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Shootout in Miami

This article originally appeared in RECOIL Issue 39

Photos by FBI, Miami-Dade Police Department

If any of the FBI field agents in Miami on that pleasant April morning sensed what was about to happen, they haven’t said so publicly. Acting on a hunch, they picked this particular day to stage a bank stakeout, watching for a pair of unidentified bad guys in a stolen Monte Carlo on the off chance they’d show up. They weren’t looking for a gunfight, particularly not one of the deadliest days in the FBI’s history. But that’s what they got.

The morning in question was April 11, 1986 in a duplex driveway in Miami, Florida. Make that a crowded driveway: by the end, the fight involved two bad guys with two .357 Magnum revolvers, a Ruger Mini-14, and a shotgun, plus eight good guys with five revolvers, three pistols, and two shotguns.

By 9:45 a.m. two bank robbers and two agents were dead, five agents had been seriously injured, and everything the FBI knew about arming agents and shooting in and around cars was called into question. The event sparked near-immediate changes to how the Bureau arms and trains every agent from the desk guys to SWAT agents, with local police forces nationwide following their lead.

The Miami Shootout, as the now notorious event has come to be known, demonstrated with lethal accuracy just how behind the weapons and tactics curve the FBI was in 1986. And although the gunfight has now been parsed, dissected, and examined in law enforcement classrooms for decades, one overwhelming truth emerges: It never really had to happen to begin with.

The Players
Army buddies Michael Platt and William Matix had a lot in common. Both of their wives died under suspicious circumstances, both seemed fairly normal to their Florida friends and neighbors, and neither had a criminal record.

It wasn’t until after the duo had killed a man for his car, seriously injured a second man while stealing his black 1979 Chevrolet Monte Carlo, and shot up eight FBI agents that anyone even suspected they shared a common hobby: robbing banks.

Agent Edmundo Mireles’ red jacket and shotgun as well as blood from the agents and perps were left behind on the scene when the shootout was over. (FBI)

Agent Edmundo Mireles’ red jacket and shotgun as well as blood from the agents and perps were left behind on the scene when the shootout was over. (FBI)

After knocking off a string of banks over several months and attempting a few armored car heists, they eventually made a mistake. When they didn’t actually kill the man from whom they had stolen their Monte Carlo getaway car, he was able to describe the thieves and pass the car’s license plate number to police.

And when the pair didn’t bother to ditch the car’s original tags, they virtually guaranteed they’d be spotted, eventually. Which is exactly what happened at 9:30 a.m. on April 11, 1986.

During the crash Platt and Matix were pinned between a civilian Oldsmobile Cutlass (left), a tree, and FBI Agent Manauzzi’s bureau Buick. (FBI)

During the crash Platt and Matix were pinned between a civilian Oldsmobile Cutlass (left), a tree, and FBI Agent Manauzzi’s bureau Buick. (FBI)

The Shootout
Fourteen FBI agents were staked out at banks in a 60-block radius around Miami, waiting for the elusive bandits to hit. Other robberies in the string had occurred on Friday mornings, and since the last haul for these guys had been small, only about $8,000 according to those involved, agents guessed they’d hit again soon.

And they were right. As Matix and Platt cruised by one of the banks, Special Agents Benjamin Grogan and Jerry Dove spotted and followed the stolen Monte Carlo, first north, then east, then south. A series of two other unmarked bureau Buicks joined the low-speed tail as it meandered for two minutes a few blocks each way.

Then, the action started: a brief car chase, a decision to ram the Monte Carlo into stopping, and a gunfight with more than 140 rounds fired. From start to finish, the whole event lasted a mere five minutes.

Matix got off as many as three shots with his shotgun, and injured Special Agent Richard Manauzzi before he was shot by Supervisor Gordon McNeil and temporarily sidelined. Meanwhile, Platt went to town with his Ruger Mini-14 firing so fast that one agent later told a TV reporter that he thought Platt was shooting a fully automatic rifle. Platt also fired a total of six shots from two .357 Magnum revolvers.

The rear of Agent Ben Grogan’s Buick was left coated in Platt’s blood as he worked around it, first killing Grogan and Agent Jerry Dove, and then shooting Agent John Hanlon. (FBI)

The rear of Agent Ben Grogan’s Buick was left coated in Platt’s blood as he worked around it, first killing Grogan and Agent Jerry Dove, and then shooting Agent John Hanlon. (FBI)

Special Agents (SA) John Hanlon, Edmundo Mireles, Gilbert Orrantia, Ron Risner, McNeil, Grogan, and Dove fired back with their service revolvers, shotguns, and pistols. While they struggled to reload and maneuver, Platt simply replaced his magazine and continued to fire.

Despite multiple injuries, including a shot to the lung by Dove’s 9mm Smith & Wesson pistol that would later be credited with the bandit’s ultimate death, Platt climbed out of his car, which was pinned between bureau Buicks and a pair of civilian vehicles, and continued to fire. With his buddy knocked out, he maneuvered to the side of a nearby civilian Cutlass, and fired using his revolver before he dropped it after taking a hit through the arm.

