Shootout In Dade County

The air hung so thick and still over Florida’s Interstate 75, you could slice it with a butter knife. But with the top down on her new BMW convertible, Edith Silver created her own breeze. It whipped through her short blonde hair, making her feel young and carefree. She could almost forget the birthday coming up: 60 years old. Could she really be turning 60?

She had a few chores to complete on this first day of her vacation. She had stopped at the television station where she directed the consumer help-line. Now, she was on her way to the real estate office to see if her new business cards had arrived. She drove past, but barely noticed, a Highway Patrolman who had pulled over a sport utility vehicle.

***

Even with the temperature in the high 90s, Fort Myers Highway Patrol Trooper Tom Roderick wore his bulletproof vest. You never knew what might happen out here, just miles from the sprawling Everglades.

The brown and beige 1984 Chevy Blazer that Roderick had pulled over for a cracked windshield was now parked about 25 feet in front of his patrol car on the road’s shoulder. It held two very jumpy young men. He could see them stealing glances at him over their shoulders and shuffling items around in their car. Roderick waited as the radio operator at headquarters checked the registration.

“You’re sure there’s no signal VIN?” he asked the radio operator in his slow Florida drawl for a second time, his question police shorthand for stolen vehicle report. “No,” she repeated. The car had not been reported stolen.

The vehicle sported a Florida license plate but the driver, David George, 26, of Greenville, South Carolina, had handed Roderick a South Carolina registration card. The two men said that they had borrowed the car from a friend; that’s why they couldn’t put their fingers on the correct registration. What’s the friend’s name? Roderick asked. They couldn’t remember.

Report or no report, something was wrong here. As cars whizzed past, the trooper sauntered across the baking black asphalt toward the Blazer.

“I need you to turn your vehicle off,” he said. Instead, David George mashed the accelerator to the floor and took off.

Startled, Roderick yelled, “Stop your car! D’ya hear me?” then loped to his patrol car. The Blazer sped off down the right lane. The trooper pulled into the left alongside them.

The SUV’s brake lights shone red as it slowed. Roderick lowered the passenger window to shout a command. Before he got out a word, the Blazer’s driver turned his head, stuck his arm out his window and aimed a semi-automatic.

Ping! Ping! Ka-ping! Bullets ricocheted off the patrol car’s right front bumper. His tire hit, he swerved to the right. He struggled to control the car.

The Blazer’s passenger, bearded, and dark-haired, climbed into the passenger-side window, braced himself, and took aim across the roof. While the first shooter had aimed at Roderick’s tires, this one aimed to kill. Ka-ping! The bullets caromed off the front of the patrol car. Plumes of smoke billowed from its right front side; it shook violently. Unable to stay on their tail, Roderick pulled onto the shoulder and called the incident in to headquarters.

***

Professional diver Will Kilmer, 30, had covered about half the distance from his home in Clearwater to his job in Key Largo, when he saw an old Chevy Blazer tearing down the shoulder on his right. It looked like the same SUV he had seen a trooper stop a couple miles back.

That was nervy. Why would these guys risk another ticket so soon after being pulled over?

***

Edith signaled at the sign for the Bonita Springs Boulevard exit and slowed for the off-ramp. A dusty old two-toned Blazer hurtled across the grassy shoulder beside her, whipped past, then snapped around, blocking the exit.

Worrying that the people inside might need help, Edith pulled over. Before she could get out of her car, two young men in shorts and t-shirts jumped from theirs, yelling something unintelligible. The dark-haired one ran to her convertible, and leaped over the door into her passenger seat. “Do what we tell you,” he said, aiming a semi-automatic at her heart. The other man jumped over the door into the backseat. “If you don’t, you’re dead. It’s as simple as that.”

“Please,” Edith cried. “You can have the car.”

“No, lady. You’re driving. Now move!”

“You’ve got until the next green light or you’re dead.”

***

From the overpass above the Bonita Springs Boulevard exit, Will Kilmer watched the curious scene on the exit ramp. He could hear nothing but the whoosh of traffic on I-75. Nor could he see, from this distance, that the Blazer’s former occupants were threatening the BMW’s driver with guns.

But this didn’t look right. The BMW started up, and drove back onto I-75. Kilmer decided to check them out as they re-entered the highway.

