The Greatest Showdown On Earth
A Police Standoff That Crossed The Line
By Frank Sennett
OCTOBER 20, 1997: For more than three weeks, state and county police have been trying to save an allegedly disturbed downstate woman from harming herself and others. To help Shirley Allen, a 51-year-old widow who lives alone near Springfield, they have tear-gassed her, blasted her with buckshot beanbags, cut her power, water, propane and phone service, squawked at her every fifteen minutes over a bullhorn, aimed spotlights through her windows, blared Barry Manilow songs at her and portrayed her in the media as paranoid even though she has yet to undergo a court-ordered psychiatric exam. Because these overtures have failed to coax Allen out of her home in the small town of Roby, officials now find themselves enmeshed in the longest, most expensive police standoff in Illinois history -- with a tragic outcome growing more likely by the day.
But on this, the eighteenth day of the standoff, not much is happening to break the stakeout monotony. Parked near the roadblock a half-mile from Allen's home, I watch a middle-aged woman climb out of her car and approach the lone state police squad car in the intersection. Debbie Morrison, a former Roby resident who now lives in nearby Mechanicsburg, just wants to check up on Allen, a woman she's never met. Patrolman D.E. Cummings, a former bodyguard for Mike Ditka, politely sends her on her way.
"A lot of people are concerned if she's got enough food to eat or water to drink," Morrison says. "I wonder if she's depressed, and if they're going to take her alive. I just don't understand why her family wanted to get this court order. She never bothers anybody. She had the right not to talk to anybody.
"I lost my father -- two years in January -- I know what she was going through," adds Morrison, who has herself battled depression. "I really feel sorry for her. I don't see how they have the right to cut off her power and water." Debbie's mother, Jean Morrison, speaks up from the passenger seat: "I think they should let her go. The police are doing what they have to do. But there should be a limit to it."
The stage for the showdown was set in September when Christian County Sheriff Dick Mahan paid a visit to Shirley Allen at the request of her mother and a brother. The two had tried to visit Allen over Labor Day weekend but got no response and feared she might be dead. Mahan, who did not return calls for comment, and a deputy drove out to her green ranch-style home to check on her. When Allen did not respond to his knocks, Mahan took out a knife and sliced through the locked screen door. At that point, Allen appeared, shotgun in hand, and drove the sheriff off.
When he informed the family Allen was alive, Mahan added that she appeared to be mentally unbalanced. The only way she could be forced to seek medical treatment would be if the family petitioned a judge to order a psychiatric evaluation. Mahan long had suspected the woman needed mental health care; on several occasions since 1990, Allen had complained to the sheriff that various people were out to get her.
Although Allen had lodged no complaints in the past year, Mahan later told Springfield's State Journal-Register, "She was just a little paranoid, [but] she was never like this. She was never to the point of being where we thought she should be committed." Interviewed in the early days of the standoff by local NBC affiliate WICS-TV Channel 20, the sheriff's assessment was more succinct: "That's her main problem; she's paranoid."
The family secured the order from a county judge the morning of September 22 on the grounds that Allen could no longer properly care for herself and posed a danger to herself and others. At 2pm. three deputies and her brother Byron Dugger attempted to take her to St. John's Hospital in Springfield. Again, she brandished a 12-gauge shotgun. But this time, Mahan told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Allen leveled the weapon at a deputy and said, "I'm going to blow your fucking head off."
Mahan arrived at the scene and made futile attempts to talk with the woman. At about 5:20pm, a deputy threw a tear-gas grenade through Allen's window after she allegedly pointed the shotgun at him. But Allen is resourceful. She had canned her own food, stockpiled water and, apparently believing stories about sinister activities carried out by black UN helicopters, studied up on ways to thwart government infiltrators. To withstand tear gas, she learned to slather exposed skin with petroleum jelly and duck her head under water. These simple deterrents enabled Allen to remain holed up.
A plainspoken man in a mesh-backed baseball cap, camo shirt and dark slicker with hunter-orange lapels, Mahan surveyed the scene with the sharp eyes and world-weary expression of a law-enforcement lifer. With rain coming in it looked like it was going to be a long night. A protracted standoff would stretch his department to the breaking point. At 6:30pm, the sheriff called in the Illinois State Police.
That night, a Springfield-based state police tactical unit -- sometimes called a SWAT team -- set up about 150 yards from Shirley Allen's tree-shaded home. On September 23, says state-police spokesman Mark McDonald, as a trooper approached the house, Allen stuck the shotgun barrel out a window and sent a deer slug screaming into the yard. At close range, a 12-gauge slug -- which looks like a bullet on steroids -- can tear a victim in half. This one missed.
Over the next ten days, Springfield tac unit members traded off with a team from another region to provide around-the-clock coverage. At night, they bathed Allen's home with spotlights -- but only to illuminate the scene, not to drive her to distraction, McDonald says. When she refused to answer the phone, trained hostage negotiators and family members attempted to open a dialogue via bullhorn or PA system every fifteen minutes. Once, a crisis team member reportedly told Allen he had been ordered to clear the trees from around her house. Hadn't those trees been planted by Allen's late husband? the negotiator asked over the bullhorn. Wouldn't it be a shame to see them chopped down?
