Nobody died in the Ash Street shootout. That was the miracle.
Ten minutes, 300 shots. Army Rangers versus gangsters. Bullet holes and broken windows. The night of Sept. 23, 1989 turned the Tacoma Hilltop into a national bulls-eye, an emblem of unrest.
Bill Foulk, the retired Ranger who led a group of Army buddies in a defensive stand against the gangsters, still lives in the same house: 2319 S. Ash St.
He wouldn't leave then, though even his commanders urged him to do so. He isn't leaving now. At 52, it amuses him to think he's turned into the old guy on the block.
A few years back, a Tacoma police officer said something to him about the shootout.
"He said it was the single most important incident in Tacoma that caused a change in police policies and practices,"Foulk said.
"I guess I'm still surprised that people are still interested in that story,"Foulk added which is part jive, because he knows it's a good story.
BLATANT DRUG DEALING
In 1989, Ash Street was an open-air drug market. There were several hot spots, but the epicenter was a little house numbered 2328, where Renae Harttlet, 18, lived with her boyfriend, Mark "Marco"Simmons the main dog on the street, according to neighbors who remember.
The drug traffic had always been around, but by the summer 1989, it had grown blatant, fueled by an influx of gang members moving in from California and other areas.
"We had this open drug-gang phenomenon that was occurring in Tacoma that we had never experienced before,"said Bob Sheehan, now an assistant police chief, then a sergeant who worked the Hilltop area. "We didn't know how to respond to it. We were doing our best but we were struggling with it."
Ash Street neighbors groused to police, called 911 repeatedly, and got nowhere.
One of them was Shirley Luckett, then 33 and a young mother. She lived at 2360.
Luckett was a busybody and a spitfire the type who took down license plates, took no guff and called police on a regular basis.
"I'm always looking at my surroundings I like to feel safe,"she said. "My son, he couldn't ride his bike to the store and wear his red shirt without them gangsters chasing him home. You have a right to live anywhere, peacefully, without that junk and trash spilling over on you.
The typical response from police was tepid, neighbors felt. Community-oriented policing getting out of the car, getting to know neighbors was a coming trend, still viewed with suspicion by veteran cops who typically came up in the '60s and preferred the old ways.
Police Chief Ray Fjetland pushed the new programs, but old habits were hard to break.
"They used to call it over the hood or over the radio,' "said Bob David, 52, a retired Tacoma police officer, and one of the first responders to the Ash Street shooutout. "That's the way a patrolman handled his day. If it didn't come over the hood if the fight didn't come over the hood of the police car you could drive away and let it resolve itself. Because that way there's less violence, less stress, and that's the way things were done."
Renae Harttlet, now 38, doesn't like to think of those days. She was 18 then, already a mother wild, young and nave, she said, but never a crack addict, she insists. She rented the house at 2328 but she had no power over the wave of dealing on the street, the friends of Marco Simmons who came and went. Sometimes she fought with him about it. Nothing changed.
Simmons, reportedly still in the Tacoma area, could not be reached by The News Tribune to provide his recollections. Harttlet said many of the hangers-on around the house were there with his permission.
"I don't want to act like I'm innocent, 'cause I'm not,"Harttlet said. "I'm aware of things that took place, but sometimes it wasn't to my liking. I didn't agree to it. I don't want to blame and act like I was totally innocent of the situation. Did I approve of it? No. Could I control it? No.
The run-up to the shooting began with a series of public missteps that made the result seem inevitable.
In summer 1989, Foulk returned from a December deployment in Panama to find the neighborhood worse than when he left. Along with Luckett and other neighbors, he formed a neighborhood group that pressed police, demanding action. The neighbors started making signs, protesting, taking pictures of the dealers.
Even as the tension on Ash Street rose, Chief Fjetland made a decision he would later regret. Hamstrung by budget constraints and desperately short on the patrol side, he shifted four of six officers away the Hilltop crime management team a community policing pilot project that now looked unaffordable.
Neighbors reacted with dismay. Fjetland, under fire from citizens and the City Council, agreed to reconsider. The News Tribune covered the controversy, noting efforts by Ash Street neighbors to monitor the drug activity.
"A group of a dozen neighbors who live in the area of South 23rd and Ash streets said they are on the verge of vigilante action because police have failed to curtail drug dealing around their homes.
The News Tribune, Sept. 21, 1989
The publicity had a side effect. Drug traffic on Ash Street slowed to a trickle. Foulk was used to seeing more than 100 cars pass through the block on a given day. After the story appeared, it was down to 20.
