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Nebraska pharmacist relives 7-hour hostage ordeal with drug-addicted armed robber

  1. Rob Cypher
    Chas Lierk is about to take the biggest gamble of his life.

    But for now, the 62-year-old pharmacist follows the gunman's orders.

    Lierk has been held hostage for nearly seven hours, barricaded in a back office at his Alliance pharmacy.

    Now Lierk's captor points an AK-47 at his back and tells him to move. The gunman's cellphone has died, and Lierk has suggested retrieving his own phone from the drugstore counter.

    So Lierk moves. Right behind him is the 27-year-old drug addict who took the pharmacist hostage when a drug robbery spun out of control.

    Lierk has been patient all morning and afternoon, but maybe he's running out of time.

    Already today bullets have flown overhead twice as his captor traded gunfire with law enforcement officers trying to end the standoff. A state patrolman and two police officers have been wounded.

    By now Lierk has heard the gunman admit to killing two people before the robbery.

    Lierk wants to see his wife, Ellen, again. He wants to hug his sons and his daughter, hold his baby granddaughter, laugh with friends, play golf, travel, live out his days in the community he loves.

    So he focuses on finding the right moment to escape.

    The gunman follows Lierk out of the office, covering him with the AK-47.

    Lierk sees his phone on the counter, along with broken glass, a shattered computer and bullet holes.


    “I've got it,” he says, holding up the phone.

    The gunman orders his hostage to return to the office, and starts backing up as Lierk walks toward him.

    Lierk notices that the assault rifle is pointing down, toward the floor.

    Ten, maybe 12 feet separate the men.

    As the gunman backs through the office doorway, the pharmacist is nearly astounded by what has happened.

    “I can't see his face,” Lierk will say later. “I take it if I can't see him, he can't see me.”

    And just like that, the right moment arrives.

    ***

    This Tuesday in mid-June had begun much as any other for Chas Lierk.

    He makes a couple of stops on his way to work. First he drops off the cat at the veterinarian's. Then he drops off the car with his mechanic, near the downtown of this western Nebraska railroad community of 9,000.

    His daughter rings his cell and they chat as he walks up an alley. He unlocks the back door and steps into Thiele Pharmacy and Gifts, the business he and his wife have owned for 37 years.

    Store clerk Caren Stanley is getting the gift shop ready for the regular 8:30 a.m. opening, and pharmacy technician Yolanda Meradith does the same behind the counter.

    Lierk goes to work on the prescriptions called in overnight and checks an automated prescription filler he calls the robot — a metal cabinet with glass doors that's 6 feet high, 10 feet long and able to fill the 200 most commonly prescribed drugs.

    A man enters through the front door and walks the length of the store, saying “hello” as he passes the clerk. Lierk doesn't notice until he sees the black pistol pointed right at him.

    “This is a (expletive deleted) robbery, nobody move.”

    The pharmacy tech ignores the order, leaps over the counter and runs out of the store. The clerk flees, too, and calls 911 from the shoe store next door.

    The gunman swings the gun in their direction for a moment, then locks his attention on the guy in the blue dress shirt, necktie, khaki pants and comfy Velcro shoes.

    A joke, Lierk thinks.

    The gunman — Lierk doesn't recognize him — wants narcotics, namely oxycodone and OxyContin. He wants the oxycodone in 5 milligram blue tablets. He also wants morphine patches, the 100 microgram ones.

    Lierk takes him to a safe that contains the narcotics. The lock requires a punch code. Lierk needs two attempts to open it.

    “Do you want this in a bag?”

    After Lierk sacks the drugs, the gunman tells him to lie on the pharmacy floor, facedown, and put his hands behind his back. The gunman binds Lierk's wrists with duct tape.

    Lierk can't see as the gunman walks back in front of the pharmacy counter to retrieve a fabric bag he had brought into the store, the kind used to carry a folding camp chair. He can't see as the gunman takes out an assault rifle and fires shots into the ceiling.

    He doesn't see Alliance Police Officer Kirk Felker come into the store and through one of the archways that separate the pharmacy from the gift shop. Nor does he see Felker flee, with blood flowing down his right arm.

    As bullets fly, brass cartridge casings hit the floor around Lierk's head.

    This is real, he thinks.