The BMW came up behind him; he slowed to let it pass. He could see them clearly alongside him: an older blonde woman was driving. Next to her sat a lean young man with dark hair; behind them sat another young man, huskier and with lighter hair. Kilmer noted the license plate tag: “EDY SWTY.”

At the next exit, the BMW pulled off the highway again. Kilmer still had a long drive ahead. Any delay would make him late for work. The woman in the Beamer with the “EDY SWTY” plates might have picked up the men by pre-arrangement.

But he couldn’t take that chance and just travel on. At the next exit he turned around and headed back to Bonita Springs Boulevard and the abandoned Blazer.

***

Billie and David George of Greenville, South Carolina, told Edith she could do exactly what they ordered, as soon as they ordered her to do it, and live. Or she could hesitate for an instant and die.

Billie, 30, the older brother in the front seat, gave the orders. David, 26, the quieter one, sat in back.

Billie had had her weaving in and out of traffic since they had commandeered her new roadster. Now, apparently realizing that they could more easily be identified in an open car, he ordered her to put up the top and roll up the windows. Edith closed the windows and got ready to put up the top — which would only go up when the car was in park — at the next light.

“I said to put that top up. Now!” Billie yelled.

“I can’t,” Edith explained. “It won’t go up when you’re traveling.”

“She’s right,” David said from the backseat, seeming to try to calm his older brother.
“These new cars don’t do it.”

“You’ve got until the next green light or you’re dead,” Billie answered.

***

The Bonita Springs Boulevard exit swarmed with sheriff’ deputies, plain clothesmen, and Highway Patrol troopers. Some wore bullet-proof vests. Cars with flashing emergency lights lined both sides of the road. A helicopter hovered above. Police dogs, tugged at their leashes, whining for the chance to sniff out the next patch of landscape.

Apparently assuming that the Blazer’s occupants had escaped on foot, the officers searched the woods off the highway. Kilmer walked up to one of the troopers. “Excuse me sir, but the guys you’re looking for? They’re nowhere near that car,” he said. Then he told him what he’d witnessed, gave a description of the BMW, and repeated its license plate: EDY SWTY.

On Kilmer’s tip, the Fort Myers Highway Patrol put out a BOLO — Be On the Lookout —to all Florida law enforcement: “Be on the lookout for a green BMW convertible, with a personalized tag, E-D-Y S-W-T-Y, reference to a carjacking. White female hostage, two white male suspects involved.”

***

Smoking one Marlboro after another, Billie seemed hyped up. Edith sensed he wanted to keep her just scared enough to obey his orders but not scared enough to become hysterical — and therefore unable to drive. He had overruled David who had wanted to turn on the radio. “Don’t you want to hear if…” David began. Billie cut him off, “No.” Edith figured that Billie didn’t want her to know too much.

“We’ve been accused of something we’re not guilty of,” he said. “Promise you, we’re not guilty of it. But we’ve got to get away because no one believes us.”

“Well, then, let me get you an attorney,” Edith said, putting as much sympathy into her voice as she could muster.

Billie shook his head. “We’ve had one.”

“I know a real good one,” she replied. “Let me get you a good one.”

Edith had spent years in sales, first selling advertising for a Philadelphia newspaper and now selling real estate. She knew how to get people to relax and open up. She had no illusions about her predicament. She assumed the men planned to kill her. She could identify them. Accepting that, she figured she had nothing to lose. Feeling cooler than she’d have thought possible, she summoned her gift for gab.

“Your mother must really be worried about you,” she said.

“Well, that’s why we’re in all this trouble,” Billie answered.

“Because your mother’s worried about you?”

“We decided to stop at a hotel room to call our parents,” Billie said. He then spun a long tale about a white Jeep filled with bounty hunters who had followed the brothers to the hotel, shot it up, then accused Billie and David of the destruction.

Edith didn’t believe him but it didn’t matter. If she could keep him talking, get them to see her as an ally, maybe they would let her live.

After about another half mile, Billie had her turn onto the Tamiami Trail, a lonely two-lane road through the Everglades that separates the west coast of Florida from the east. On either side of the sunburned blacktop lay thousands of acres of swamp, a tangled grass and mangrove jungle where alligators, still as granite gargoyles, waited patiently for any prey that wandered within chomping distance. They seemed tame when measured against the six-inch barrel pointed at Edith’s heart.

