Monday, May 20 2013 9:03 AM EDT2013-05-20 13:03:58 GMT
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MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) -
A standoff at an East Montgomery home that started just after 6:30pm Monday with dozens of law enforcement officers from local, state and federal agencies, wound through the evening and into the late night. Full scale operations were dramatically scaled back around midnight, though, as authorities, visibly frustrated, still remained empty-handed in their search for a triple-murder suspect.
As of 2:30am, the Associated Press reported "all law enforcement agents that had been there [left] without comment. It wasn't immediately clear why they left."
Authorities, following two separate leads, converged on a single home in a neighborhood of well-manicured lawns off Baron Court in the Somer Hill area near Grove Hill. Expectations of arresting Desmonte Leonard, wanted in the weekend deaths of three and for the wounding of three others in Auburn, remained high throughout the evening.
An Alabama State Trooper helicopter hovered above dozens of officers and K-9 units as they quickly surrounded the home. Trained on the house with heavy weaponry, officers moved in, ultimately unleashing two rounds of tear gas in an effort to smoke out the suspect. Smoke could be seen billowing from the roof, but no surrender was made.
"He has to be in pain," Montgomery Director of Public Safety Director Col. Chris Murphy said during an impromptu news meeting after being asked if a person could sustain that much tear gas. Murphy quickly added, "He [Leonard] has nothing to lose," remembering back over his numerous years in law enforcement. Murphy said he's seen adrenaline give suspects abnormal strength and capabilities.
Another option for not surrendering after being exposed to potent tear gas is the possibility the person is dead or they're wearing a gas mask. Murphy was adamant that the person in the house remains alive, citing "physical indicators".
Bolstered by the fact that they could hear movement and because highly refined equipment apparently had "someone" pinpointed in the attic, authorities waited through the night. Montgomery Sheriff D.T. Marshall suspected Leonard was hiding, saying authorities could hear coughing.
"Time is on our side," said Montgomery Mayor Todd Strange.
Thunderstorms moved across the Montgomery area, briefly bringing to a halt on-air coverage from media now gathered from organizations statewide. Still, authorities tightened their grip on places within the home. Agents with the Montgomery and U.S. Marshals tactical response units cleared all possible hiding places on the ground floor and used long probing instruments to poke and prod into the ceiling and attic.
As daylight turned to darkness, flashing police car lights were replaced by the focused beam of massive lights that illuminated one house in an otherwise abandoned, dark neighborhood. Residents long before took advantage of police requests to leave the area or stay inside their homes.
"It's a waiting game at this point," said Strange during one of several meetings with the media, situated just off site from the large gathering of police, though with clear visual access to the house. And waiting is all that authorities were able to do. At no point during the evening standoff was any contact made with a person inside the home.
"This is a very slow process," said Murphy. "Time is in our hands, and we don't want to rush this. There's not a lot of options for the suspect if he's in there."
By night's end, Murphy and Strange were visibly disappointed that no resolution had been made, nor could they even confirm the movement inside the attic was from Leonard. Speculation that authorities may have been given wrong information prompted Strange to warn anyone willing to lead detectives "on a wild goose chase" in the case would not like the results. "We will spare no expense" in prosecuting if purposely false information is given.
Mayor Strange said the person who called 911 initially, believed to the homeowner, was being re-interviewed by police, but he remained very confident they've got the suspect surrounded.
With agents from the Montgomery Police Department, Montgomery County Sheriff's Department, Alabama Bureau of Investigation, U.S. Marshals Gulf Coast Fugitive Task Force, and Federal Bureau of Investigation represented on site, custody of Leonard would not fall to any of them should he ultimately be plucked from the home's uppermost chambers.
The Auburn Police Department retains lead investigative status in the hunt for Leonard, and it was the presence of that department's officers on a scene so far from their municipal jurisdiction that tipped media outlets off to the exact reason for the growing standoff while it was in its infant stages.
"His exit will be right here," said Mayor Strange. "If he's taken into custody, he will go straight to Auburn."
At midnight, U.S. Marshals were given the decision of continuing the search or securing the scene with guards until daybreak. At 12:15am, dozens of law enforcement agents left the home on Baron Court, leaving a small but very potent contingency of fully-armed officers on site.
Unless there is a development overnight, the situation will remain low-key. It will grow back to a larger operation by morning.
9:10 p.m. – Montgomery Mayor Todd Strange again addresses the media, says there is someone in the house. If that person is Leonard and if he is detained successfully, he will be decontaminated from two rounds of tear gas, then taken to Auburn for questioning.
9:12 p.m. – Montgomery DPS Director Col. Chris Murphy addresses the media – explains that "highly armed and protected" tactical teams were sent into the house. Adds that the bottom level of the house is clear.
10:00 p.m. – Montgomery Mayor Todd Strange again addressed the media with Col. Chris Murphy – says there is still no visual contact of what/who may be "up there." Murphy says Leonard "has nothing to lose." Two different pieces of equipment are in use to determine exactly where in the attic the subject is – U.S. Marshals with gas masks have also entered the attic.
10:59 p.m. - U.S. Marshals inside home shut the blinds, block media from viewing inside home. Burst of light seen thought the windows.
11:40 p.m. - After a large flurry of movement around the home, Mayor Todd Strange and Montgomery DPS Director Col. Murphy say there is no change. Marshals are still confident that there is someone inside that house, and another toe-by-toe search is coming.
12:00 a.m. - Montgomery Mayor Todd Strange and DPS Dir. Col. Chris Murphy say situation has not changed from previous discussions with media. While concerned with anyone who may lead them "on a wild goose chase", they were confident Leonard is in the home.
12:15 a.m. - Police presence largely scaled back. U.S. Marshals remain on scene to secure house until morning when efforts will continue. Additional operations in the house remain unknown.
2:30 a.m. - Associate Press reports that all agents that were on scene left.