    ***

    The gunman pulls the tape off Lierk's hands. Walk, he orders, pointing Lierk back toward the pharmacy counter, to pick up a backpack the gunman had left on the floor.

    They walk back to his office, and Lierk is told to barricade the door with a locker cabinet.

    Another door opens onto a hallway that leads next door to Nebraska Workforce Development.

    A third door, made of glass with a metal frame, is on the south exterior wall of the office. It looks out onto Third Street, which also is Nebraska Highway 2, the main east-west thoroughfare in Alliance.

    They barricade the door leading to the employment services office.

    The gunman stands on one side of the office, where he can keep an eye on the glass door. He tells Lierk to sit at a desk.

    He says his name is Andy Gonzalez. He doesn't need a reciprocal introduction.

    “Charles, I'm not going to hurt you,” he says. “You're going to be fine.”

    He says he has C-4 explosives, two grenades and dynamite. He removes a brick-shaped package from the backpack, sets it on a desk and hands the backpack to Lierk, telling him to set it gently on the floor.

    By now he has removed his shirt, revealing a full ammo belt. Lierk can't help but notice how Gonzalez's flabby stomach hangs over the waist of his bluejeans.

    Gonzalez calls 911 on his cellphone and tells Alliance Police Chief John Kiss he's got enough explosives to level a two-block area. He demands $200,000 in $50 bills and a police car for his escape.

    But the police chief has a demand of his own. Gonzalez holds up the phone and tells Lierk to speak.

    “I'm OK,” Lierk says.

    Gonzalez turns his attention to the sack of narcotics.

    Still holding the handgun, he takes out some of the oxycodone tablets, crushes them in a small metal bowl and adds water from a cooler in Lierk's office.

    Gonzalez orders Lierk to stand and turn around. Lierk does as he's told.

    In those seconds of silence, he anticipates his death.

    But then he hears the flick of a disposable lighter. Lierk surmises Gonzalez has put down the handgun and is heating the oxycodone slurry in the bowl.

    After a few minutes, Gonzalez tells his captive to sit down again. Then he draws the solution into a syringe and injects it in the vein in his right elbow.

    Gonzalez confides he recently shot and killed his father, Larry, a widely known railroad engineer mechanic in Alliance. The father and son had been living together.

    “I was an abused child,” Gonzalez says. “Now that's all over.”

    ***

    The tension eases, and Gonzalez tries to engage Lierk in a bit of conversation.

    He starts with politics, asking Lierk which candidates he likes.

    Lierk, sensing a potential land mine, responds, “Andy, they're all crooks. I don't think any of them are any good.”

    Gonzalez nods, then says he supports Ron Paul, the Republican presidential candidate from Texas known for his libertarian views. Gonzalez has Lierk log onto YouTube and watch a few of Paul's campaign videos.

    They also discuss music. Gonzalez mentions several of his favorite bands, again telling Lierk to look them up on the Internet. Most are metal rock, including one group of neo-Nazis who scream their songs in German.

    Gonzalez smokes cigarettes and periodically lights up marijuana in a small pipe. He offers the pot to Lierk, who declines. Gonzalez insists, so Lierk takes a puff.

    As time passes, a sort of rapport develops. Gonzalez isn't abusive or threatening. Lierk follows orders and avoids confrontation. While it makes absolutely no sense, he feels calm.

    Gonzalez asks about his family. Lierk says he has a wife, three children and a young granddaughter.

    “Charles, you're going to see them again.”

    “OK, Andy, I trust you.”

    But not really.

    While responding to questions, he's thinking about survival.

    He considers trying to hit Gonzalez with a wooden chair or a toolbox that are within his reach. But what if he misses or doesn't knock Gonzalez off his feet?

    At one point Gonzalez turns his back and Lierk notices the handgun jammed under his waistband. It's maybe 3 feet away. Lierk quickly rules out grabbing the handgun because he's never fired one and has no idea how to work the safety.

    But that's just part of the reason.

    “Can I kill somebody?” he thinks. “If I get to that situation, can I do it?”

    No, he decides.

    So he waits.

    ***

    Not long after barricading themselves in the office, they see a sheriff's cruiser out on Third Street. Gonzalez has Lierk call the police chief and tell them to clear out.

    About 10:30 a.m. they hear voices through the thin walls that separate the pharmacy office from the restrooms in the employment services office.

