MIAMI – The sun had not yet risen on Tuesday when a group of FBI agents tasked with investigating criminals who prey on children online approached Water Terrace apartments in Sunrise, Florida , to execute a search warrant, a routine part of the job that always involves risk.
It is unknown what exactly happened in the next few minutes, but a shooting ensued, knocking neighbors out of bed in the peaceful residential community. Law enforcement officials called emergency dispatchers. Several shots were fired, they reported. Send air relief.
Two FBI agents died and three others were injured in one of the deadliest shootings in office history. No agent had been shot and killed on duty since 2008. An equally bloody shooting took place in a Miami suburb 35 years ago, killing two FBI agents and injuring five others.
The man under investigation in the case, which authorities said involved violent crimes against children, had barricaded himself inside the compound and was found dead. A law enforcement official said it appeared the man had committed suicide before officers could arrest him. His identity was not revealed until his family was informed of his death.
Video footage from local police stations showed a gruesome scene in the open-air apartment complex. A SWAT truck had sunk into the stair railings that lay on the ragged floor. There were blood stains on the ground outside the apartments. Police raided the complex, closing roads and preventing people from entering for most of the day.
Christopher A. Wray, the director of the FBI, identified the two agents killed as special agents Daniel Alfin and Laura Schwartzenberger.
“Every day, special agents of the FBI put themselves at risk to ensure the safety of the American people,” Wray said in a statement. “Special Agent Alfin and Special Agent Schwartzenberger today exemplified heroism in the defense of their country. The FBI will always honor his ultimate sacrifice and be forever grateful for his courage.
Ms Schwartzenberger, 43, was a mother of two from Colorado and had worked for the FBI since 2005. She was part of the violent crimes against children team in the Miami office’s field office, court records show. She was assigned to the National Innocent Images Initiative, part of the FBI’s cybercrime program established to combat the proliferation of child sexual abuse images online.
Mr Alfin, 36, was the father of a child from New York and had been a special agent since 2009. He was assigned to the Miami task force on child exploitation. He discussed his role in an FBI online article on the 2015 arrest of a man from Naples, Florida, who ran what the bureau described as the world’s largest child pornography website. The site, called Playpen, had more than 150,000 users worldwide.
“They are putting their lives on the line and that’s a hell of a price to pay,” President Biden said of the agents in remarks from the Oval Office. “My heart hurts for the families.”
Dawn Garrick, a resident of the apartment complex where the shooting took place, said she was awakened from her sleep shortly after 6 a.m. by police sirens and cruiser lights shining in her window. his bedroom on the ground floor. From her bedroom, Mrs Garrick, 53, saw worried neighbors come out to see what was going on, only to be brought inside by the police. About an hour later, she says, she saw paramedics load someone onto a stretcher into an ambulance.
The community is generally safe and calm, she said.
“There are a lot of professionals working,” she says. “Everyone is nice.”
According to the FBI, two of the injured officers, each shot multiple times, were taken to hospital. The third did not require hospitalization.
FBI squads that investigate crimes against children are considered one of the most difficult assignments due to the disturbing and graphic nature of the cases they handle. Officers typically review gruesome depictions of sexually exploited children, images that are then shared with others online.
Investigations into child sexual abuse often begin with advice from online social media companies like Facebook, which reported finding almost 60 million images and videos in 2019 alone. About half of the content was not necessarily illegal, according to the company, and would have helped law enforcement with investigations.
Yet businesses typically can only detect a small percentage of what is distributed, as they rely on automated systems that can only flag items previously reported by users. From a board of one or two images or videos, investigators often find thousands or more on a suspect’s hard drive.
Sharing these images can also indicate abuse in the real world. It is not uncommon to find offenders who share images of child sexual abuse who have also abused children in real life.
Mr Alfin was involved in an investigation into a dark web forum from 2014, where members uploaded and exchanged graphic images of child sexual abuse. The investigation has resulted in the arrests of at least 350 people in the United States and hundreds more around the world. He is credited with saving over 300 children, according to FBI press release
Over the past decade, criminals have increasingly used advanced technologies like the dark web – where users’ Internet Protocol addresses are obscured – to stay ahead of the police. In one case, a man from Ohio helped run a dark website with nearly 30,000 members from 2012 to 2014. The site, now closed, required users to share images of abuse to stay in good standing, according to court documents.
The online forum had a private section that was only accessible to members who shared images of children they themselves had abused.
Several police investigations over the past few years have broken up other huge forums on the dark web, including one known as Child’s Play which is said to have had over a million user accounts.
No details have emerged about the Florida investigation that led to Tuesday’s shooting. A few hours after the gunfire, there was still a strong police presence around the apartment complex.
George L. Piro, the special agent in charge of the FBI’s Miami field office, said officers “plan meticulously” and execute search warrants almost daily.
“The vast majority of these warrants are happening without incident,” he said. “This morning’s Sunrise operations ended tragically as the subject opened fire on members of the search team.”
Throughout the day, police maintained a perimeter about half a mile to the north, restricting access to the complex and surrounding areas. Officers cordoned off a wide swath of Nob Hill Road and set up an assembly site at a nearby rehabilitation hospital.
The officers killed on Tuesday were the first to be shot in the line of duty since November 2008, when Special Agent Samuel S. Hicks, 33, was killed while serving a search warrant, according to the FBI.
Mr Hicks was part of a team of officers executing an arrest warrant at a house near Pittsburgh that was linked to a drug trafficking ring, the office said.
Tuesday’s shooting was one of the worst in FBI history
In 1986, two officers were killed in Miami and five others injured in the pursuit of two violent bank robbers who were also killed in the exchange. The shooting at Suniland Shopping Plaza in what is now the village of Pinecrest was the costliest in FBI history.
In November 1994, two officers were killed, a third was injured, and a 15-year-old boy was shot in the leg when a man entered the Cold Affairs Room at Police Headquarters in Washington and said opened fire with an assault rifle, according to the FBI
A police detective was also killed in the shooting. The shooter, a suspect in a triple murder a month earlier, had left notes saying he planned to kill members of the local police homicide unit, the FBI said.
On Tuesday, police stood in a dark line to greet a stretcher carrying one of the bodies draped in an American flag was placed in a rescue truck at Broward Health Medical Center in Fort Lauderdale. A motorcade of law enforcement dark SUVs and motorcycles with sirens and lights then escorted the ambulance to the county medical examiner’s office.
Patricia mazzei and Johnny diaz reported from Miami, Adam goldman from Washington, and Christina morales from Coral Springs, Florida, Weston, Florida, and Miramar, Florida. Katie benner and Seamus Hughes contribution to Washington reporting, Maria cramer from Maplewood, NJ, Gabriel JX Dance, Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs and Michael H. Keller from New York, and Michael Majchrowicz from Sunrise, Florida, and Pembroke Pines, Florida. Susan C. Beachy contributed to the research.