They were trapped, and they knew it. Edward Wright and James Wheeler, two veteran police officers, were stuck in separate rooms on the second floor of a Tioga rowhouse, along with three people in handcuffs — collateral from a drug bust that had gone to hell in a hurry. A madman was below them on the first floor, and helicopters were hovering overhead. They could hear him pacing, talking to a woman on the phone. And then the house would fill with the sound of thunder, as he shot at Wright and Wheeler through the floor. This was a game of geometry and chance: How long did they have before a bullet found one of them?
For a late-summer afternoon in Philadelphia, Aug. 14 seemed relatively tame. Police radios crackled with reports of routine crimes: a possible home break-in in East Mount Airy, a woman with a knife in Feltonville, a guy stealing some car keys from an auto-repair shop in the Northeast.
The day’s biggest drama was set to unfold at Citizens Bank Park, where the beloved Charlie Manuel was expected to rejoin the Phillies’ coaching staff six years after being fired.
In a narrow slice of Tioga, just north of Erie Avenue, the neighborhood was alive with its usual rhythms as the clock inched past 4 p.m. Some people got home from work and trudged into their houses, while children played innocent games in the amber sunlight.
Like so many other pockets of Philadelphia, this one had struggled under the weight of twin scourges: deep poverty that was brought on, in part, by the widespread loss of manufacturing jobs in the 1970s and ’80s — almost 30 percent of the properties in the area are vacant, while 40 percent of residents live below the poverty line — and perpetual violence fueled by drug activity.
It was the latter that drew a group of narcotics officers to the neighborhood that afternoon. They had a search warrant for one property, 3712 N. 15th St., a little house with a red awning and gray porch.
At about 4:25, five patrol cars sped down the block. Officers darted out of the cruisers and over to a group of people who were hanging out on the porch, arresting four of them. But the encounter wasn’t over. The cops turned their attention to another house, two doors away, with a white front door and a bay window.
Police officials would later say someone had been observed carrying a duffel bag into that house, although that wasn’t captured by intermittent security footage from across the street. The officers had reason to believe the bag contained drugs or guns. They faced a dilemma: Should they go into 3716 N. 15th, too?
The decision was made quickly. They’d barge in and do a “safety sweep" — secure the house, and wait for a search warrant for that address, too.
The narcotics cops divided themselves into three teams, and got ready to hit the front door.
At the other end of the block, closer to Butler Street, John Harris, 57, piled his dirty laundry into a basket, and got ready to head around the corner to a laundromat. He paused when he heard some commotion outside, and headed toward his third floor-apartment window to peek outside.
The cops plowed their way into 3716, and fanned out, the way they’d been trained. One team ran up to the second floor, another went down to the basement, and the third headed toward the kitchen.
And everything exploded.
The raid on this house was unplanned, but one of the occupants held a tactical advantage: He was heavily armed, and had a long history of committing violent crimes and fighting with police. These narcotics officers were running headfirst into a possible slaughter. They just hadn’t realized it.
From the first floor, the 36-year-old man began firing an AR-15 wildly, taking advantage of the walls that separated the foyer, living room, and kitchen, and gave him plenty of cover.
Harris looked out his window, and his mouth dropped. He saw police officers with their guns drawn — some hunched behind parked cars, others running around — and neighbors scattering. He heard the unmistakable pop-pop-pop of gunfire. “This is scary,” he told himself.
Radio calls began pouring in to police dispatchers. One cop sounded rushed, not panicked: “Shots fired, shots fired.”
Neighbors saw a police officer, clearly injured, crawl out of the house on his hands and knees. Another injured cop relied on colleagues to bandage a wound on his arm.
“He’s shooting at you! He’s shooting at you! Stay down!" a cop yelled to a fellow officer as they crouched across the street from the house.
“Cars, standby!" a dispatcher screeched. “Assist the officer. Police by radio, shots fired!"
The transmissions started coming in faster, more urgent, with gunshots echoing in the background.
“Give me SWAT, ASAP. Long guns, ASAP,” one officer huffed. “... Goddamn, still shots—"
His voice cut out. Moments later, he offered a grim update.
“Radio, I got officers shot! I got officers shot, radio!”
The dispatchers and cops who were listening to these reports across the city couldn’t know the full scope of what was happening on 15th Street.
But they all understood that it was a bad scene — and it was about to get worse.
John McNesby was hunkered down in his office in Northeast Philadelphia, tending to the day-to-day business of running the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 5. He was arranging for some union members to visit a Highway Patrol officer who was recuperating from an injury.
“And then we got word,” he’d later say, “that we had an officer shot.”
McNesby and other FOP officials piled into a car and sped down I-95 toward Temple University Hospital, where they believed the wounded officer had been taken.
News of the shooting started to spread through the Police Department’s vast network of current and former cops. McNesby’s phone lit up with calls from names he immediately recognized: Maureen Faulkner, Judy Cassidy, Kim Pawlowski. Widows of murdered police officers.
Updates from Tioga filtered in, too. Two cops had been shot. No, three. Maybe four. “It’s chaos,” McNesby thought.
As the narcotics raid spiraled out of control, SEPTA Transit Police Sgt. Matthew Sinkiewicz was about a mile away, at SEPTA’s Midvale Depot, letting his K-9 partner, Tosca, get a little exercise.
He listened to the harrowing snippets that were being transmitted across a citywide emergency band, and snapped to when he heard the address. “I was literally three minutes away," he’d later say.
Sinkiewicz raced to 15th Street in his cruiser.
Inside the house, the situation had grown desperate. Officer Shaun Parker, 32, had been grazed in the head by a bullet, and crouched in a corner of the dining room, dodging more gunfire.
Some cops who had dashed out of the house now tried to maneuver back in to retrieve Parker. The gunman began firing at them, too.
