major highway on-ramp. Commanders announced to the officers following Bates to try and stop him ASAP. They announced that they were heading south on U.S. 301. I was approaching U.S. 301 but about 5 miles south of their current location.
In my head, my plan was to continue monitoring the scanner and setup near an intersection and record the pursuit as it past by me, then attempt to follow it and see where it lead to.
But there was one problem.
It was lunch time on a Friday afternoon so the roads were very busy on my side of 301 near Adamo Drive in Brandon and I seemed to be hitting every red light.
Back to the scanner traffic.
Once the units following the suspect radioed back to command that they had enough backup following the suspect vehicle they got approval to attempt a traffic stop.
Police Scanner: Alright, lights on…….. he’s accelerating….
I hear a siren in the background of the scanner audio.
Commanders monitoring the situation came over the radio said, “You need to take that vehicle out the second you have an opportunity RAM HIM.” They wanted this to end before he reached more populated areas.
Police Scanner: Ok, copy that we are in pursuit….
Then all of a sudden I hear, “He’s shooting! He’s shooting! Shooting out the car…………SHOTS FIRED! SHOTS FIRED! SHOTS FIRED!”
This was a very dangerous situation and the thought of a man who does not want to get caught by police and actively shooting at officers was something I have never covered. This was not going to end peacefully. I had to get there.
The Sheriff helicopter that was in the air following the car gets on the radio and announces that shots are being fired from the suspect vehicle. The radio traffic goes dead for awhile and nothing else is said for a few moments.
I heard all of this go down on the scanner and knew I had to get to the area ASAP but I was still in traffic. As I waited at a red light I jumped out of the car to ready my gear. I grabbed my longest lense, which was only a Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L and my other camera body with a 17-40mm f/4.
I also grabbed a bottle of water, and a spare pack of batteries for the scanner. I threw them into my passenger seat and checked the CF cards and batteries to make sure I had enough to cover whatever may happen. I was planning for some sort of standoff or long distance pursuit so I had to be ready for anything.
Back to the scanner.
Police Scanner: He’s signal 3 (crashed) right in front of the Waffle House, Shots fired shots fired, shots continuing to be fired from both vehicles.
I knew exactly where that Waffle House was and was less than a mile away. But still stuck in traffic! I knew I had to get to the scene before they shut it down and my access would be limited.
The Sheriff’s helicopter radios dispatch and asks them to send EMS since they will probably be needed..
I saw a fire truck in the distance and realized I needed to get there to photograph any casualties from the shootout. Hopefully no cops were injured during this shootout but I realized from all the gunfire that it may be likely. And I had to photograph that.
But was I prepared to possibly see a cop that I know shot?
I didn’t want to have to see a friend injured like that. But I had to shoot it.
Police Scanner: Have EMS 10-18 (emergency) multiple gunshot wounds, multiple gunshot wounds, no officer on scene hit at this time but multiple multiple rounds, multiple rounds but every officer is 10-4 at this point.
Relief. No cops shot.
Then I heard on the scanner to have all responding units start shutting down the roads!
I knew I had to get there before they did that or my ability to make a photo of Bates would be limited.
I was approaching the scene when an undercover police car turned on its lights and shut down the road right in front of me, behind me a fire truck escorted by more undercover cars was approaching. I pulled over to let them pass. It was amazing to see the variety of undercover vehicles that were involved in this search. I always knew that the special units use all types of vehicles to do surveillance but it was something to see them in action coming from all directions. I won’t give up the type of undercover vehicles that I saw at the scene but it ranged from all makes and models including older vehicles, brand new vehicles, trucks and SUVs.
I’ll admit It was cool to see all these random, average looking cars activate their emergency lights and plain clothes cops jump out with badges dangling from their necks and guns on their belts begin to start directing traffic away from the shooting scene. It was clear that there were countless numbers of undercover officers trying to track down Bates.
I flashed my press credentials to the undercover officer who had jumped out of his vehicle to direct traffic away from the scene. I knew my press pass wouldn’t mean anything in such an active scene but it did work and I managed to be able to park in a business park but was still further away than I would like.
I pulled into a business parked the deputy directed me to but I was still about 1/4 mile from the scene. Separating me from the scene was some woods and a small creek. It wasn’t much of an obstacle but I knew I had to move fast to get to the scene since I saw the ambulance arrive to the scene. I knew I had to be quick and carry as little gear as possible so I only grabbed one body with a 70-200mmf2,8, my iPhone 5, and my police scanner which was attached to earbuds so I can listen to the scanner traffic.
