Officer Earl Johnson, 27, a five-year veteran of the Metro-Dade Police Department, became the 9th Metro officer killed when he was involved in a motorcycle accident as he rushed to respond to an "officer down" call. The wounded officer survived and two of the three assailants received life sentences.
Officer Johnson was at home, off-duty and not in uniform at 10:50AM on Wed., Jan. 31, 1962, but was "on 24-hour call" since he kept his motorcycle at home. Johnson heard a fellow officer gasp over the police radio that he had been shot at Coral Way and 92nd Ave. (5 miles from Johnson's home). He "leaped onto" his 1961 Harley-Davidson police motorcycle and "raced" to the scene of the police shooting. (Johnson was one of several officers who heard the frantic call and raced to the scene.)
At S.W. 89th Ave. and 88th St (Kendall Drive just west of Baptist Hospital), Johnson lost control of his speeding motorcycle (i.e., "it flipped from under him") and was thrown 28 feet from it to the pavement, fracturing his skull. Johnson was wearing his helmet but the impact split the helmet. Without the helmet Johnson would have died instantly.
Officer Johnson survived and was transported by Eastern ambulance one block to Baptist Hospital, arriving at 11:15AM. He never regained consciousness but survived for three days, partly due to a "breathing machine" before dying at 5:30AM on Saturday, Feb. 3, 1962. The Miami News announced his death in a Page One banner headline on Feb. 3. Johnson's wife, , was at his side when he was pronounced dead at 10:50AM on Saturday, Jan. 31. The medical examiner listed the cause of death as "basal fractures of skull and brain contusions and laceration due to blunt impact to head." A few minutes after his death, all Metro patrol units heard the news of his death broadcast over police radios.
The Metro-Police ruled that Johnson, though not in uniform and off-duty, was "on duty" when the accident occurred because he was responding to a police emergency. This case is similar to that of three other cases where an off-duty officer was declared on duty when responding to an emergency. Coral Gables Officer Alfred Terrinoni was shot and killed in 1980 when picking up receipts on a private security job; Metro Officer Cheryl Seiden was off-duty in 1982 when she was shot and killed by an armed robber who tried to rob she and two friends; and N. Miami Officer Steven Bauer was shot and killed while working an off-duty bank security job. In each case the police department involved ruled that the officer was on duty when heshe tried to prevent a robbery.
The events leading up to the officer Johnson's fatal accident began when three men robbed Dean's Men's and Boys' Wear at S.W. 95th Ave. and Bird Road and pistol whipped the owner, Aaron Rosenberg, 62. The bandits first pretended they wanted to buy clothes and then pulled guns and hit Rosenberg in the back of the head before rifling the cash drawer. The armed robbers then fled the robbery with $50 in cash and "a rack full of suits" in a 1962 convertible.
Officer Edward R. Spisak, 28, spotted the fleeing auto traveling east on Coral Way at S.W. 91st Ave. and stopped it for an improper turn. Spisak did not know that the car had been stolen a week earlier in Flushing, N.Y. or that the three males inside the car were fleeing from a robbery.
After both cars pulled over to the side of the road, Spisak approached the convertible from the rear. His gun was holstered and he did not anticipate danger. The three bandits thought that they were being stopped for the robbery, not for an improper turn, and thus argued among themselves as to what they should do. Spisak later said that after he was shot, he heard someone say, "Shoot him again. He's still moving." Spisak later testified that he "passed out momentarily, but heard a (second) bullet whiz by my right knee. I recovered enough to return the fire."
Frank H. Anderson, 21, the driver of the convertible "leaned out the driver's window and blasted twice with a 357 'python' magnum revolver" before Spisak could say a word. The first shot caught Spisak in the chest, and he fell to the pavement. He was four feet from the car. He pulled out his revolver and emptied it at the fleeing car. One shot ripped through the front windshield. Another ricocheted off the bumper. Spisak staggered to his feet, stumbled back to his cruiser and groped for the mike. "Emergency! Emergency!" he yelled. "I'm shot!" He paused, gave a location and said, "Send an ambulance. On the double." (Miami Herald, 211962)
An ambulance arrived and transported Spisak to S. Miami Hospital. He remained in critical condition for several days and, at first, was given only an "even chance" of surviving. He remained in the hospital for 5 weeks and underwent 17 hours of surgery but was able to return to work after 8-10 months.
The fleeing convertible ran into a road-repair detour on S.W. 87th Ave. and sped through a residential area. But at S.W. Ninth St. and 78th Ave. the trio hit a dead end street. "They abandoned the car, each armed with a pistol stolen last Sunday from a Bird Rd. gun store." Anderson and Allen Meltzer, 19, "scampered toward town" and "ducked into a restaurant at the Trail and Expressway and nervously asked for coffee." Geoffrey Gordon, 20, "ambled the other way" through a residential area. The three planned to meet later at their hotel room at the Ocean Breeze at 821 First St., in Miami Beach.
However, the three armed robbers were captured within six hours on the same day as a result of a massive manhunt described by the Miami Herald as "one of the most intensive manhunts in Dade history." The number of officers responding to the scene and participating in the search swelled to over 300 after word that Officer Johnson had been critically injured and that the bandits had abandoned their car and were afoot in the search area.
The Miami Herald and the Miami News gave front page coverage to the armed robbery, the shooting of Officer Spisak, the death of Officer Johnson, and the manhunt. The Herald coverage was written by its crime reporter, Henry Reno, the father of Janet Reno (who became Dade's State Attorney in 1978 and U.S. Attorney General in 1993). Reno reported that the "massive helicopter-bloodhound-shotgun manhunt electrified a swath of Dade" just west of the Palmetto Expressway off Tamiami Trail. The helicopters above and flashing lights on police cruisers and motorcycles below (from the "300 man posse") spooked the fugitives and Anderson and Meltzer ran east on Tamiami Trail. They were spotted as they ran through a Sunoco Station at 7420 S.W. Eighth St. Metro Officers Bill Sampson and Tony Delano ran after the pair and quickly caught, disarmed and arrested Meltzer. The fugitive began to weep and to beg, "Don't hurt me." Ten minutes later Miami Springs motorcycle Officer Gene Werdebaugh found Anderson hiding beside an oil drum next to a hedge at 7310 S.W. 10th St. The officer "jumped on his back" and stuck a gun to his right ear and told him to get up.
Forty minutes later Gordon was spotted at 805 S.W. 79th St. and the posse converged on a four-block area from the Palmetto to S.W. 79th Ave. and from S.W. Eighth St. south to S.W. 10th St. The area was largely a "jungle of thickets, trees and woods." Police dogs "with shotgun guides went into the jungle first" followed by bloodhounds. A helicopter chopped overhead. Fire engines sped to the scene just in case anyone wanted him burned out. Metro gave the helicopter pilot tear gas bombs just in case. At 1:32P.M., with an officer every 30 feet around the perimeter, about 100 men stalked through the undergrowth. They didn't find him. (Miami Herald, 211962)
Three hours later (at 4:45PM) Metro Sgt. Irwin Playnick and Officer W.L. Keen found Gordon hiding in a trench he had dug with his own hands in the rocky ground under a culvert under the S.W. Eighth St. bridge over the Tamiami Canal. He had buried himself face down and was half covered with rocks. He was arrested and taken to the Dade County jail to join Anderson and Meltzer.
Each of the three gave statements to the police and tried to blame the others for shooting Spisak. Anderson claimed that one of his companions told him to shoot while the companions claimed that they begged Anderson not to shoot. All three were held without bond.