Shootout at the Holiday Inn
I was sound asleep when the sirens announced that something was wrong, and the depth of their wail suggested fire engines. Good grief, we would have to evacuate the inn and it was 3:30 a.m. And then I heard the pop, pop, pop.
The early morning adventure began miles away at a roadside pay phone nestled somewhere near the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Western North Carolina. I could barely hear the reservationist say, yes, there were a couple of rooms left at the SunSpree Holiday Inn, and he would confirm one for us. And yes, the SunSpree was participating in a coupon offer of which we wanted to take advantage.
And so, in order to redeem a coupon for a voucher good for a “companion flies free” program accepted by most major airlines (including my favorite, United) and good from 62 U.S. airports including DFW, we confirmed a reservation at the Great Smokies SunSpree Holiday Inn in west Asheville, N.C., for a night.
After a day that included stops at Mt. Pisgah, the 8,000-acre Biltmore Estate, the Grove Park Inn, and dinner at the Olive Garden Restaurant, we headed west on I-240 looking for Holiday Inn Drive. We found the exit but missed the entrance to the inn, twice. Finally, we slowed enough to make the turn and checked in. We were ready to wind down and relax.
Sure enough, the in-room cable TV was loaded with stations featuring Southern Gospel Music, since so many of the groups originate from that part of the country. It was a pleasant way to end a fast-paced four-day trip. Tomorrow would be a sunrise run along the golf course cart path, a fresh fruit breakfast, and a 767 to DFW.
As the remote silenced the gospel singers and the room went dark, the only concern was navigating the concourse to make our connection tomorrow at Atlanta’s huge airport.
The sirens startled me awake.
As I reached the window of our second story room and threw open the balcony door, four impressions impacted me simultaneously:
• The sirens were not fire engines but at least seven police cars with more arriving one after the other;
• To my left, out of sight because the building turned at a slight angle, but loud enough to hear clearly came a pop, pop, pop. Unmistakably, it was gunfire;
• It was followed by one of the most frightening sounds I’ve ever heard: a rapid series of pops that could only be shots from an automatic weapon — pop-pop-pop-pop-pop — at least a dozen shots;
• The road that was both the inn’s entrance and exit was full of police cars, each pulling up behind the one in front. As each officer exited the cruiser, he or she grabbed a shotgun and, crouching, ran toward the area to my left, out of my field of vision.
It became eerily silent as officers, weapons drawn, appeared to my left, peering under and around the cars parked below me.
In a loud whisper, I asked one of them, “Is it over?”
Hoping for a yes, I was startled and shaken by his reply: “Get back in your room!”
Then, horribly, a series of loud bangs in the corridor outside our room.
All the thoughts and fears racing through my mind stopped at the conclusion that an attempted robbery had been interrupted in progress and, after a shootout at the front desk, the subjects were in the hotel and heading down our hallway.
I tried to remain calm, but the noises in the hallway continued. Terrified, I decided I didn’t dare open the door.
To this point, my wife, amazingly, was still somewhat asleep, but, upon reflection, thinks she heard the last of the automatic weapons fire and definitely remembers hearing me ask the officer if the situation was over.
What to do? We could only pray for protection.
I figured I could safely make the jump to the ground, and catch my wife, or at least break her fall to the grass. That way, we could hide among the cars and even reach our car and leave.
But the road was blocked with police cars, and, in all the swirling lights and deafening shrill of the sirens, what if an officer thought we were the subjects?
Given the soft pop, pop of the gunshots outside, the hallway noise seemed too loud to be gunfire, but maybe the confines of the enclosure helped to accentuate the noise.
I just didn’t know. I had the pit-in-the-stomach sensation of wanting to act, but not knowing what to do.
Thankfully, the noise in the hallway stopped. Perhaps the noise was front desk personnel activating the automatic locks on the fire doors, preventing access to the hallway. That would be good.
Another look outside and the parking lot of was full of law enforcement officers, in uniform and plain clothes, continuing to arrive in patrol cars, unmarked cars, and their own personal vehicles.
Suddenly, uniformed officers began to stretch yellow “police line, do not cross” tape around the columns supporting the building’s entrance to my left. I could see the front of a dark pickup which seemed to be the focus of everyone’s attention.
As three officers, guns holstered, walked below my window, I asked if there were multiple subjects and had they been captured. “There was only one,” a voice answered, “and he won’t hurt anyone again.”
After about 30 minutes, I put on some running shorts and shoes, opened the door, and headed down the hallway. At the end of the hall, where the stairs led to the ground level, I noticed the hallway doors did not have magnetic fire locks. Hmm. What could have made the noise in the hallway?
As I descended the stairs and rounded the corner, I bumped into a well-dressed man holding a stack of papers. We both jumped five feet off the ground. He was the general manager, sliding under the door of each of the 272 rooms a letter about the incident.
“As some of you may have heard during the evening, we had a highly unusual incident occur in front of our hotel last night,” the letter said.
“A man from an outlying area of Asheville apparently shot two of his family members, then led police on a chase into town, and for some reason came into the main entrance of the SunSpree, perhaps believing he could escape via our back entrance.
“The Asheville Police Department was closely behind the suspect, and many of the police officers are familiar with our layout since our security staff is made up of off-duty police officers.”
The letter gave the outcome of the incident and explained that no SunSpree guests or employees were harmed. It said that guest departure from the front parking lot will be delayed while investigators from the FBI and State Bureau of Investigation complete their work.
I complimented the manager on his quick and straightforward response. He continued on his way and I walked down the corridor to the entrance that was just out of sight from my room.
Through the glass doors I could see the pickup. The driver’s feet were touching the ground, a shotgun lying nearby. He was lying on his back in the front seat, next to the steering wheel. He was dead.
Later, the assistant manager told me that, indeed, the SunSpree hires off-duty Asheville PD as security. And, she said, many on-duty cops stop by during the wee hours of patrol to grab a cup of coffee and chat with their buddies.
So when the subject somehow managed to turn into the inn’s entrance, they were waiting for him. Once he tried to circle back on the inn’s only road, he was trapped.
According to issues of the Asheville Citizen-Times, events started at the 20-year-old subject’s home in Leicester, where, in a family dispute, he shot his father and 14-year-old sister. Although both were injured and hospitalized, they lived.
He fled and was spotted in West Asheville, drove into the SunSpree lot and fired at officers, who returned fire.
The Citizen-Times said the subject was hit at least eight times with two .45-caliber handguns and a high-powered rifle.
The newspaper said three officers were placed on paid leave while the SBI finishes looking into the shooting.
According to the CT, Asheville PD deputy chief said the officers “had no choice” but to return fire.
As the sun came up and dimly lit the parking lot, I watched as the subject was photographed, fingerprinted, placed in a body bag, and taken away.
I concluded that the hallway noise must have been guests, sleepily and foolishly opening and closing their room doors. I can’t think of anything else it could be.
I took off to run. On the golf course cart path, I met Bernie, a younger, faster runner who was moving back to the Asheville area from Florida. He slowed his pace so we could talk.
“Wow,” he said as he saw the many law enforcement vehicles. “I slept through the whole thing. How ‘bout you?”