Sinkiewicz pulled up on Butler Street, and saw several officers carrying Officer Nathaniel Harper out of the house and down the front steps. Harper’s pants had been ripped open at his thigh; he’d been shot at close range.
“Bring the officer here!” Sinkiewicz yelled.
He helped Harper, 43, into his car, and started driving toward Albert Einstein Medical Center.
“It just happened quick,” he managed to tell Sinkiewicz.
“Call your wife, call your kids,” Sinkiewicz told him. “Let them know you’re OK.”
Just two miles away, Elizabeth Datner, the chair of the department of emergency medicine for Einstein Healthcare Network, was in a meeting when one of her colleagues got a text message: A wounded police officer was at the hospital, and an active shooter event was still unfolding. The number of victims could quickly spike.
Einstein’s emergency department can treat as many as 90,000 patients a year, many of whom are victims of gun violence. The hospital was well-prepared for mass shootings.
Datner and other trauma leaders activated a disaster response plan, summoning teams of surgeons and radiologists, and quickly admitted about two dozen patients who were waiting in the emergency room. This move was intended to create space for the wounded cops, and the family members and city officials who would soon arrive en masse.
As she hurried around the hospital, Datner realized that televisions in many of the patient rooms were all tuned to live footage of the shooting scene, creating a soundtrack of terror. “There is an element of the unknown,” she’d later say. “That’s why you prepare for the worst, and hope for the best.”
The list of wounded cops continued to grow:
Officer Michael Guinter, shot in both arms.
Officer Ryan Waltman, shot in the right hand.
Officer Joshua Burkitt, shot in the left hand.
Officer Justin Matthews, graze wound to the left leg.
Six cops had been hit during a claustrophobic battle with a gunman, and it wasn’t long before the doctors at Temple and Einstein had a verdict: They were all going to survive. Within hours, they would all go home to their families.
But the standoff on 15th Street had just begun.
The entire area had come to a standstill. SEPTA detoured bus routes, and conductors on the Broad Street subway line were told to skip stops at the Erie, Allegheny, and Hunting Park stations. Temple placed its medical campus on lockdown.
Staffers at Precious Babies, on Erie Avenue near 15th Street, huddled for hours in a stairwell with children at the day-care center, hoping the walls could protect them from stray gunshots.
And other emergencies were unfolding — at the same time on the same block of 15th Street. Shortly after 6 p.m., a dispatcher told police that an 11-year-old child had suffered a seizure in the rowhouse next to the shootout and needed help. Across the street, a woman had also gone into labor amid the volleys of gunfire.
And inside the now-bullet-riddled rowhouse, the gunman wasn’t alone. Officers Edward Wright and James Wheeler were stranded on the second floor, along with a woman and two men they’d handcuffed before their mission went sideways.
“Be advised. We’re still pinned down inside this location,” one of the cops told a dispatcher. “The male is inside the kitchen shooting upward and forward to the position of the police.”
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By now, dozens of officers had amassed outside, and at least 30 had fired into the house already. A BearCat, an armored police vehicle, had been called to the scene to bulldoze through patrol cars that were clogging the streets.
On nearby Sydenham Street, Florena Powell, 38, looked out her back window and saw officers slinking down the alley toward the house where the two men were trapped. One officer motioned for her to step away from the window.
Wright and Wheeler, clad in their blue bicycle uniforms, started to take turns guarding the stairwell that leads to the second floor, dividing their time between that post and a bedroom and bathroom. They worried the gunman might decide to barrel up the steps and start firing.
“Tuck in tight,” one commander told them. “We’ll come get you.”
Wright and Wheeler relayed other updates. The gunman was pacing between the dining room and the living room, talking to a woman on the phone, they explained to a dispatcher. They also warned that a second triggerman might be somewhere inside.
The officers and commanders at the scene were soon joined by Police Commissioner Richard Ross. He wanted to be at Temple and Einstein, checking in on his wounded troops and comforting their families, but he couldn’t leave the standoff in good conscience — this was an unprecedented conflict, a shooter barricaded inside a property with two cops and three others who were now considered hostages.
SWAT unit commanders offered him possible options for bringing the standoff to an end. Ross later recalled the gist of those plans: “We can go inside, but we are going to come under gunfire.”
Six of his cops had already been shot. He’d been to more than enough funerals during his 32-year career, for officers who were killed in the line of duty. He didn’t want to go through another one.
So Ross slipped on a tactical vest, as if he were a young cop again, and adopted a new role: negotiator.
The gunman, meanwhile, started firing at the police once more.
It didn’t take long for the standoff to attract national attention. The news helicopter footage of the standoff scene was instantly recognizable as yet another mass shooting in a country that has shown itself to be utterly incapable of preventing public massacres.
For Philadelphia, the bloodshed marked the city’s seventh mass shooting of 2019, and the largest shooting of police in modern history.
But who was the guy pulling the trigger?
Philadelphia defense attorney Shaka Mzee Johnson was at home, watching news coverage of the standoff, when he started fielding ominous messages that suggested the gunman was someone he knew.
Then his phone rang. He answered, and heard the voice of Maurice Hill. The two men had a long history; Johnson had represented Hill in four criminal cases dating back nearly a decade.
“He calls and just even the way he sounded, I knew he was telling me it was him,” Johnson would recall.
Johnson’s next move was to call District Attorney Larry Krasner. “He spoke to Maurice Hill on the phone, and asked Mr. Hill if he wanted to talk to me,” Krasner would later say.
“Mr. Hill was expressing concerns that he might be killed if he came out, concerns about what was going to happen when he came out, including the future, in terms of any possible case. And Mr. Johnson patched me in."
With Hill’s identity confirmed, Ross and another police negotiator on 15th Street started to craft a personal pitch to persuade him to surrender.