"That really pissed them off,"Foulk said, recalling the reaction from gangsters.
Foulk installed a video camera in his upstairs window to record the traffic. He organized a neighborhood barbecue as a show of public unity, set for 3 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 23. He invited neighbors and friends, including Ranger buddies. Coming armed might not be a bad idea, Foulk suggested.
THE GUN FINGER
The day of the barbecue, Foulk and the neighbors got the gun finger.
It came from bystanders across the street, from cars driving by: the index finger pointed, thumb up, a little flip of the hand, mouthed words: boom, boom.
The gangsters saw the video camera in Foulk's house. They threw stones and rotten pears at it one of the scruffy trees on the block was laden with September fruit. Someone else took shots at the house with a BB gun.
Foulk and a few Ranger friends walked across the street to confront the harassers.
It was a short talk, marked by a difference of opinion. Foulk asked for Marco Simmons. The gangsters scoffed.
Foulk told them to stop throwing things at his home and the neighbors, to stop shooting BBs, to knock it off.
The gangsters told him to take the camera out of the window.
"Stop doing wrong,"Foulk replied.
Foulk was 32, already a combat veteran, married, a homeowner. The people facing him were children, barely out of their teens Simmons was 20.
The gangsters suggested Foulk didn't know who he was dealing with.
Foulk suggested the gangsters didn't know who they were dealing with.
The gangsters weren't impressed.
"You're history, bitch,"Foulk remembers one of them saying.
They would burn his house down and light him up after dark, they said.
Foulk walked away, cheap chatter trailing in his wake.
"I'm gonna shoot that Army SOB,"he heard someone say.
Things started moving fast. Harttlet remembers Simmons telling her to take the children out of the house, to go down the block to her mother's.
"It was out of control,"Harttlet said. "It wasn't right, you know. But at the time, whether you're right or wrong people at that time probably didn't look at it that way.
A few Ranger friends were already at the barbecue. Foulk called a few more. The total grew to 15. He told them to bring personal weapons, whatever they had. He called The News Tribune. A reporter, Dan Voelpel, and a photographer, Russ Carmack, soon arrived.
The plan was defensive, he and his buddies agreed. Stake out locations and wait. No first moves. If police come, disarm immediately. Maybe nothing happens. But if it does, keep the gangsters off. No more.
"Our intent was to not allow them to advance on us,"Foulk said.
Foulk ordered the women into the house. Shirley Luckett, who had a gun, was mildly annoyed. She had sent her children to stay with a relative. However the thing went down, she was in.
"I had a nine (a 9-millimeter pistol) in my hand yes I did, somebody gave me a nine,"she said. "I was gonna fight for my life."
A car drove by. Someone in it fired a shot into the air.
After sunset, Foulk turned out the lights in the house and the yard. The neighbors waited.
The first shots at Foulk's house came at 9:20 p.m., according to statements from several witnesses. Then things got crazy.
"Shots were heard and seen coming from the west side of the house. Small-caliber automatic gunfire was also heard.
Tacoma police report
"All of a sudden I hear a bang from across the street, then it's boom boom boom,"said Carmack, the TNT photograper. "I'm hunkered down by this piece of wood, among these cars. The bullets were whizzing past, over my head. I've never been on the receiving end of the sound before, the zinging."
William Edwards, one of the Rangers, was posted on the front porch. When the shooting started, he hit the ground. A bullet slammed into the wall beside him.
He and other Rangers returned fire, seeing figures running among parked cars on the other side of the street.
A new fusillade of shots came from the opposite side of the house. Ranger Russell Nolte, posted in the backyard, crawled forward a shot hit the front of the house, three feet over his head.
Ranger Burr Settles was upstairs by the hated video camera. A shot came through the window, and a shower of shattered glass grazed his head.
"Numerous muzzle flashes/shots began coming in from the east. There were at least three different shooters.
Tacoma police report
The Rangers again returned fire. Outside, the assailants flitted among the parked cars, shooting over their shoulders and ducking down.
Luckett flattened herself on the floor of Foulk's house. Bullets slammed into the walls.
"It's something I would never want to be in again 'cause it was frightening,"she said.
Harttlet, down the street in her mother's house, was in the same position.
"I'm petrified of guns to this day,"she said.
Inside Foulk's house, Luckett dialed 911.
"They're shooting!"she shouted at the receiver.
A few Rangers overheard and put down their weapons, sending Luckett into a conniption.
"You cannot do that!"
The first police car came down the middle of the street, emergency lights on, sirens blaring. Carmack watched.