The Monte Carlo was riddled by shotgun blasts as Agent Grogan returned fire at Matix, who first fired at his shotgun at the agents. (FBI)

The Monte Carlo was riddled by shotgun blasts as Agent Grogan returned fire at Matix, who first fired at his shotgun at the agents. (FBI)

But he didn’t actually give up the fight. Propping his Mini-14 against his uninjured left shoulder, he continued to engage the agents. As Grogan and Dove struggled with a malfunctioning pistol, Platt leaned over their car and killed them both; a shot to the chest for Grogan and two shots to the head for Dove. He also shot Hanlon in the groin as he lay nearby.

Still taking fire, Platt and Matix, who at some point had come to, jumped in Grogan and Dove’s Buick, ready to flee.

That’s when Mireles, who was seriously wounded in the left arm early on, saw his chance. “I took my arm and tossed it over on the side, and picked up my shotgun and started focusing on survival,” Mireles told RECOIL.

Advancing on the car, he fired his pump-action shotgun at Platt five times, injuring his feet. And as the pair attempted to start the Buick, Mireles pulled his .357 revolver and fired six rounds, killing Matix by severing his spinal cord, and killing the already fatally wounded Platt with a shot to the chest. The fight was over.

The position of the vehicles and the agents at the start of the April 11, 1986, shootout. (Courtesy of Edmundo Mireles)

The position of the vehicles and the agents at the start of the April 11, 1986, shootout. (Courtesy of Edmundo Mireles)

Five-Minute Event, 30-Year Analysis
In the immediate aftermath, one fact was glaringly clear: the Miami Shootout didn’t go well. A Bureau investigation into the fight completed just over one month later lays out each step of that day, with details down to every shot fired. And while it explicitly doesn’t assign blame — “this document contains neither recommendations or conclusions of the FBI” — it does over and over again lay out the agents’ key problem: firepower.

First was the matter of the weapons themselves. The agents were simply outgunned. “With the exception of minor wounds to SA Manauzzi by shotgun pellets, all serious wounds inflicted on FBI personnel were caused by Platt firing a Ruger Mini-14 .223-caliber rifle. It’s known Platt fired a minimum of 40 rounds from his weapon,” the report states.

Mireles, who has recently published his own book, Five Minutes that Changed the Bureau, detailing the day, agrees. “We were all armed with everything we were legally authorized to carry on that day … A bad guy can carry whatever the heck he wants,” Mireles told RECOIL. “If everyone on the team had had semi-auto pistols or rifles, that gunfight would’ve lasted 15 seconds.”

Most of the agents weren’t wearing body armor, but even if they had been, “tests reveal the vests issued to Agent personnel would not stop the .223-caliber rounds that were fired by Michael Lee Platt,” the report states. Unless agents were part of a SWAT unit, they simply weren’t authorized to carry semiautomatic weapons, Mireles said.

Agents on the scene had 12-gauge shotguns, Smith & Wesson Model 459 9mm pistols, and Smith & Wesson Military and Police .357 Magnum revolvers shooting .38 Special +P. The revolvers were limited to six rounds, while the pistols had 14-round magazines. One agent, McNeill, was using a five-shot Smith & Wesson Model 36.

Other agents elsewhere on the stakeout had more firepower, but they didn’t get there in time, with one agent missing the initial radio call because he had stopped to pee. It was the need to reload that proved particularly fatal, analysts note. McNeill was unable to reload his five-shot revolver early in the fight thanks to blood and bone fragments in the cylinder, and was instead forced to retreat to cover. Hanlon was hit in the arm while trying to reload, before getting hit a second time and temporarily paralyzed. And Dove and Grogan were executed, reports say, while distracted by Dove’s weapon.

RECP-181100-MIAMI84-09.jpg

Agents Jerry Dove and Ben Grogan were shot and killed by Platt during the shootout. (FBI)

Agents Jerry Dove and Ben Grogan were shot and killed by Platt during the shootout. (FBI)

“If I could change something I’d change that, Mireles said. “If I could change anything at all, I’d implement the issuing of assault rifles to agents the year before.”

And then there were the bullets themselves. Had the good guys been using a heavier caliber or more effective cartridges, the fight would’ve ended very early, experts agree. Platt was shot in the chest before any FBI agent was seriously injured — a better bullet would’ve likely killed him immediately.

“In retrospect, sure, we’d have liked to have the 9mm rounds we have today,” Dave Winters, a Miami-Dade Police sergeant assigned to the crime scene told RECOIL. “That 158-grain hollow point is a good round if it hits the person … but it had minimal penetration.”

Two dead agents and a very public law enforcement safety failure was more than enough inspiration for the FBI to take a hard look at exactly what their agents carry on the street.

Within four years — a blink of the eye by bureaucracy standards — the FBI was fielding the Smith & Wesson 1076 in a move from 9mm to 10mm rounds, and sparking many local police forces to do the same.