***

Trooper Roderick contacted the Greenville, South Carolina sheriff’s office, and learned that David George and his brother, Billie had indeed stolen the Blazer, from David’s employer, the owner of a surveying company. But because the surveyor had several similar vehicles, the registration card in the glove compartment had been inadvertently switched with that of another SUV, which is why a check of the registration had not turned up a stolen vehicle report.

And the Georges had taken hostages before: bank manager, Judy Walls, and her husband Malcolm. With an accomplice, Loras Rowan, the George brothers had forced their way into the Walls’ house, and kept the couple tied up overnight. In the morning, they sent Mrs. Walls to the bank in Greenville, where she worked, and told her to clean out the safe. Their instructions: bring the money to a deserted road or she would never see her husband alive again. After she delivered the loot, they left her husband, bound but otherwise unharmed, in the back of a car behind a convenience store.

Later that day, they used the couple’s ATM card to withdraw money. As they did, the ATM camera photographed the trio. Police ID’d the men, arrested Rowan, and recovered his share.

The Greenville Sheriff’s department reported one more disturbing detail. The previous November, the George brothers’ grandfather had been bludgeoned to death, and their grandmother shot. Police suspected David and Billie of the killings, had physical evidence placing them at the scene, but had wanted to gather more evidence before charging them. With Rowan’s arrest, all that changed. Rowan seemed ready to confess that he not only helped Billie and David in the Walls’ abduction and robbery, but also helped the brothers murder their grandparents.

The men had worn masks throughout the kidnapping of the Walls, so those victims could not identify them. Edith Silver, sitting just inches from the George brothers, was clearly in greater danger. She knew what her abductors looked like.

Like a modern-day Scheherazade, Edith kept her captors entertained, turning on the charm that had led her late husband Ernie to nickname her “Edy Sweety,” the sweetest woman on earth. She joked with them. She teased them. She humored them. She encouraged them.

“So boys,” she asked with a lightheartedness she did not feel. “Who do you want to play you when they make a movie of this?”

David chose Nicholas Cage as his celluloid alter ego; Billie wanted to be played by John Travolta. He decided Rue McLanahan of the Golden Girls should play Edith. “I think you’re like her in real life. You’ve got lots of energy and zest.”

Billie confided that they had arranged to meet a Cuban man in Miami who was going to get them out of the country. He also told her she reminded him of his mom. He scolded her for driving alone with the top down, telling her that’s why they’d chosen her car.

But throughout, he kept his gun pointed at her.

No other streets or highways intersected the Tamiami Trail as it traveled west to east, except for an occasional dirt road into the swamp. No buildings dotted the landscape for 150 miles. The sparse traffic sped along, with nothing to hinder it. Edith hoped the sheer monotony might work in her favor. Maybe her kidnappers would relax enough to fall asleep — thus, giving her the opportunity to flag down another driver and ask for help.

As if reading her mind, Billie sat straight up and said, “Don’t even think about jumping out of the car because I’ll kill you dead on the spot. You understand?”

“Relax,” she cooed in a motherly tone. “I’m not jumping out. I’m a diabetic. If I jump out, I’ll be black and blue. It’ll take me weeks to heal.”

Billie whipped around to David, “Give me her purse.” When his brother complied, Billie spilled the contents, found her insulin syringes, pocketed a couple, and then opened her wallet, reading her address aloud several times, as if memorizing it. Edith felt a chill, listening to him hiss the number and name of her street over and over again. He seemed to be saying that even if he did let her go, he’d be back. He’d never let her get away completely.

Don’t let him get to you, she reminded herself. Don’t let him think he’s got you terrorized.

***

Sergeant Mike Roden of the Florida Highway Patrol loved Miami. To him, the sprawling metropolis was a vibrant, thriving, cultural center.

His wife did not share his enthusiasm, however. She couldn’t bear thinking of her husband patrolling Miami’s highways every day, putting his life at risk each time he left for work. She wanted to raise their one-year-old daughter in a small, neighborly town. So they had found a house in Clermont, not far from Orlando. A couple of weeks ago, they had paid their down payment. Next month, the Rodens would be on their way to their new home. But, for now, Roden had a job to do. The BOLO to all units had come over his radio with a description of the George brothers, and of the green BMW convertible they had carjacked, with a warning that they held a female hostage.

Roden knew he’d be called on to set up one of the roadblocks. He started making his way to the line where Collier and Dade counties meet, on Tamiami Trail, 25 miles away.

He called headquarters from his cell phone. The lieutenant briefed him and promised to send him extra troopers to back him up.

