Mike Gonzalez had guns around the house. His wife Susan hated them. When he tried to teach her the basics of shooting, she let him give a couple of lessons, but closed her eyes in fear and disgust when she fired, just to get it over with. Most of Mike's guns were kept locked up, but there was one, a Ruger .22 caliber pistol, that he kept for defense. "We had a lot of arguments about that gun," Susan says. "I'm not particularly religious, but I'm glad God let Mike win those arguments."
Susan and Mike, both in their early forties, raised 5 children, most of whom were grown. Mike was a machine operator. Susan was a children's photographer. They lived outside of Jacksonville, Florida in a fairly rural area on 10 wooded acres, with a state road in front that, being near a prison facility, was well traveled by police vehicles. They thought of their home as being safe, but took normal precautions, such as double locks and a peephole in the front door. Susan was always careful about safety.
August 1, 1997 was a Friday night. Mike went to sleep early, around 10:30, because he had to be up early for work the next day. Susan was tired, but, as was her habit, she stayed up waiting for her youngest, 18-year-old Mike, Jr. At 11: 15, she beeped his pager, and asked him to come home by midnight. He was playing video games with his friends, and pleaded to stay out really late. They compromised on 1 AM.
Susan didn't know it, but her peace was about to be invaded by three lowlifes, Raymond Waters, Robert Walls, and Louie Wright. Waters and Walls were 22 years old, Wright slightly older. Wright had a prior conviction for possession of burglary tools. Walls was an accomplished criminal, with prior arrests or convictions for drugs, weapons violations, burglaries, and thefts. He had recently completed a prison term for car theft. With other friends, his gang may have been responsible for as many as 70 home invasions in two or three counties. They had a somewhat unusual method of operation, probably designed to keep the police from looking for them - they would beat the occupants severely, rob them, and then tell the terrorized victims not to report the crime, or they would come back and kill them. On that particular night, Wright was the driver and lookout; Waters and Walls would do the home invasion and robbery.
Susan sat on the living room couch, her back to the front door, tiredly watching TV and waiting for her son to come home. She finally heard the sound of someone at the door and glanced at the clock: 12:40 AM. "He's early," she thought thankfully as she turned toward the door to let him in. In the back of her mind, she noticed that she hadn't heard the familiar beep-beep of his car security system. She hesitated a second.
Before she could get to the door, the person outside it gave one powerful kick that defeated the double locks by taking the door out at its hinges. Susan saw a big man dressed in camouflage clothing, gloves and a mask that covered his entire head, come through her ruined door.
Without consciously thinking about her reaction, Susan turned to race to the bedroom, screaming for Mike. She hadn't seen the second man yet, nor had she noticed that they both carried guns.
She raced into the bedroom, and slammed the bedroom door to keep the intruders out. As she tried to hold the door closed with her entire body, her screams woke Mike, and he joined her at the door as the intruders pounded on it. "I don't know whether the door busted across me and then they started firing, or whether they started firing through the door before it gave," Susan says, obviously having experienced the memory disruption that often accompanies such violent events. But the result was that the intruders forced the door open so savagely that several of her ribs were broken. One or both intruders fired several times, hitting both Mike and Susan with 9mm rounds. Mike wasn't aware that he had been shot, but Susan knew she had been hit in the upper right chest. She started bleeding a lot.
A muscular 5'-6", Mike was at least three inches shorter than the intruders, but he was extremely strong. Despite his wound, he was able to grab them and push them out of the doorway, and back down the hall through the kitchen to the living room, trying to push them out the door. They hit him on the head savagely with fists and guns, but he would not let go. Susan, back in the bedroom, grabbed the phone and called 911. "We're being shot!" she told the dispatcher, gave her address, and hung up the phone.
Then she reached for the gun. The one she hated. The one Mike had left with a loaded 10-round magazine inserted, but no round in the chamber, in their bedroom, over her objections. Without hesitation, she picked it up and did exactly what he had made her practice. Safety on. Pull the slide back. Safety off.
She headed toward the living room, with an awful thought going through her head. "If I try to shoot them, I might kill Mike." She couldn't risk that. "I'm going to run out and shoot over their heads," she thought, "and then they will run away. That's what I'd do if someone was shooting at me." She ran to the living room where Mike still struggled with the intruders, and fired two or three shots above their heads. They didn't run away.
One of the intruders, Waters, finally pulled away from Mike and started toward her. "If I can get him away from Mike, I can shoot him," she thought, so she ran back to the bedroom and quickly turned to shoot the man who was about to enter. But Waters didn't fall for her ploy. "He knows I have a gun, so he won't come down here," Susan thought. For a few seconds, she thought, "What am I going to do now?" and then made up her mind to risk a peek out of the ruined door. She thought she might see him standing there, but she saw only his arm from elbow to hand, and his gun; he was crouched around the corner in the living room, waiting for her to come back.