When these methods failed, state police played music for Allen. McDonald says the tunes -- ranging from Wagner and Tchaikovsky to Barry Manilow and early Beatles -- were hand-picked by Allen's family and played only to soothe her. "The lights and the music weren't an attempt to drive her out," he says. Still, neighbors who lived a half-mile down the faded two-lane blacktop told reporters the noise was loud enough to irritate them.
That Friday, September 26, at 10:39am, Allen finally emerged to confront her tormentors. Gun at the ready, she strode onto her back porch and said something officers could not make out. Moments later, two tac team members wheeled out from behind the garage and opened fire with shotguns of their own, unleashing a salvo of six burlap-covered projectiles stuffed with metal buckshot. Although four of the beanbag rounds slammed into Allen, she remained standing, insulated by multiple layers of clothing. After blasting a hole in the garage with a deer slug, Allen retreated inside.
Did officials botch the job? After day three of the standoff, the Journal-Register reported that state police "do not plan to try sleep-deprivation tactics such as blaring music into her home or flashing lights nearby all night long." Lt. Dennis Sloman told the paper, "When we have a mentally unstable person, we're not sure how effective it would be." But out of frustration, they may have employed exactly those tactics.
As television reporter Jennifer Lindsey prepares for her live noon report from the scene on day eighteen, a small brown dog runs to the edge of a yard across the road and commences to yap. "That's Killer," she says. Lindsey adjusts her red jacket and gets ready to tell viewers not much has changed, save for the fact that troopers have begun to photograph and record the license-plate numbers of everyone who stops at the roadblock.
The main problem in Roby is that police officials have been forced by existing law to deal with what is essentially a medical situation. Normally, when a person holding a gun is tear-gassed after threatening to kill a police officer, the department is praised for its restraint. And if that person continues to hold police at bay, employing loud music and bright lights to break down his or her resistance is considered humane, given the alternatives. Cutting off the power and making constant attempts at communication are standard plays.
But with a person whose only transgression is that she may be mentally ill, using such tactics borders on inhumane treatment. Still, it's tough to blame the police for acting like police. Perhaps the law should require doctors to be involved with the psychiatric evaluation process from the moment the would-be patient is first approached -- as it is, police trying to serve such an order are under no obligation to call in medical assistance. Such a move might have led to an earlier resolution of the Shirley Allen case. But Mahan and his deputies served the order in much the same way they would have delivered a summons to appear in traffic court. Mark McDonald says state police were in contact with mental-health officials and Allen's M.D. from the outset. Critics, he adds, "may not be aware that we were not involved until after the tear-gas incident." Yet the fact remains that a department psychologist -- someone trained to evaluate the situation from a medical perspective and then advise the best law-enforcement reaction -- was not consulted until day four of the crisis. By then, the police had made every nightmare Shirley Allen ever had about government oppression come true.
Her dreams came true as well, once upon a time. While serving as a registered nurse at nearby Memorial Medical Center in 1974, she met John Allen, who was recovering from a heart attack. In the course of the convalescence, nurse and patient fell in love. Even though he was twenty-five years older than she, they were soon married. By all accounts, they lived a fulfilling life together.
"She is a very quiet, private person and has just an air about her of confidence that he liked -- and she had beautiful hair," recalls Betsy Tonias, John Allen's daughter. Just a year younger than her former step-mother Shirley, Tonias says she had a good relationship with the couple, often stopping in for dinner or watching deer on their forty-acre spread. When John Allen was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in the 1980s, the couple decided to enjoy the years he had left to the fullest. "He was my hero, the way he faced things," Tonias says of her father. He died in 1989, after which Shirley Allen struggled with bouts of depression and became something of a recluse.
When state police finally did start getting some decent medical advice about Allen, they called off their forty-foot mobile command center -- prompting her to wave good-bye -- pushed the media and other onlookers out of sight of the house, left a water cooler in a field twenty yards from her back door, turned her phone service back on, gave her the numbers of two undercover officers posing as repairmen and stationed several hidden troopers in the area. That was on October 2, eleven days into the standoff. "Medical experts thought if we backed off and gave her some space, she might calm down and come out on her own," McDonald says. When he utters these hopeful words, the police spokesman is driving the fifteen-mile stretch of two-lane west of Roby back to Springfield on day twenty-two of an operation seemingly as endless as the cornfields that dominate the surrounding landscape.
It's an operation that's starting to enrage a lot of people. The Readers' Forum of the Journal-Register has been filled with letters by people angry at the way police are treating Shirley Allen. "It is humiliating, embarrassing, intimidation and harassment, not to mention the stupid cost for the taxpayer," opines Springfield resident Anne Piani. "Leave her alone!" cries Illiopolis resident Emily Strum. "The state police need to realize the difference between a criminal and a depressed very lonely lady," adds Christine Tomasko of Auburn. Public outcry grew so overwhelming that the paper imposed a moratorium on Roby letters after the October 9 issue.