There was little chance the George brothers would come his way. The BOLO was already more than an hour old.

They might have reversed direction and headed back north. They might have killed their hostage, disposed of the BMW, and stolen another car. They might have turned off onto any of dozens of roads. Nevertheless, Roden turned on his emergency lights and siren and headed out to the fringes of the Everglades.

***

Edith squirmed as she watched Billie stroke his gun, check its ammunition, aim, and mock-fire.
“Can’t you put that gun away?” she pleaded. “I told you I hate guns.”

“I just want to make sure it’s ready to go,” he said, lifting its sight to his eye.

They had been following a tanker truck for the past few miles. Billie told her to stay on its tail, telling her that whenever she drove she should always get behind a truck because truck drivers know where the cops are. Glad to distract his attention from his weapon, Edith, tried to sound interested.

Billie seemed to relax. Then a Florida Highway Patrol car passed in the westbound lane, opposite the direction in which they were going. Billie bolted to attention and spun around to David, “That cop eyeballed me,” he said.

“I didn’t see him,” David answered.

“Turn around and see,” Billie told him. “He’s going to turn and get right behind us.”

“What are you talking about?” Edith asked.

“Lady, it’s over. He eyeballed me. Eyeball to eyeball.”

***

Mike Roden was on his cell phone with the lieutenant, who said troopers Andy Smith and Orlando Savedra would soon arrive to help set up the roadblock.

Then Roden saw it: a green BMW convertible cruising by in the other direction. He signed off on with the lieutenant and called into the dispatcher on his radio.

“I’ve got a vehicle that matches the exact description of the suspect vehicle,” he said with greater calm than he felt. “He’s a couple of vehicles ahead of me passing some trucks now, coming up on Krome. I’ll give you a tag number if I can catch up.” Though he didn’t say it aloud, he knew this had to be them. How many green Beamer ragtops could there be in the middle of the Everglades?

He waited for a couple of cars to go by.

If they had spotted him, this could get ugly very quickly. He didn’t want to confront them, in the middle of nowhere, alone. Savedra and Smith, his back-up, were at least 10 miles away.

***

“Whatever that truck does, you do,” Billie barked. “If he cuts in and out four times, you cut in and out four times, you got it?”

“I got it,” Edith answered.

She tried to stay on his tail, but it was getting scary.

“Jesus, there are cars coming right at me,” Edith cried. She pulled back into her lane to avoid a collision.

“I said do whatever he does,” Billie yelled. “Now do it!”

“She’s right,” David interceded. “There are cars coming right at her.”

“Okay. You’ve got two car lengths,” Billie said. “Then you go regardless or you’re dead.”

***

Roden was now several vehicles behind the BMW. Dispatch had told him his backup team was approaching Krome Avenue, the first intersection on the east coast, two minutes away. Roden couldn’t be sure whether the people in the BMW had spotted him. For that matter, he still hadn’t positively ID’d the car. Then, as it pulled out once again to pass a truck, he saw the tag: EDY SWTY.

“Confirming this is the suspect vehicle: E-D-Y S-W-T-Y,” he told headquarters. “Go on and have those units come up here and we’ll stop ‘em right here.”

***

The tension coiled itself around Edith and her captors, binding them together and separating them at once. At the intersection ahead waited a trooper’s car with lights flashing.

“When we get to the red light, I want you in the left hand lane,” said Billie. She pulled around the truck she had been following. There were no other vehicles in front or in back.

“Now, put down those windows!” Billie yelled. Edith instantly understood. They were going to have a shootout. David reached from the back seat and took control of her rear view mirror. As their eyes met in the mirror, she saw he had a gun to her neck. Then she saw another Highway Patrol car approaching from behind.

She was going to get caught in the crossfire. She was going to die. She thought of her sons, her grandkids, her little dog. She would never see any of them again.

Billie checked his weapon once more. “I want you to step on the gas when this light turns and go as fast as you can,” he said.

Just then, the patrol car that had been coming up from behind rammed right into them. The BMW skidded. As the bump distracted the George brothers, Savedra the husky moustached trooper who had driven the patrol car stopped across the intersection, came alongside the car on foot. Billie spotted him. “I’ll kill her,” Billie yelled as he fired out the window. “I’ll kill her and I’ll kill you too.”