At this time I wasn’t sure 100% sure if any cops were injured even though they radioed none was hit. I knew I needed to rush to the scene as fast as possible. Just then I heard command ask to confirm if anyone was hit, they responded and said all officers were 10-4 but the suspect was hit multiple times. It was a relief that no cops were shot but I knew I needed to get to the scene and photograph the suspect being treated by EMS. I also figured that he may be flown out in a medical helicopter. So I scanned the area for a possible LZ. I figured since the roads were completely blocked that would be where the helo would land.
I walked out of the woods and was able to make a clean shot, but I was still too far away. Since I was the only member of the media at the scene at the time I figured they would try to keep me back, or move me to a designated press area, so I had to grab what I can as I walked towards the scene. I snapped a few photos of the scene which wasn’t that amazing. I knew that the moment that needed to be captured was the photo of Bates being wheeled into the ambulance on a stretcher.
I reached a distance of about 100 yards from the scene when a deputy politely asked me to stop moving closer. I knew I needed to get closer but in also couldn’t push my luck at that time. A few minutes passed and I knew that if Bates survive the shootout they will be transporting him very soon. I couldn’t see them treating him because he was behind the ambulance but I could see a lot of movement around the ambulance so I knew they were working on him.
Then I saw them rush him into the ambulance and managed to snap a few frames of them loading Bates into the ambulance. I looked around and didn’t see any other photographers around me so I knew that I was the only press photog to capture that moment.
The ambulance reversed and sped away from the scene escorted by two unmarked police cars and a Sheriff motorcycle.
I knew I captured an important moment but I knew I needed more. I had to get closer. The deputy told me I couldn’t proceed further but I saw in the distance there were civilians gathered near the Waffle House. So I pulled up Google maps on my phone and saw that if I walked around the business park I could get right up to where the pursuit ended. At that time I called my photo editor and told her that I got the shot of him in the ambulance.
I walked around the buildings and looked up to see the sheriffs helicopter hovering over my head! I thought he was watching me get closer to the scene. I listened up to the scanner and he was talking about how he was low on fuel and needed to head back to the hangar. Relief!
I kept walking and eventually walked to only a few feet of where the scene ended and watched as deputies started securing the scene and putting up crime scene tape to preserve the scene.
What I saw was something I have only scene in the movies. I saw the vehicles and noticed the dozens bullet holes that were in both vehicles. It was a miracle that the cops in the vehicle behind the suspect vehicle were alive. I later found out that the officers in the grey charger that pitted the suspect vehicle used a ballistic shield to protect them from being shot at by Bates during the short pursuit. I believe if they did not have that shield the situation may have ended much differently.
While shooting the scene I knew the other important photos were detail shots of the cars, bullet holes, any blood that may be on the floor, any weapons etc. Another shot I was looking for was photos of the officers that may have been involved in the shooting. How where they? Shaken up? Happy to be alive? Happy to have stopped this suspect? It was still a pretty active scene and top brass from the Sheriff and Tampa Police including Sheriff Gee and Chief Castor arrived on the scene with dozens of detectives, and U.S. Marshals. I once again pulled out my iPhone and started snapping photos as well as a short video clip from my perspective and sent them to my editor via text.
Near the vehicle I saw one of my friend’s who works at the Tampa Police as a plain clothes officer in one of their specialty units. Our friendship began abuot 5 years ago when he became the handler of my Police K-9 that was donated to the Tampa Police to be used as a narcotics detection dog. Max was his name and he has since passed away but the friendship between his handler and I still kept going. He is a really great cop, a seasoned officer with many years on the force and served in specialty units including SWAT. I chatted with him for a few moments and told him how the last thing I wanted to see was any cops shot… especially someone I knew and that I was glad he was safe. He responded by saying that the suspect was going to “get us” but luckily no cops were hit. we said our goodbyes and well wished to each others families followed by the usual “Be Safe” and we went our separate ways.
I noticed the TV guys were setting up across the street as well as a fellow Times photographer Skip O’Rourke. He is one of my favorite guys on our team and I credit him with a lot of my success in photojournalism. He’s a great guy, so when I saw him working the scene from across the street I knew we had it covered. We had both angles as well as the shot of the Bates being transported to the hospital. Well done.
Here is the amazing videos and audio from the pursuit and shootout.
Watch and listen as Hillsborough Sheriff David Gee and Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor give this blow-by-blow account of the chase and shootout of a rape suspect, from the moment it began to the gunfire that ended it.
RAW Video from News Helicopter (No Audio)
For more information on this story Click HERE
Video from Hillsborough County Sheriff Helicopter with radio traffic.
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