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Gunman killed, children unharmed

December 12, 1997

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) _ Police stormed a house before dawn today and safely rescued two young children, killing the murder suspect who had held them hostage for three days.

Four-year-old Malcolm Phillips and his 2-year-old cousin, Tedi Priest, were reunited with their mothers, who cradled the youngsters outside the house in a misty rain.

``I was so happy. I had all smiles,″ said Tedi’s grandmother Margaret Vickson. The girl’s uncle, Alphonso Wright, said, ``I had faith they were going to come out OK.″

John Edward Armstrong had been holding the two at gunpoint in their duplex since Tuesday morning, when he burst into their home while fleeing police who suspected him of a fatal shooting.

He ordered the children’s mothers out and kept the two toddlers. A father of three himself, he had apparently treated them well, but police became concerned as he repeatedly broke promises to free them.

``There were concerns about what he would have done. He had nothing to gain by giving up. He knew what charges were facing him,″ said Police Chief William Kennedy. ``We gave Mr. Armstrong every opportunity to come out peacefully. He did not.″

Armstrong had previously taken only cat naps each night. But early this morning, a police listening device _ a button-size thing that had been dropped into the house through a broken window _ detected the sound of him snoring. Kennedy ordered the raid.

It was shortly after 5 a.m. when seven SWAT team members burst into the duplex and found Armstrong sleeping in a back bedroom, the children sleeping on either side of him.

Armstrong woke up and struggled with officer Scott Perkins. Police gave no detail on precisely what happened next, but in the end, Perkins was wounded in the hand, Armstrong was killed and the children were free.

In a reunion illuminated by police spotlights, Tedi was in tears as her mother, Iris Vickson, hugged her tight. Adrienne Phillips smiled broadly as she held her son and patted his cousin on the back. The children’s fathers are brothers.

``It was very emotional for the mothers and the officers as well. Kids were crying, mothers were crying, police were crying as well,″ Lt. Cheryl DeGroff-Berry said.

The children were checked out at a hospital and pronounced fine. The wounded officer was treated and released.

After police announced that Armstrong was dead, his sister, Doretha Owens, said: ``They didn’t have to do this. They didn’t have to do this to my brother. They treat us like dogs.″

The grandmother, Ms. Vickson, expressed sympathy for Armstrong’s family.

Armstrong, 39, was suspected of fatally shooting a man and wounding a woman in nearby Winter Park on Tuesday morning. The man was a friend of Armstrong’s estranged girlfriend, who wasn’t there at the time.

After the shootings, Armstrong, who had previous convictions for robbery, burglary and domestic violence, led police on a chase that ended near the children’s home. He did not know the children’s family and apparently picked the house at random.

During the ensuing standoff, Armstrong did not respond to requests from his 12-year-old son and his brother to surrender and ignored televised pleas from Malcolm and Tedi’s relatives.

Instead, police said he let the children sleep, provided them blankets, made them peanut butter sandwiches and let Tedi watch a Mickey Mouse cartoon.

He was supposed to have been in prison until next May for a burglary conviction, but was instead freed in March after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling restored early-release time originally intended to relieve prison crowding.

Family members said Armstrong had been on a two-week crack and heroin binge before his latest run-in with the law.

After the rescue, Orlando Mayor Glenda Hood praised her police force and railed about the state’s early release of imprisoned felons. ``The crisis did not need to happen, in my opinion,″ she said.

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