Susan had one advantage over the thugs. She knew the layout of her home, and they didn't. Without going into the kitchen where she might be seen, Susan left the bedroom, gun still in hand, and snuck through the dining room, entering the living room just 6 or 7 feet behind Waters, who was still squatting, waiting for her to appear from his left. Mike and Walls were still struggling, but they were safely off to her right, out of her line of fire. Without hesitation, she raised the gun and fired repeatedly at Waters, hitting him twice. One bullet lodged in his lung, the other went into one shoulder, through his esophagus, and into the other lung.
Susan turned toward the right, where she saw Walls take his pistol and point it directly into Mike's side. Boom! At pointblank range, he shot Mike again, and Susan watched in horror as Mike fell to the floor. She raised her gun to fire at Walls, and found that she was out of ammunition.
As Susan turned to run back through the dining room to the bedroom, Walls unleashed a barrage of 8 or 9 rounds at her. One found its mark, closer to her heart than the first chest wound was. She kept moving, and somehow made it back to the bedroom. There was no good place to hide, though she tried to press herself into a closet. She was out of ammunition. She didn't know whether Mike was alive or dead. She was covered in blood, and thought she was dying. She started praying aloud.
The rest of the house was quiet. The awful pair had finally left the house, Waters staggering with the two soon-to-be-fatal wounds that Susan had inflicted, Walls with a broken or dislocated shoulder sustained during his fight with Mike. Their plan had gone terribly wrong. They probably thought they could still escape, until they looked around for Louie Wright, their getaway driver. Louie had driven away, all by himself, probably as soon as he heard the gunfight starting.
Imagine Walls' disbelief as he ripped off his eyesight-reducing mask to look around wildly for his escape vehicle. Imagine his anger, and the cold, cold fear that the cops were probably already on their way. Then he saw a way out, Mike's truck. If he only had the keys! He went back into the house to get them. Susan's ordeal wasn't over yet.
From her hiding place in the bedroom closet, she heard a male voice scream in the living room "Where's the keys to that truck?" and she heard Mike answer "In the bedroom, in my hat, on the gun cabinet." Relief that Mike was alive swept over her, mixed with fear that once again Walls was going to come into the room where she was.
When he entered the bedroom, still as dark as it had been when Mike was sleeping there, Walls didn't see Susan at first. "Where are you?" he bellowed? Susan kept quiet, hoping he would turn and leave, but he turned the light on and saw her immediately. He put his sawed off shotgun to her head and "Where are the f---ing keys to that truck?" Susan begged him not to kill her. "I'm already shot," she told him, "Just take the keys and go." "Did you call 911?" he asked. "No," Susan lied. And somehow she managed to find her purse, and get the keys out of it, and hold them out to Walls. He jerked them from her hand, and left running.
Why didn't he shoot her? In some sense, it would have been the rational thing to do. He had a sawed off shotgun that hadn't been fired yet; she was out of ammo. She and Mike had just seen him, in good light, without his mask; his red hair would be easy to remember. This is purely speculation, of course, but I think he didn't shoot because he was in a blind panic to GET AWAY. Escape, before anyone else (like the police) showed up, was the only thing on his mind. Even the few seconds that it would have taken to shoot Susan in the bedroom and Mike in the living room on the way out would have seemed an intolerable delay. He may not have been aware that he wasn't wearing his mask. He probably never even thought of shooting them; every thought and action was focused on the imperative to ESCAPE!
With the truck keys in his hand, Walls raced out of the house, and managed to get into the truck and get it going. He apparently gave no thought to Waters, who, with two of Susan's bullets in him, had collapsed in the front yard and was dead or dying, drowning in his own blood. Walls drove the truck right over Waters' legs, and escaped.
Inside, as soon as Walls ran with her keys, Susan reached for her cell phone and called 911 again, emphasizing that both she and Mike were shot. She went into the living room to be with Mike, and the emergency operator told her to get him a towel, which she did. The 911 operator asked her, "Are you sure you are shot?" Susan looked down at her bloody body, and assured the operator that yes, she was shot, too! She was told to lie down and put her feet up (to help prevent her from going into shock from the blood loss). She did, but got to her feet again when she saw the lights of the emergency vehicles outside.
The medical personnel quickly determined that, although both Mike and Susan had been shot twice, and Mike badly beaten on the head, Susan's chest wounds were the most serious. She was LifeFlighted to the hospital where she underwent lung surgery, and was not released for many weeks. Mike's wounds kept him in the hospital for several days.
The police immediately began an intensive search. Within an hour, they found Mike and Susan's truck less than 3 miles from their home, empty. Until they had encountered armed homeowners, Waters and Walls had been very, very good at what they did; their careful use of gloves and masks prevented any DNA or fingerprints from being found in Susan's home, not even on the brass that had been ejected from their guns. If it had not been for Mike and Susan's descriptions of Walls, and their ability to pick him out of a photo lineup, the police would not have had much to go on.
