Miami International Airport isn’t exactly a tranquil space on a normal day—if there’s such a thing as a normal day at MIA. Now, as I watched a human trafficker strolling toward the immigration portal with six kids in tow, it felt like a hurricane was about to hit indoors. An ill-tempered Customs supervisor from the Department of Homeland Security fidgeted next to me.
The supervisor’s pudgy fingers beat on the tan veneer counter, thumping out a rhythm I almost recognized. The only thing Customs supervisors hated worse than a Miami cop asking for help was a Miami cop on an FBI task force asking for help.
The man stopped tapping out “Jingle Bells”—hey, I got it—and shifted to rubbing his gut, which was hanging over his belt despite the extra holes he’d punched in it. He looked up at me and said, “So what kind of task force is this?”
“Who from Customs is on it? There’s no way you can have an international crimes task force without Customs.”
He was right, but I ignored the question to concentrate on the operation.
We were acting on a serious tip we’d gotten from the Dutch national police. They were looking at a smuggling group associated with the Rostoff crime organization, and I was now looking right at the suspect, Hans Nobler.
The Dutch national was about fifty years old and dressed like he was trying to impress twenty-year-olds. In his skinny jeans and leather bracelets, the dude was more creepy than stylish. He wore a blue and orange Dutch World Cup jacket with the swagger of someone who’d played, but the colors were too close to the University of Florida’s for it to seem genuine. I had at least eighty pounds on him; he didn’t worry me.
I turned my attention to the children Nobler was herding, four girls and two boys. The two teenage girls looked scared. The two younger girls, a blonde and a brunette with olive skin, were striking; they couldn’t have been more than ten or eleven years old. When the creepy Dutchman caressed the face of the blond girl, I almost snapped.
But part of police work is patience. Besides, I was in charge of this operation, and it looks bad for the boss to break the law during an arrest. I didn’t want other members of the task force telling the FBI that I was some sort of lunatic.
The Dutchman steered all the kids to the same line for entry.
Why that line? There were seven lines open, and others were shorter or moving faster. Had to be significance to that choice.
The inspector was alert and moving people along reasonably quickly. I checked the roster and saw his name was Vacile. Vacile waved the four older kids through with barely a glance; next up was Nobler with the two younger children. Nobler casually draped his hand over the little blond girl’s shoulders and played with her hair.
My stomach knotted. This wasn’t my usual assignment, some shitty dope deal in the city between lowlifes I didn’t really care about. I desperately wanted to get these kids out of here safely—and, to an extent that surprised me, I wanted this task force to succeed.
I phoned Stephanie Hall. As she answered, I felt a tap on my shoulder.
I flinched and turned quickly to see Stephanie herself. She said, “Are you jumpy, Tom Moon? Let’s grab this shithead and call it a day. What else do you need to know about this guy? Remember, curiosity killed the cat. And will make me late.”
I said, “I want to see how he accounts for the kids.” My mind ran through scenarios of what could happen once we made our move. Crowds of tourists, kids in danger—the complications made me shudder.
The other two members of our task force—Anthony Chilleo, who worked for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF), and Lorena Perez, a Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) agent—were also lurking in the area. I used my police radio to urge everyone to be alert and gave a detailed description of the suspect.
Stephanie said in a singsong voice, “Sounds like you’re trying to impress someone.”
“You’re the only one I ever try to impress.” That made her smile, which seemed to brighten the whole room.
After I made detective, I realized that different law enforcement agencies always talk shit about one another. Here’s the first joke I heard an FBI agent tell: “What’s blue and white and sleeps four? A Miami police patrol cruiser.” (Made me laugh, if I’m being honest.)
But sometimes the suspicion among agencies came from genuine issues, like the one I was having now with Customs. These agents at the airport had their own little fiefdom; they didn’t care about how we gathered evidence for different crimes. They liked things quick and simple: You’re smuggling contraband; we seize it; you plead guilty; case closed.
I tried to keep things pleasant. I turned to the Customs man and said, “Someone from the task force needs to lay hands on him before you guys.”
“Ah, politics. I guess I shouldn’t be shocked the FBI wants to get some publicity from this.” The supervisor gave me a dirty look, yanked a radio from his belt, and said, “Raoul, pull the guy with the two kids out of line three. The guy who looks like a reject from some half-assed American Bandstand, the one wearing the wannabe Gators jacket.”
I guess he showed me.
I looked out over the crowd. At least I had a good view of the room. There were only a few people as tall as me, and we all stuck out like giraffes. There were Europeans eager to get out in the sun, Americans returning from vacations in Europe. And rising heat in a room where too many people had been pushed in too quickly.
I watched as a lanky Customs officer in a rumpled blue uniform—Raoul—stepped away from a back wall.
I followed him. A guy my size can usually cut through a crowd, but these were people escaping U.S. Customs. Before I could even squeeze past the first heavyset tourist coming to visit America’s most exotic city, the Customs agent was already making contact with the suspect, waving him over. It looked casual, at best. Raoul clearly didn’t know the circumstances of the crime.