    Lierk yells at the voices, “I don't want you here.”

    Gonzalez takes a few steps and sprays bullets into the restroom walls. Lierk drops to the floor and crawls under the desk as police return fire, splintering the hallway door. The gunfire lasts five or 10 seconds.

    When it stops, Lierk hears “Man down!” on the other side of the door.

    He later learns State Trooper Tim Flick has been hit by gunfire, Alliance Police Officer Matt Shannon by a bullet fragment.

    Gonzalez returns to the spot where he had been standing and says, “I hope I didn't kill him.”

    ***

    A short time later, a State Patrol negotiator calls Gonzalez's cellphone. Gonzalez instructs Lierk to hold the phone and to put the negotiator on speaker.

    The negotiator tells Gonzalez he should give up. Put the guns in a wastebasket near the back door, he says, and walk out the front. Just listen to police as you hit the sidewalk and everything will be OK.

    Gonzalez asks for 30 minutes to think it over.

    He takes more drugs, blowing out the vein in his arm, so he starts injecting the opiates into the back of his hand. By now he's got five of the morphine patches stuck to his chest. A couple of times he momentarily closes his eyes but remains standing.

    Lierk comments that Gonzalez has quite a tolerance.

    “I've been taking drugs for a long time,” he says.

    The negotiator calls back and asks if Gonzalez has any requests for when he comes out. Gonzalez asks for cigarettes and a large cup of Mountain Dew.

    But he wants more time to think about surrendering.

    In between calls with the negotiator, Gonzalez talks to his mother and his former girlfriend.

    Lierk is stunned when he hears Gonzalez admit to the murder of Josh Bullock, a 38-year-old Denver man who had been reported missing after visiting friends in Alliance several months before.

    Gonzalez tells the girlfriend he's going to prison for the rest of his life. He should just give up, he says, or maybe commit suicide. As he talks, he holds the handgun to the back of his head for a few moments.

    When the negotiator calls again, the phone is down to one bar of battery power.

    Authorities had cut power to the building, and Gonzalez had torn out the office's land line phone. The negotiator says they have to figure out a way to keep the conversation going.

    Lierk suggests his cellphone, on the pharmacy counter. It's fully charged.

    After 45 minutes, Gonzalez agrees to get the phone.

    ***

    It's about 3:45 p.m.

    Over the past seven hours, Lierk has built trust with a drug addict who has wounded three officers and admitted to two murders.

    The pharmacist has rejected other opportunities to try to escape.

    Now he's out in the store, holding his cellphone, just as Gonzalez's face disappears beyond the door frame as they walk back to the office.

    Lierk turns and runs.

    Two steps, and he's back at the counter. Zigzag, he thinks. Make yourself hard to hit.

    Click here for a closer look at Chas Lierk's escape.

    Head for one of the archways that separate the two sides of the store — the thick brick wall will provide protection.

    He hears Gonzalez yell.

    He hears three shots.

    And he feels a bullet hit his back.

    “I'm still up, I'm still running,” he tells himself. “It didn't put me down.”

    He makes the archway.

    Now he has to hope his clerks unlocked all of the front doors. If not, he'll have to smash a window or find another way out.

    But the door opens.

    He hopes the SWAT team knows he's the good guy.

    He turns left, runs up a sidewalk, sees an officer in full riot gear and slows down.

    “Keep running,” someone yells.

    Blood spurts from his right forearm; he's bleeding from a bullet he never felt.

    He applies pressure and realizes he's still holding his phone.

    On the short ambulance ride to the hospital, a patrol officer gathers information about the gunman.

    Lierk learns that although he heard only three shots during his escape, officers heard Gonzalez fire at him more like 15 times.

    When the emergency medical technician wheels Lierk's gurney into the emergency room, he sees about 40 doctors and nurses waiting for him.

    “What I love about a small town,” Lierk says later, “I knew nine-tenths of those people.”

    ***

    The standoff lasted about seven more hours.

    After barrages of gunfire and tear gas, authorities moved in. By 11:30 p.m. they confirmed Gonzalez was dead.

    He died of a gunshot wound. Authorities were unable to determine whether the wound was self-inflicted, said Box Butte County Attorney K.J. Hutchinson.

