Friday, February 5, 2016

History Lesson: Robbery in Kissimmee

It was just bad luck. We were in the wrong place at the wrong time.
-Minor-Leaguer Mike Rose.

In March 2000 the Holiday Inn off of US Highway 192 in Kissimmee, Florida was about 15 minutes from Osceola County Stadium - the Spring Training home of the Houston Astros. Highway 192 is indistinguishable from any other major road near Orlando - lined by hotels leading to the Walt Disney World Complex. That Holiday Inn was also the home of about 80 minor-leaguers of the 110 Astros in Kissimmee for Spring Training. Players in Major League camp stayed in condos or homes in the area.

"It's like a dormitory situation," said Assistant GM Tim Purpura, "They're real comfortable with each other. In one room they're watching TV. In another room they're playing Play Station, just hanging out."

At around 10:30pm on Sunday, March 12, 2000 five players had just finished watching Who Wants To Be A Millionaire in Morgan Ensberg's room. Also in Room 254 was infielder Keith Ginter, outfielders Derek Nicholson, Eric Cole, and catcher Michael Rose. Ginter's girlfriend, Alicia Szczerba, was also in Room 254, there after having dinner with her college roommate, the wife of one of the players in the room. Next door in Room 252 was infielder Aaron Miles.

Szczerba got a call from a friend in another room asking for a cigarette lighter. When she went to deliver the lighter, two men with semiautomatic handguns - one in a ski mask, the other in a green bandanna - stormed into Room 254 and tied up the five players and Szczerba with plastic zip ties, duct-taped their mouths, and covered them with the hotel bedding. While the robber in the ski mask - Richard Cook -  collected money, cell phones and other valuables, the one in the bandanna - Alexander Williams - pressed a gun to the back of Ensberg's head and asked, "You a tough guy? You a hero?" After an hour, the men heard the door to Room 252 close. "We'll be right back with some company," they said, and left the door open.

Infielder Aaron Miles had just returned from dinner and was alone in his room when the robbers burst in. They demanded money, which Miles was in the process of giving when the phone rang. Mike Rose had managed to untie himself, had shut and locked the door, and was calling to warn Miles.

Once Rose realized he was actually speaking to one of the gunmen, and not Miles, he hung up and called 911 but the call didn't go through. He then called the front desk and at 11:04pm the police were called and quickly surrounded the hotel. Cook jumped off the second-floor balcony, losing a semi-automatic handgun in the process. Cook ran through the pool area, southwest through a Sports Authority parking lot where the police dog lost his scent. A black bag with two pistols and cash were later recovered.

None of this was immediately helpful to Miles, however. For half an hour Williams held Miles hostage, telling police that he would kill Miles and then himself before he surrendered. Miles offered to let him use his Astros uniform as a disguise to help him escape. Williams turned to look out the window, and Miles saw his opportunity.

"(Miles) felt he had a chance to maneuver the gun out of (the gunman's) hand and was able to get his hand on the gun," said Purpura. "(Miles) tried to steer the gun away from himself and get control, and they went back and forth."

Miles had lunged for the gun, and officers heard the struggle from outside the room: Miles had slammed the gunman against the wall and wrestled him to the ground. With his free hand the gunman punched Miles in the head repeatedly and bit him. Miles bit Williams on the forearm Police used the butt of a shotgun to break the window and get in.

The two police were in the room with Miles and the gunman, yelling for him to drop his weapon. After not complying the officers opened fire with a 9mm gun: through the cheek, both shoulders, and stomach.

But the rest of the hotel didn't know who had been shot. "I heard those shots, and I thought Aaron was dead. Then he came out of the room with the guy's blood all over him and a big chunk of skin taken out of his back."

"We're downstairs in the parking lot, and you hear this, pop-pop-pop-pop-pop-pop." Ensberg told ESPN, "And we're like, 'Aaron's dead.'"

Miles ran through the broken window and down to the parking lot, and bear-hugged Rose. "He nearly broke me in half," said Rose. "He had the guy's skin in his teeth, blood all over him."

Nicholson said the team was jubilant. "We mobbed him like we won the World Series. He's got his fist up, like, 'Yeah, wooooohoooooo,'...We were all going off...Everyone wanted to kill that guy."

Williams had been shot in the mouth, literally shooting out some of his teeth. He had also been shot in both shoulders and in the stomach. Williams was helicoptered to Orlando Regional Hospital and required four hours of surgery. He spent three weeks in a coma and was partially paralyzed. Miles got a tetanus shot and antibiotics for the bite. Both gunmen were caught and sentenced to life in prison.

Police said the robbery wasn't targeted at the Astros players specifically. "This looks like a crime of opportunity," said Commander Fran Iwanski, "We don't think the suspects knew the victims were ballplayers or that the team was staying at the hotel." At trial they found the players had purchased the weapons from a nearby Wal-Mart and had staked out the hotel, waiting for people to gather in a room.

"Other than the mental trauma of it," Purpura said the next day, "they're all in great shape."

"Other than the mental trauma of it" is like saying "Other than that Mrs. Lincoln, what did you think of the play?" Morgan Ensberg still has scars on his wrists and the ordeal greatly affected him:
When I'm on the field, I'm happy. I'm protected. I'm doing something I love doing. But unfortunately there's two sides of me.

Ensberg and Ginter made their Major League debuts on September 20, 2000 against the Cardinals. In 2000 Ensberg's mind cleared. He had posted an OPS of .755 and .765 in his first two seasons, and in 2000 hit .300/.416/.545 for Double-A Round Rock. Ensberg would have the more successful Astro career, hitting .266/.367/.475 in seven seasons.

Ginter hit .333/.457/.580 in 2000 for Round Rock, and played in 13 games for the Astros from 2000-2002. He was the player to be named later in the 2002 trade with the Brewers that acquired Mark Loretta.

Aaron Miles was sent to High-A Kissimmee - where the robbery took place - for the 2000 season and hit .292/.352/.386. He was selected by the Chicago White Sox in the December 2000 Rule 5 draft and went on to hit .281/.320/.352 in nine Major-League seasons.

Catcher Mike Rose asked for his release from the Astros four days after the robbery. He played in 27 Major-League games from 2004-2006 with three different teams and played in the Diamondbacks, Red Sox, Royals, A's, Dodgers, Rays, Cardinals, and Indians, and Rockies organizations.

Derek Nicholson hit .311/.405/.444 in 116 games for Single-A Michigan in 2000. He played in the Tigers organization until 2005 and returned to the Astros for the 2006 season. He never played in the Majors.

Eric Cole hit .291/.349/.497 for Round Rock in 2000. He played in the Rangers organization in 2002 and returned to the Astros' organization in 2003. He never played in the Majors.

NY Times
Orlando Sentinel
Crawfish Boxes (Note: I had most of this completed when I came across TCB's post. It is excellent.)
Orange County Register

1 comment:

Scott Eiland said...

Great article. What a harrowing ordeal. I forgot that Morgan was part of that!