The Dutch suspect had the children behind him when he stepped up to the Customs agent. Without telegraphing his intentions, Nobler headbutted Raoul. Soccer moves to match the jacket! Then he punched the stunned Customs man in the throat and drove his whole body into Raoul’s long, lanky frame. As I stood helplessly watching, Nobler somehow managed to get a hand on Raoul’s pistol. He had it out of his holster before the Customs agent flopped onto the cracked tile floor, gasping for air.
I turned to the supervisor and said, “I think your man just made my point for me. Now this asshole is armed. Cover the exits, quick.”
Nobler frantically searched for a way out of the crowded room, then pointed the semiautomatic pistol into the air and fired twice. The rounds sounded like bombs in the enclosed space. The smell of gunpowder quickly reached my nose.
When my hearing returned to normal after the gunshots, I heard the higher pitch of screams as the shocked crowd realized what was happening. Soon the whole place sounded like a police siren wailing.
People scurried in every direction without regard for where the danger was coming from. I’d seen it a hundred times; panic caused more panic, and few people used common sense.
I broke free of the lines entering passport control, Steph Hall right behind me. We both sprinted, trying to catch the suspect, who knocked down about four people as he fled. The sight of the armed man made everyone panic even more, and the crowd parted in a wave to get away from the guy holding the gun.
I caught a glimpse of Nobler just in time to see him find an open access door and disappear through it.
There’s an old police saying: Only rookies jump into a foot chase. My own philosophy was that only an idiot chased an armed suspect on foot. But sometimes, you have no other choice. I ran like a sprinter—albeit a sprinter who weighed 240 pounds—gripping my pistol in my right hand. I had an equal match in Stephanie Hall, who stayed neck and neck with me as we kept the suspect in sight. Steph ran gracefully; I was just plain determined. There was no way this jerk-off was going to get away, even if he was considerably faster than I’d anticipated. The skinny jeans alone should’ve slowed him down.
The last guy we’d chased together was a murder suspect who had shoved our colleague Lorena Perez. It was embarrassing to check a prisoner with black eyes into the jail, but I had never even touched the man. No one noticed Steph Hall’s bruised knuckles. I’d hate to be this guy if she caught him first.
Nobler didn’t look back as he sprinted across the rough concrete floor, his longish hair streaming behind him.
Ahead of us, a black Delta baggage handler who looked like he could wrestle professionally took in the sight of the man running in his direction with the police right behind him. He moved into position to block the suspect. I appreciated it. Cops didn’t see that kind of help much anymore.
Then the Dutchman raised his pistol and fired once on the run. The sound of the shot echoing through the cavernous area made the well-built baggage handler dive behind a stack of luggage.
Unexpectedly, the Dutchman spun, raised the semiautomatic pistol, and fired two rounds at me. One of the bullets pinged off the floor a foot to my right. Jesus Christ!
I dived to one side and Steph to the other. We both took cover behind concrete pillars. My heart raced and I had to take a gulp of air. Then I leaned around the solid barrier to squeeze off a shot at the suspect.
When I peeked around the pillar again, he was back to running as hard as he could. It had been a good use of a couple of his bullets; it pinned us down and gave him time to put some distance between us. I hate smart criminals.
We sprang back into the chase. The suspect was still keeping up the pace, and I was starting to get frustrated. He looked over his shoulder and saw that Steph and I were not about to give up. He changed course slightly, zigging and zagging through stacks of luggage like a striker weaving through defenders, then dived headfirst down a steel baggage chute. As he did, he dropped the pistol, and it clattered onto the concrete floor.
I scooped it up on the fly as I hit the same chute, hoping to catch up to this moron before he reached the bottom. Steph took the stairs to cut Nobler off.
He did a pretty good roll at the end of the chute, landed on his feet, and went back into an all-out sprint. That pissed me off even more. When I hit the bottom of the chute, I was gasping for air.
I stood up and started running again. Now Steph was in front of me and I could just barely see the Dutch suspect. He was making for a far door on this lower level of maintenance and storage.
A large black woman with an MIA Services jacket was the only thing between the suspect and his freedom. At least he didn’t have a gun anymore.
Nobler skidded to a stop in front of the airport worker as she leaned against a souped-up golf cart that looked like it could climb a mountain. He tried to slip past her to get into the cart. When she resisted, the man took a swing at her.
She dodged the punch and lifted her knee hard into his groin. He was stunned. Then she drove an elbow right into his face.
I could hear the cartilage in his nose crunch from twenty feet away. It made me wince.
He tumbled onto the concrete floor, wheezing and gurgling.
As Steph and I pounced on the fallen man, I heard the woman say, “I finally got to use my Krav Maga classes.”
I put cuffs on the idiot Dutchman quickly, looked at Stephanie, and said, “I love Miami.”