"All of a sudden another round goes off,"he said. "I have never seen smoke come out of a rear set of tires ... this patrol car backed out, just squealing.
Officers in the car reported hearing 50 to 60 shots in less than a minute.
For 20 years, the official version of the shootout held that no one was hurt in the gunfire. Not true, according to Foulk. During the firefight, one gangster rushed toward Foulk's house.
"I guess he thought he was gonna John Wayne it,"Foulk remembered.
One of the Rangers took aim and winged the gangster in the shoulder. The attacker staggered back and ran away. The moment goes unmentioned in police reports and witness accounts of the time. Unverified gossip holds that the wounded man was treated at a Seattle-area hospital.
More cops poured into the block. The gangsters ran.
"As other police units arrived in the area, subjects were seen fleeing. Those subjects were pursued, and some caught and detained.
Tacoma police report
COPS TAKE CONTROL
The gunfire dwindled. Foulk listened and ran the options.
Cops coming, guaranteed.
Show yourself. Do not get shot.
He was carrying two pistols: A Browning 9-millimeter, and a Colt .357. Foulk put them in the laundry basket in the laundry room. He walked out the back door, to his driveway and the alley behind his house.
He felt someone behind and didn't fight. A hand shoved his head down, a voice ordered him to the ground, a knee plowed him into a spread-eagle.
"Who's in charge around here?"the cop said.
"I guess I am.
"What the (expletive) is going on?
Foulk cannot remember the officer's name. It could have been Bob David, the officer who wrote the primary report of the incident. It could have been Jim Pincham, another officer who was among the first to respond to the scene. It could have been any of at least a dozen cops who swarmed into Ash Street that night.
TAKING THE GUNS
David remembers the scene. He was in charge of handling the Rangers. Over the radio, a commander he won't name told him to seize all their guns as evidence.
The Rangers weren't happy. David offered a compromise. They were Rangers they had lots of guns, right? Give up the lousy ones keep the high-end stuff.
Nowhere close to protocol. David knew it. Part of him didn't care.
"I wasn't gonna be the arm to hurt somebody that I knew was innocent, fighting someone that I knew was guilty,"he said.
Sgt. Mike Miller, one of the mid-level commanders running the crime scene, wasn't happy, either. Arriving at Foulk's home, taking control, he gave the Rangers a tongue-lashing.
"R/SGT (Responding sergeant) lectured Foulk and his companions for not calling for police assistance until shots were fired. ... R/SGT feels that this situation may have been avoided by calling 911 prior to the shooting getting started. R/SGT also expressed the above thoughts to the military commanders of Foulk and his friends...
Excerpt from Miller's police report
Carmack, the photographer, heard a police commander lecturing the Rangers. He doesn't know who it was, but he knows what he heard.
"The commander, he was really pissed off at the soldiers,"Carmack recalled. "He said, I don't see one (expletive) body over there.' I may be ad-libbing, but he was upset that they missed."
Renae Harttlet walked outside from her mother's house.
"I just know I came out and everyone scattered,"she said. "The street was smoky as heck everyone came out and everybody was like gone.
Police were taking witness statements and fanning out across the Hilltop, searching for the assailants. The Rangers gave sketchy descriptions. They described one particular shooter a big, beefy kid in a red, white and blue jacket.
Two blocks from the scene, a police dog cornered a group of young men.
One suspect was carrying 16 bullets, .38 caliber. He said he was holding them for a friend, but couldn't remember the friend's name. Same went for the pistol he was carrying.
Another suspect was carrying copper-headed rounds for a gas gun big, beefy kid in a red, white and blue jacket. His name was Frankie Lee Stricklen.
He was 20, already familiar to police from previous contacts on the Hilltop. A 1987 incident led to a second-degree burglary conviction. State community corrections officers had little hope for him.
"Stricklen lacks basic skills presently and will continue to experience problems securing employment. His learning disability is severe and I do not project he will be making significant progress in near future.
Department of Corrections report, July 27, 1989
Police brought several Rangers to the area where Stricklen was held. All of them identified him as one of the shooters.
He would be the only man charged in the incident.
The neighbors stayed at Foulk's house all night.
"Nobody wanted to go home,"Foulk said. "They're like, hey, you guys got all the guns.
At 7 a.m. the phones started ringing. Media.
Along with the other neighbors, Luckett spent the night at Foulk's house. She woke up seething.
Across the street at 2319, Harttlet was no happier. She woke to reporters knocking at the door, TV cameras in the street and a milling crowd of neighbors.
Luckett was one of them. Harttlet fixed on her, walking across the street, screaming and pointing.