Walls managed to stay out of custody for 12 weeks. He was finally caught near Orlando when a nurse who had treated his injured shoulder recognized his picture on the news, and called the police.
Robert Walls was convicted of second-degree felony murder, because Florida law allows someone who was committing a felony during which someone else is killed to be charged with their murder. He was also convicted of two counts of attempted first-degree murder (against Susan and Mike), armed robbery, and armed burglary. He is currently serving 5 life sentences, with no possibility of parole.
Louie Wright, the driver who scampered away without his cohorts, was also caught, and eventually received a 5 year sentence for armed robbery.
Susan has high praise for most of the police, victim services personnel, and prosecutors who dealt with her case. Detective Tim Reddish, the homicide detective in charge of the case, was particularly helpful. "He made me strong," Susan says. "When I wasn't sure whether I could ever live in that house again, he said, ‘Don't let them take your house from you. Don't let them win.'" Prosecutors John Guy and Tatiana Radi saw to it that Robert Walls will never have a chance to terrorize another family.
Susan survived but still suffers from effects of her wounds, and now carries a gun everywhere, even when she goes out into her own yard. Mike survived, and outfitted their home with heavy burglar bars and other safety measures.
The hardest part, other than the surgery, was the coming home. Susan's house had 47 bullet holes, blood everywhere, and terrible memories. Could she continue to live there? When she first returned home from the hospital, Walls was still on the run, and she and Mike feared he might come back.
For more than a year, she couldn't sleep normally (a very common symptom of post violent event trauma). Then there were the death threats that started coming as the judicial process made its way to a conclusion. She lives with the daily, and nightly, fear that some of that gang's buddies will come back. They may already have done so. Despite the formidable burglar bars, someone broke in last March, when they were not at home, and took electronic equipment, tools, and guns. Susan is convinced that it was related to the home invasion. "They could rob any other house quicker than they could ax through burglar bars," she reasons, "It was a revenge thing." To this day, she continues to receive threats, unusual anonymous telephone calls, and other kinds of harassment.
Susan has found a new role for herself as a pro-gun convert. She speaks out at any and all opportunities about the importance of firearms for protection, and the Second Amendment rights that must be respected in order for families like hers to be protected. She has joined advocacy groups such as the Second Amendment Sisters and Women Against Gun Control. She has appeared on "Good Morning America" at the time of the Million Mom March, when stories from "the other side" were important to hear, and heard others call her a murderer. She taped a show with Jon Stossel that may be aired about the time this magazine sees print.
"How I feel about it now depends on when you ask," she admits. " I have very good days, and very bad days. Some days I hate them, some days I don't." There are still a lot of unknowns, "I want to know why they targeted our house, and I still don't know. Some days I cry, and I don't know why. There's not a day goes by that I don't think of them, in one way or another."
And now, she carries a gun. "I want it well known that I always carry a gun. That will help protect me." And now she practices frequently with her guns.
One day Susan got a phone call from a man she didn't know, who lived in a nearby county. He had read of her story, and recognized the methods the home invaders employed. Long before that gang hit Susan's house, they hit his, when his wife and young daughter were at home alone. They had beaten his wife badly. "I just wanted to say thank you," he told Susan.
First: Have a gun. A .22 loaded and ready to go beats a .45 locked in the safe or inaccessibly constrained in a trigger lock.
Second: Have a plan, and be willing to change it. Violent encounters are not choreographed. If what you are doing doesn't work, or stops working, try something else. Just think of how many plans Susan went through:
* Run to the bedroom for safety
* Call 911
* Go to the living room with the gun and shoot warning shots above their heads to scare them off
* Entice Waters to follow her to the bedroom where she could shoot him without endangering her husband
* Sneak behind Waters who was waiting for her to show up in front of him, and shoot him
* Get back into the bedroom to hide
* Give Walls the truck keys to get him out of there
* Call 911, again
I count 8 plans. That's flexibility!! And If Susan had given up or "gotten stuck" in any one of those activities, instead of nimbly moving on to the next, she and Mike likely would not have survived that night. When something doesn't work, don't give up -- find something else to do!
Third: Your relationships are stronger than theirs. The bonds among criminals are loose, and fall apart quickly, as evidenced by the fact that Walls abandoned (and ran over!) his so-called buddy, and the getaway driver abandoned them both. Susan never forgot that she was fighting for her husband as well as herself. Susan and Mike gave one another mutual protection as well as a reason to survive. They were a team. Waters, Walls, and Wright, on the other hand, were a gang. They merely gave one another trouble. When you are faced with multiple assailants, messing up their plan can make them scatter like rabbits instead of helping one another.
Fourth: You DO have it in you to defend yourself. Before this incident, Susan would have described herself as "a chicken" or "a real scaredy cat." If you had asked her in advance what she would do in the face of such an awful situation, she would have said, "I'd probably pass out." But during the incident, "the will to live, a survival instinct, just set in on me."
This article was reprinted from Women&Guns May-June 2001, Copyright © 2001, Lyn Bates