Gwinnett firefighters detail hostage standoff

Tuesday, April 16, 2013 @ 6:22 PM
By Andria Simmons - The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

There was no doubt in Tim Hollingsworth’s mind that Lauren Brown wanted to die and make a show of it — a show in which he and his fellow Gwinnett County firefighters had starring roles.

Brown took five firefighters hostage at gunpoint last week, feigning a heart attack to lure them into his Suwanee home before pulling a handgun on them. The four-hour standoff culminated in a daring rescue and a shootout between Brown and a member of the Gwinnett County Police SWAT team. Brown was killed; the officer was wounded.

The firefighters — Jody Moss, Jason Schuon, Timothy Hollingsworth, Chip Echols, and Sidney Garner — told their stories for the first time publicly during a press conference Tuesday at Gwinnett County fire department headquarters in Lawrenceville.

Hollingsworth, the most senior member of the crew with 21 years in service, said that Brown was delusional and angry with some of his family members. Things could have turned out a lot worse, Hollingsworth said.

“What my personal opinion is, he wanted to board the house up, kill us, set the house on fire, shoot himself and then let the fire department come in and put the fire out,” Hollingsworth said. “He was wanting so bad to see it on TV.”

The firefighters said they responded to what appeared to be a routine medical call on the afternoon April 10. Brown complained of chest pains in a 911 call, and told the dispatcher that his front door was unlocked. Firefighters let themselves in and found Brown waiting in his bed.

Moss described the inside of the house as a cluttered mess.

The five responders began a typical patient assessment, but Brown took off the blood pressure cuff and brandished a pistol, said Hollingsworth.

“He told us now it was time for the real reason we were there,” Hollingsworth said. “He explained to us that he called us because he knew we would not be armed.”

Brown told the men he had been plotting a hostage scenario about six weeks.

The motive? Family problems. Financial problems. And some kind of twisted revenge: “He wanted certain people to see what was happening, so they would live the rest of their life with guilt,” Hollingsworth said, declining to identify the individuals Brown was targeting.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported last week that Brown had a bitter divorce from his wife, who he was accused of stalking and battering. Brown also owed more than $9,000 in overdue child support, and had a hearing scheduled on that issue Tuesday in Gwinnett Superior Court.

At all times during the standoff, the firefighters said, Brown kept a gun pointed at them and a finger on the trigger. He also never left his position seated in the bed, with his back leaned against a headboard. Firefighters said Brown’s limited movements concerned them. They thought he may have an explosive or trap under the blankets.

He lifted the covers at one point to reveal two more .380-caliber revolvers, Moss said.

Hollingsworth became the conduit for Brown’s demands to police. He radioed them to the dispatcher. Brown wanted his power, cable television, internet and cell phone service reactivated and asked for updates every 10 minutes. Police met most of his demands, but stalled on the cable because they didn’t want him to watch the news.

Brown boasted to the firefighters that people wouldn’t believe how well he had planned the event, and that it was all going to turn out exactly the way he had envisioned.

Hollingsworth seized on that as an opportunity to lighten the mood.

“I told him he didn’t plan it very well if he didn’t have us a pot of coffee made,” Hollingsworth said, chuckling.

Surprisingly, it worked. Brown allowed Hollingsworth to go to the kitchen to make coffee for everyone. Hollingsworth said he made a mess of it - shaking so badly that he spilled coffee grounds all over the table - but he used the excursion as a chance to scope out the rest of the house.

From then on, Hollingsworth allowed a firefighter or two to leave the room occasionally to use the bathroom or get drinks. He also allowed them to use their cell phones to assure family members they were OK.

One of the firefighters was released to move a fire engine and ambulance away from the front of his house. Hollingsworth said he initially asked Schuon to do it, since he was the youngest and least experienced. But Schuon protested and said he wasn’t certified to drive the fire engine.

So, Hollingsworth tapped Moss. Because of his prior military training, Moss said he thought he was better equipped to stay in the house. However, he complied with the request and was soon helping police outside blueprint the home’s interior.

The firefighters said they tried to build a rapport with Brown as they waited, reminding him they all had wives or girlfriends. They joked with him — and each other — as if they were at the fire house. Garner mentioned they were missing “Duck Dynasty” on TV.

“I thought it would be a lot harder for him to shoot somebody if he thought we were his friend,” Moss said.

As time went on, firefighters said they sensed a change in atmosphere. Brown’s tone became more serious after he demanded that police to board up his door and windows.

“He asked for the windows to be boarded up,” Echols said. “We knew [SWAT] would be coming in pretty soon.” .

On his second trip to the coffee maker, Hollingsworth and Schuon saw that SWAT officers had snuck into the house and knew a confrontation was imminent.

Schuon sent a text to Echols and Garner, who were still in the bedroom, saying “when you hear the boom, hit the floor.”

Moments later, there was a blast followed by gunfire as the room filled with smoke, Garner said. A SWAT officer pulled him through the window to safety. The other firefighters were also shepherded outside by police to a waiting ambulance. They suffered only minor injuries and were released to their families within hours.

Firefighters say they were thankful to police for getting them out alive. They are left gratitude, and with questions.

“I keep asking myself, what was the master plan?” said Garner. “He never would tell us.”