Suddenly, the cop who had tailed them, Roden, was behind the car on foot as well, making his way to the passenger side. Billie swung halfway out the window and began shooting at both troopers. A stray bullet hit the lens of the traffic light, showering sparkling red shards down on a stopped car’s hood. Another round hit a semi truck behind Roden.

David was shooting too now, through the convertible’s plastic back window.

Another trooper pulled into the intersection and started to get out of his car.

“Step on it!” Billie screamed. Edith took off, bullets ricocheting off the bumper. David swung his gun around to Edith’s head.

“Drive, bitch, drive!”

***

“Hold your fire,” Roden shouted to Savedra. “They have a gun to the hostage’s head.”

The BMW made the hard left onto Krome Avenue. The officers jumped back into their cars — Smith first, then Savedra, then Roden — and took up the chase.

Bullets rained down on the Beamer, clanging off the right bumper, piercing the trunk, whizzing by Edith’s ear.

Hanging out the passenger window, Billie shouted orders back inside, telling her to cut in and out of the thickening traffic; David shot at the officers through the back window. Edith pumped the gas, pushing the BMW in and out of traffic at speeds up to 120 miles per hour. The cops were falling behind.

Billie leaned inward; his shirt soaked red. “I’ve taken a hit, man,” he groaned to his brother. “I ain’t gonna make it. I’m gonna die.”

Edith saw her chance. “Why don’t you guys just give yourselves up,” she shouted to David. “He’s dying and you’re not going to get away. The cops are going to get you. Let me slow down and just surrender.”

“She’s right,” David said.

“Okay,” Billie agreed weakly. Edith slowed down so the police could catch up.

With more force than she imagined he had left, Billie shouted for her to stop the car. “I’m stopping,” she said.

“Stop now!” he hollered.

She slammed on the brake, the car skidded sideways, and two of the cop cars careened into them, blocking the car in.

***

Savedra leaped out of his patrol car and ran to the BMW. The dark-haired shooter, Billie George, had climbed halfway out of the passenger window. Savedra ran up to the car, grabbed him by his hair and tried to pull him down to the ground. Bloody and wounded as he was, Billie kept fighting.

“Give yourself up,” Savedra ordered.”You’re not going to go anywhere. Give yourself up.” But Billie just screamed “I’ll kill you,” and struggled harder. Savedra felt a cold sting as Billie cut his arm with something — he couldn’t determine what — but the trooper kept hold. He heard a siren coming up behind him and saw a shadow off to right. Roden!

Then Savedra heard a shot. Where had it come from? Even if the bad guy was firing at him point blank, he couldn’t shoot back; the hostage was in the line of fire.

In a flash, Savedra let go of Billie and backed off, while Roden, coming from the front of the car, with an unobstructed shot at the man, fired his automatic, hitting Billie in the torso, neck and head. The fugitive slumped over the window, half out of the car, stone dead. But a quick check showed that Billie no longer had a gun in his hand.

If the shot hadn’t come from Billie, who had fired it? And where was Smith? Roden’s stomach rolled over as he realized he couldn’t see the third trooper — or the other bad guy.

Roden re-holstered, ran around the cars and found Smith on the ground on the edge of the woods struggling with David George. Roden didn’t even have time to feel relief. He grabbed a can of pepper spray from his belt, sprayed David in the face, and finally subdued him.

He was on David’s back, snapping on the handcuffs. Then he looked up and saw her for the first time. Edith Silver. Edy Sweety. Roden put David in the backseat of a deputy’s car and walked over to Edith as the deputy drove off.

It was over. One kidnapper was dead, the other on his way to jail. Edith picked up an empty ammunition magazine from the passenger seat, looked at it blankly then held it up to show the police.

She was too stunned to register emotion. She knew tears poured from her eyes. She knew her body shivered. But she felt numb. She didn’t even immediately think to leave her car, although the bloody body of the man who had terrorized her these past two hours was hanging over her passenger window.

Sirens pierced the air. Blue lights flashed over the highway. TV helicopters whipped the sky like giant mix-masters.

One of the cops who had rescued her came around the car. Their eyes locked. “Are you okay?” he asked. After two hours of trying to charm the devil out of stealing her life, all she could do was nod.

She just wanted to go home now, to Fort Myers, to see her sons, to see her grandchildren.

I’m alive. she thought. I’m still alive.

She was going to celebrate her 60th birthday after all. Really celebrate.

 

A different version of this story was published in the Reader’s Digest.