But talk radio keeps airing the criticism. Every weekday morning since day three of the standoff, One-Eyed Jack, the drive-time host at WMAY-AM in Springfield, receives a flood of calls on the issue. "A lot of people are concerned -- especially women," Jack says. "They're saying everybody at one time or another has been depressed, especially when they lose a loved one. There have been times when they don't want family around. The state police are playing hardball with a 50-year-old woman who, at best, is extremely frightened or intimidated and doesn't know what she's doing."
While the state police say such radio shows -- which, along with an online publication called Web Today, dubbed the standoff "Roby Ridge" after the deadly 1992 Ruby Ridge, Idaho, showdown between white separatist Randy Weaver and the FBI -- spread misinformation about the situation, they seem to be pretty accurate in capturing public sentiment.
The mainstream media in Springfield have been careful not to criticize official handling of the standoff. The Journal-Register and WICS-TV, known as News Channel 20, have reported the story thoroughly, but their relationship with government is not an adversarial one. "I don't think enough of the reporters have asked the right questions," charges One-Eyed Jack, who says Springfield journalists tend to get too cozy with their state sources.
There have been instances in which the local media have followed up on seemingly obvious questions -- Did Allen's family have a money motive?, for instance -- only after they have first been raised by fringe media operations such as Web Today. (The answer, by the way, is that Allen's estate wouldn't do much to fill up the bank accounts of her eight siblings.) And when state police director Terry Gainer holds a press briefing in the capitol building on day eighteen, the assembled reporters seem reluctant to ask tough questions. The intelligent, personable Gainer even loses his cool when pressed about how much the operation is costing.
Although he offers no firm figures -- a full accounting will not come until the end of the standoff -- the Roby operation is costing the state between $15,000 and $30,000 a day. In fact, the operation has cost more than the state police security detail to last year's Democratic National Convention in Chicago. This should be big news. But although the DNC comparison leads the Associated Press report, it rates nary a mention in the Journal-Register or on News Channel 20.
Station news director Sue Stephens treats sensationalism the way Bill Clinton handles Janet Reno -- by avoiding it whenever possible. Crusty journalism professors at Ohio University ingrained Stephens with traditional news values in the late seventies. Those values remained intact when she became a radio reporter and then moved on to network TV affiliates in New Orleans, Charleston, South Carolina, and Mobile, Alabama, where she served as a photog, reporter and producer before taking over the Springfield news operation. A compact woman with close-cropped brown hair, an ever-present wry smile and a preference for Salem cigarettes, Stephens is a journalist's journalist. She has pursued the Roby story doggedly, staffing one of the station's remote news trucks at the scene around the clock since day two and airing live reports three times a day. "I think when the police pulled back, they expected us to leave," she says. "We're not going to leave until they leave."
The Roby reporters do not disseminate rumors, and they do not air the comments of police officials below command level. "We're being very careful in checking all the facts," Stephens says. "We're getting double confirmation on everything."
Her main talent on the scene is Jennifer Lindsey, an astute young consumer reporter who hasn't done many live reports since moving here from network affiliates in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Ft. Smith, Arkansas. A tape of her Roby stories reveals how assured she has become on-air after a couple of lackluster spots early in the crisis. She enjoys a friendly relationship with the troopers, especially one from the K-9 unit who is often stationed at the roadblock during the day. "They brought me a sheriff's hat at one point," she says with a chuckle. The station has been doing meat-and-potatoes updates from the scene of late -- "We have no new angles to explore," Stephens says -- but Lindsey and the reporters who do Channel 20's 10pm reports have scored some good beats. The station ran solid stories examining the committal process, resident concerns, standoff expenses and the changing character of the police operation.
For instance, Channel 20 reported that the sheriff's department and the state police disagreed over who was paying for the ambulance and paramedics positioned in Roby twenty-four hours a day until last Friday. The station also ascertained that Allen's home and property are worth less than $200,000 -- well below the $2-million figure floated by some.
But this Joe Friday approach to the news has, to a certain extent, left a vacuum for conspiracy theorists to fill. For example, although Lindsey says, "I wish we still had access to the scene; I would like to see what their operation is now without jeopardizing it," the station has not formally protested the lockout. Later, Lindsey recalls how, when she interviewed Allen's brother, he refused to go on camera. Her report from that day quotes him as supporting official attempts to help his sibling. (Former stepdaughter Tonias says she supports state police efforts, but doesn't know enough about what the sheriff did to offer an opinion.) What didn't appear in Lindsey's story was the fact that Allen's brother "sat in the car and cried, 'because this is my baby sister.'" Sensational or not, discussing such an emotional display on the air might have defused some of the criticism leveled at the family by local residents and militia members from around the nation -- about 150 of whom staged a Roby Ridge protest at the Christian County Courthouse in Taylorville Tuesday, Stephens says.
Through it all, Shirley Allen waits, twenty-three days and counting as of Tuesday. Police see her moving about inside the house every day. Lately, she has switched from wearing camouflage to more everyday outfits. "She appears to be returning to normal activities," Gainer says. Still, "I don't think she's going to give up," says Tonias, adding, "I want her to know that people out there, including family members, love her. That's the way she is. She doesn't have a lot of friends, but the ones she does have love her a great deal."
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