That particular pistol model, what one expert called “that sh*tty Smith & Wesson,” didn’t last long before the FBI moved on, but it was the start of an ongoing change. It wasn’t until 2015, almost 20 years later, that ballistic technology had advanced enough to warrant the FBI’s return to the 9mm.

“The FBI was strictly buying ammo based on cost, but after that they started the Ballistic Research Facility, which has changed everything … affecting law enforcement ballistic forces across the nation,” said William Petty, a vehicle tactics expert with Certrifuge Training LLC who has studied the Miami Shootout as part of his work. “This one shooting affected every subsequent law enforcement shooting.”

Left: William Matix and Michael Platt killed two FBI agents before they were also shot and killed during one of the FBI’s most notorious shootouts. (Driver’s license photos)

Left: William Matix and Michael Platt killed two FBI agents before they were also shot and killed during one of the FBI’s most notorious shootouts. (Driver’s license photos)

About a year after the shootout, the agents and Winters headed to Quantico, Virginia, to reenact the fight and conduct interviews for an FBI training video “Firefight.” Not long after, the FBI’s interim director told a TV news reporter that the agents’ experience had made the Bureau think long and hard about its arming choices.

“You don’t have to have aggressive firepower brought to bear in every situation, but we want to have it available and readily available for a situation such as the Miami incident,” John Otto, acting director of the FBI at the time, said in a 1987 news documentary on the shootout.

Even as the new weapon fielding process unfolded, the FBI also changed its rules to allow agents to up their personally owned firepower, with “every agent who had the funding to buy an assault rifle and then qualify with it,” Mireles said. By 1989, the Bureau had also purchased enough shotguns and submachine guns to arm one in two agents, he said.

The firearms lessons from the shootout have been studied and restudied and, even today, are still referenced when discussing law enforcement’s use of force. But of at least equal importance is how the shootout changed the FBI training scene.

Agent Dove’s pistol, covered in blood and photographed at the scene, was shot through the center of the slide, locking the slide to the rear. (FBI)

Agent Dove’s pistol, covered in blood and photographed at the scene, was shot through the center of the slide, locking the slide to the rear. (FBI)

Cars and Cover
Perhaps no one is more familiar with that impact than Petty. He knows he can thank it for his current position as a contract instructor in vehicle-based tactics for both the FBI and other local police departments. The Miami Shootout, he says, schooled the law enforcement community on how little they understood about shooting in and around vehicles.

“There was no vehicle material taught by the FBI, and no vehicle material taught by anyone. It just wasn’t in the thought,” he said. “Before that, nothing had ever happened; it’s just a bunch of guys saying ‘let’s go kick crime in the face today.’ … They were not ever taught how to ram cars. So you have guys who are trying to figure something out on the fly. They are improvising.”

If weapons are the hardware of law enforcement, tactics are the software, Petty says — and you’ve got to have both. There’s a reason, he says, 83 percent of all officers who are killed in the line of duty during self-initiated activities are killed in or around cars: tactics matter.

“The hardware only gets you so far. Would better weapons have helped? No one is ever going to dispute that. We have better weapons today, but we’re still having a crisis in law enforcement of officers losing gunfights around cars,” he said.

That’s why Petty focuses on training. By studying natural human reaction during vehicle-involved shootings, for example, he helps students understand how to use cars for both cover and concealment.

The FBI’s firepower, in blue, would’ve been much greater had the entire collection of agents on area stakeouts that day arrived at the shootout. Instead, Matix and Platt’s weapons, in orange, went against agents’ five revolvers, three pistols, and two shotguns. (FBI)

The FBI’s firepower, in blue, would’ve been much greater had the entire collection of agents on area stakeouts that day arrived at the shootout. Instead, Matix and Platt’s weapons, in orange, went against agents’ five revolvers, three pistols, and two shotguns. (FBI)

For the most, part officers today are also far better off around vehicles than the ’80s-era agents, he said, thanks to improvements in overall car safety. “One of the common misnomers is because older cars are heavy and made out of metal they perform ballistically,” he said. “But the higher the crash safety rating, the better the vehicle is going to perform.”

Yet the most important rule for gun fighting around a car is incredibly simple: don’t. To Petty, the biggest takeaway from the Miami Shootout is that the incident didn’t have to happen at all. If the officers had decided to tail Platt and Matix instead of sicking three Buicks on them, for example, a gunfight may have been avoided.

“Is the car cover? F*ck yeah, it’s cover. It’s what you have until you can work to something better.” he said. “Honestly, it never had to happen. We’ve learned after 34 years of cop-ing that there’s a reason that a lot of departments have a very strict or no pursue policy, because the juice isn’t worth the squeeze.”

If nothing else, more than 30 years of dissecting the Miami Shootout has shown an endless appetite for what-ifs over that day.  But analysis and examination aside, in the end Mireles believes it ultimately came down to one key component that no improved training or weapons could’ve changed: luck. “There’s a saying in the Bible, Ecclesiastes 9:11,” he said. “The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to man of skill, blah blah blah, time and chance happen to them all.”


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