    “From the time he made contact with negotiators until the time he expired, he was given opportunities to come out peacefully,” she said.

    A grand jury, called because the death occurred in the course of a law enforcement action, determined officers had broken no laws in their response. Neither the grand jury proceedings nor their records are open to the public.

    All told, about 120 law officers from multiple agencies participated in the standoff, the county attorney said.

    State Patrol Col. David Sankey declined a request for an interview, saying the agency does not discuss SWAT team operations. While he declined to answer why officers fired into a room where the hostage was located, he said the entire incident had been thoroughly reviewed.

    “The Nebraska State Patrol, working in cooperation with our fellow law enforcement and public safety partners, was able to bring this dangerous event to a close without loss of life to innocent victims,” he said in a statement. “The dedication, professionalism and courage exhibited by the men and women involved in this situation should be commended.”

    All three officers injured during the standoff have since returned to duty.

    ***

    In the nearly six months since their lives changed, Chas and Ellen Lierk have relied on family, friends and faith.

    He got out of the hospital two days after undergoing emergency surgery. The bullet that passed through his arm broke a bone, and the damage has taken longer to heal than expected.

    The bullet fragment in his back lodged close to his spine, so surgeons decided against risking more damage by removing it.

    Their sons, Kyle and Brian, and their daughter, Jessica, returned to Alliance in the wake of the standoff. Lierk joked that it took a brush with death to get his kids back for Father's Day. He also got to hold his baby granddaughter.

    The outpouring of support from friends and neighbors still leaves the couple speechless. People brought by food for weeks and sent hundreds of get-well cards, made dozens of calls and posted scores of messages on Chas Lierk's Facebook page.

    Knowing they both had undergone serious emotional trauma, the couple sought counseling. But after four sessions, the psychologist said they didn't need to return. They were healing each other.

    “He's never had a nightmare,” Ellen Lierk said, “which I think is amazing.”

    Yet sharp noises — fireworks or the slamming of a cabinet door — trigger flashbacks. And when he recently saw the security video for the first time, he was surprised how much it brought the events of June 12 back to the surface.

    During the last session with the counselor, she asked if they were angry at the gunman. He tried to kill you, she said to Chas Lierk.

    “But he didn't,” Lierk said, smiling as he retold the story.

    He might feel differently if Gonzalez had beaten him up or been verbally abusive, he said. Regardless, the incident has reinforced how precious life is, and Lierk doesn't want to spend the rest of his life nurturing hate.

    As devout Catholics who are active in their church, they choose to follow Christ's teaching of forgiveness, Ellen Lierk said. Even during the standoff, both said they felt a sense of peace, which they attribute to the prayers offered by friends and family on that day.

    With no way to quickly reopen the store, one of the other pharmacies in town provided temporary service for their customers. As Lierk focused on his recovery, his other pharmacists and employees worked on creating a temporary location in a vacant medical clinic provided without cost by Box Butte General Hospital.

    They had it up and running in 10 days.

    “You find out how much people really respect you,” Lierk said. “When you give of yourself ... it comes back to you.”

    Before the standoff, the Lierks were in negotiations with Safeway grocery to sell the pharmacy. They have since closed the deal, and Lierk plans to cut back to part-time hours this month.

    So that left just the future of the gift shop to resolve.

    It was riddled with bullet holes, coated in tear gas residue, stained in blood. The prescription-filling robot was shot to pieces — Lierk thinks it caught some of the bullets meant for him.

    The insurance carrier said the contents of the store and pharmacy had to go and the interior had to be remodeled. Or they could just cash the check.

    The couple said they never considered leaving vacant storefronts in the downtown they love.

    So they remodeled and reopened half of the store in October, as Thiele Gifts and More. Work on the other half is under way.

    “We didn't want something that violent and painful to be the last word for this business,” Ellen Lierk said. “Really, as a small-business owner, you are part of the business. The business is part of our personality.

    “So we wanted to make sure the last chapter of our association with that business is a positive one.”

    For Chas Lierk, the building is more than bricks, glass and tin. It's where his father made a living as a pharmacist. It's where he swept up as a kid. It's the reason he enrolled at Creighton University, where he met his wife.

    And it's where he won the biggest gamble of his life.

    http://www.omaha.com/article/20121202/NEWS/712029949/1685

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