The moment survives on 20-year-old video. Luckett stands on a slope, screaming back at Harttlet, rapid-fire.
"What kind of a mother are you?"Luckett says. "What kind of a mother are you?
In the video, Harttlet lunges forward, pulls Luckett down, and the two women roll into Ash Street, clawing and kicking.
Marco Simmons, Harttlet's boyfriend, rushes in, kicking at Luckett. A neighbor rushes from behind and kicks at Simmons, and the fight spreads, spilling down the street, going on and on.
Someone off-camera says, "Where's the damned police?
The police had been called. They arrived 27 minutes later. Records showed they were handling other calls: a burglary in progress, two stolen-car reports, an escaped mental patient and a domestic dispute in the city's North End.
Whatever the reasons, less than 12 hours after a neighborhood shootout that made national headlines, the timing was lousy.
Foulk spent the next three weeks sleeping upstairs, fully dressed, with a gun at his side.
He remembers a visit from Army commanders, one of whom he won't name.
"I cannot order you to leave your home. But I suggest you do,"the commander said.
"If I leave they will burn this house to the ground,"Foulk replied.
"Well, you've got fire insurance, don't you?
LANDLORD GETS INVOLVED
Tom Cosey, then 61, had owned the house at 2328 South Ash since 1965. An old soldier, he had always fixed things himself, handled problems himself. In his day, neighbors would kick unruly youths in the butt. None of that gangster crap.
He wasn't the sort of landlord to throw people out on a whim. The Hilltop was far from rich. People struggled. He tried to go easy when he could but the shootout and complaints from neighbors were too much.
He had thought about evicting Harttlet before, but always hesitated. He knew her mother, who lived down the street. Cosey talked to Foulk and other neighbors, who voted 11-1 for eviction.
"I was for the Rangers, for what they did, you damn betcha old soldiers,"says Cosey. "I probably would have done the same thing.
He told police what he was planning. They told him to wait a little. He waited two days and knocked on Harttlet's door.
"I said, OK, back up and out,"he remembered. "They knew that I had had it.
There was more to it. Cosey knew the city had a crime abatement program. Enough police complaints, and they could take his house.
"I understood,"Harttlet said. "He told me that he didn't want me to have to move, but they were having meetings and all that stuff and there was nothing he could do about it.
Tacoma's leaders had a public relations uproar on their hands.
Mayor Doug Sutherland suggested limiting civil rights in certain areas of the city. His would-be successors, mayoral candidates Karen Vialle and Tim Strege, jousted over who could be tougher on crime.
Police demanded more bodies 100 additional officers, right away, a budget-buster.
Gov. Booth Gardner said he wasn't ready to call the National Guard, but he would certainly consider it if police were overwhelmed.
Chief Fjetland took the local heat. At a hastily arranged public meeting, neighbors ripped him for transferring officers out of the Hilltop.
Media pundits chewed on the shootout. TV reporters turned Ash Street into a stock backdrop. Newspapers fretted.
Tacoma, always Seattle's scruffy sibling, had a new bruise.
"The shootout ... was on the fringe of anarchy. And it represents just the beginning of what will happen in Tacoma and other communities if police don't get substantially better at dealing with drug dealers.
"...These are sorry and frightening times when citizens feel they have to do law enforcement's job because they no longer trust the police to do it.
The (Spokane) Spokesman-Review, Sept. 25, 1989 (editorial)
Community groups and the Safe Streets organization met with neighbors and batted opinions back and forth. Luckett went to those meetings and felt growing anger as the discussion shifted to a race debate.
"They tried to make it a black-white thing it was never that it was always residents against alleged drug dealers,"she remembered. "You cannot make that shootout on Ash Street a racist thing because it was not a racist thing. I don't care. If you want to fight alongside to clean up this place, you're my brother.
Police pulled overtime shifts, keeping constant vigil on Ash Street, walking up and down the block, talking to combatants from both sides. At one point, police brokered a truce between the two sides an agreement that seemed to wink at drug-dealing, as long as there was no violence.
Luckett wanted no part of it.
"Why were we gonna sit down and negotiate with some dope-dealin', gun-slinging, drug-using fools?"she said. "That didn't make no sense to me. They didn't have no right to be doing what they were doing up there.
THE ARMY REACTION
Bill Foulk had a new problem. His commanding officers didn't like the publicity surrounding their sergeant. His home on Ash Street was declared off-limits to other Rangers. There was talk of transferring him to another base.
"I was an embarrassment to the Army, because I did what I thought was right,"he remembered.
A meeting at the Fort Lewis public affairs office shortly after the shooting underscored the situation. Foulk remembers a tough colonel going straight at him.
"Sergeant Foulk, I want you to know you can forget about being promoted,"the colonel said.
"Why is that, sir?
"Because you've become too well-known for the wrong reasons.
After weeks of nonstop tension, Foulk had to get away from the house, just to feel normal for a while.
He picked a barbecue joint on Mildred Street. Not so far from Ash, but it felt like another country. He sat down and ordered a beer.
He heard someone at another table hailing the bartender.
"Say, this guy's money's no good here,"the voice said.
Foulk turned and saw a table full of off-duty cops: Tacoma police officers and Pierce County sheriff's deputies about a dozen of them. For the rest of the night, beer was free.
Frankie Stricklen, the only man charged in connection with the shootout, was convicted of second-degree assault. He was later sentenced to 22 months in prison.
The years that followed led to more convictions for drug-related offenses. Stricklen is currently in the Pierce County Jail, awaiting trial on a drug possession charge. He declined requests for an interview.
The only record of his views comes from a 1990 broadcast of "48 Hours"on CBS. A reporter interviewed Stricklen in the jail. He denied involvement in the shootout.
Did you start the shooting?
No. I didn't.
So let me make sure I understand this, Frankie. You and your friends are hanging around, minding your own business, not doing anything illegal at all...
... not selling any drugs, not buying any drugs, not using any drugs, not shooting anybody...
. ...or at anybody. And these guys come along, these Army Rangers, and shoot up the neighborhood.
Forgive me. It just doesn't sound like it makes any sense.
Excerpt from "48 Hours"broadcast, Feb. 22, 1990.
Bob David retired from the police department in 1997; a decade of chasing bad guys wore him down, and the death of a colleague soured him on police work.
The shootout was bad, an embarrassment for the department, but it was good, too. Old habits began to die.
"With (Foulk) doing what he did, bringing all this up to make a it a huge political football, that's when things started to change,"he said.
Fjetland's plans for community-oriented policing took hold, jump-started by the controversy. By degrees, the Hilltop crime management team was reassembled. The department assigned community liaison officers to specific areas, breaking the city into sectors, and refining data-gathering.
"I look at the Ash Street shooting as kind of the pinnacle of all that stuff, because it became national and it really got our attention. It was huge, it was a big deal,"said Sheehan, the veteran assistant chief. "(Fjetland) started training the department and making the necessary changes to get a better handle on what was going on."
Shirley Luckett moved out of Ash Street years back. After the shootout, she learned that people in her own household had been buying drugs from the dealers on the block. It was a disappointment.
She lives near Foss High School now. She still watches the street, and calls police sometimes to warn them about suspicious activity not as much as the old days.
Ash Street is a better place now, more peaceful. Whatever people thought about the shootout, something good came from it.
"A lot of people misunderstood what it was really about,"she said. "If neighbors get together instead of peeking out from behind their blinds, you can make a difference. You can really make a difference.
Renae Harttlet is a single mother with seven children. One is a miracle born premature, given no chance to survive, in surgery before he weighed a pound.
"I'm just blessed,"she said. "I never thought I was blessed before. I've been through so much in my life, and I never thought any good things would happen for me, but they have.
She doesn't claim innocence. She hates to relive the shootout, or think about it. It was crazy, a mess. She doesn't fault the Rangers. Upstanding citizens, she says. Good people, though she didn't understand it then.
Her older children know the shooting as a story their mother doesn't like to tell. They ask her questions sometimes, and she sums it up short.
"I've been in trouble even after that happened. But I also changed up,"she said. "I have these kids that look at me. If my kids get taken or I get in trouble, who's gonna take care of them? These kids are my life. I have to do right. I would never allow that to ever happen again. I'd never live like that.
ROOTS RUN DEEP
Bill Foulk could have moved. He never did.
As the tough colonel predicted, he was never promoted. He left the Army in 1993.
His house at 2319 South Ash is bigger than it was, after 20 years of puttering. He repaired the bullet holes long ago.
Twice the square footage now, he guesses: add-ons in back, covered porch in front, new picket fence. On the side, a deck and small swimming pool, and green grass, and flowers and tomatoes.
"I like it here,"he says. "I like this neighborhood.
He's had the front windows redone. About halfway up the front siding, between the window and the wall, a pockmark lingers the last bullet hole.
It's a ladder job. He means to patch it, but he keeps forgetting.
Staff writer Brian Everstine contributed to this report.
Sean Robinson: 253-597-8486