Probably the worst aspect of working in the television news industry is that the longer I work in the business, the more desensitized I become to human suffering.
For the past 20 years or so, I have covered stories of human anguish and pain, sadness and grief, desolation and despair. However, as callous as my skin has gotten, because of the disconnection of experiencing feelings of hardship through the separation of a camera lens, there are some stories that deeply touch my heart, as a father, husband, and member of society.
Experiencing the death of a loved one is difficult under any circumstance. I can only imagine what losing someone close, in what appears to be under senseless and sudden circumstances, where the person goes to work one minute and the next minute is no longer alive. For the family of someone that dies in a fatal car crash, the victim of a crime, a freak accident, or in the case of two Miami-Dade police officers, shot to death doing something that they had been doing for over twenty years, it has to be surreal and indescribably difficult.
Questions will naturally arise. Why? Why would God allow this to happen?
Debbie Castillo is herself a police officer and knows the risk the job entails. Maybe, she even considered that this moment could someday come. Now, when her actual worst nightmare became a reality, what does she tell her 14, 11 and 9 year old sons, who are left to grow up without their father?
Just like any other day, Roger left for work that morning but, unlike other days, as the news broke shortly before midday, Debbie knew, he would never be coming home again.
Castillo, 41, a twenty one year veteran of the police force, went to serve an arrest warrant, along with partners, Amanda Haworth, Oscar Plasencia and Deidra Beecher. It was part of their job. They served in a fugitive task force that would hunt down violent suspects.
Thursday morning, they knocked on the door of career criminal Johnny Simms' mother. Simms was wanted in connection with the murder of a man in October and police had been tracking him down for several months. The 22-year-old man had been in and out of jail and living a life of crime since he was 14-years-old. By the time he was an adult, he had been arrested eleven times and the cycle continued until police confronted him that morning.
When the officers knocked on the door, Simms is said to have told his mother to open the door, as Haworth walked into the Liberty City duplex, Simms jumped out of one of the bedrooms and started firing, shooting Haworth in the head before the officer had a chance to react. He continued outside, where he shot Castillo before Plasencia shot him and he collapsed on the pavement.
In a matter of split seconds, three bodies were sprawled on the ground. Two lives would end right there; Castillo and Simms. Another would end in the operating room a couple of hours later; Haworth. Moreover, an entire police force and community would be left in disbelief and shock by the senselessness.
A visibly emotional and outright distraught Miami-Dade Police Director, James Loftus, said when he took over the force about a year ago, this was his worst nightmare. He said he was hoping he could bide his time as head of the force until his retirement without having to the face the death of one on his officers.
"I'm supposed to stand up here and say, we are all children of God and things happen. That God was here today and sees good and evil. That guy was evil. He murdered two of my people today."
Loftus, who himself experienced the death of his father due to cancer when he was just 14-years-old, understands the agony and effect this will have on his officers' children. Because of the bloody rampage, four boys will have to grow up without a parent. There was also the difficulty of addressing Haworth's father.
Haworth, who was 44, was a twenty-three year veteran. She was a single mother of a 13-year-old son, who was her life. She dreamt of seeing him grow up to be a Major League baseball player and never missed one of his games. Neighbors say she would often be seen playing catch with him in her front yard.
One of Haworth's closest friends, Sgt. Rosie Diaz released a statement to the press which stated, "When the days are long, the nights are dark, I will find comfort in knowing that she will be forevermore a shining star up above. I will always love her."
Then there is Simms, possibly a product of his environment; not to excuse his inexcusable actions because many people grow up in similarly perilous conditions and choose a different path. Simms grew up in a world where violence, death, and suffering are part of the human condition, where numbing oneself with drugs, alcohol, or the power of being the inflictor instead of victim, may appear as the only option of escape from reality.
What kind of despair and emptiness must there be in a heart to be willing to take a human life?
I'm taking liberties in writing this because I don't believe that someone with love, which is God, in their heart can ever commit such atrocities. Then again, I won't pretend to be the ultimate judge as to the fate of Simms' eternal soul.
Simms' mother, Lorraine was by her son's side as he took his last breath, something that Haworth and Castillo's parents or his wife never got a chance to do.
"I am sorry for the officers that were killed. I lost my son too. He was not an evil man."
Despite the grief, it will be hard for the officers' family, friends, and community in general to accept Lorraine Simms' assessment of her son's nature. It may be even more difficult to forgive. God did not will this to happen, Johnny Simms did.
In an ironic twist to the story, four years to the day of the fatal shootout, Roger Castillo had arrested Johnny Simms for a probation violation.
Simms may not have been an evil man but he chose a life of evil and because of it, four boys will grow up without their parent, a wife will have to bury her husband, parents will mourn the death of a child, which is not suppose to be, and an entire community will have to overcome the horror of knowing that if police officers aren’t safe, then who is?
When the dust had settled following the afternoon of live coverage of the deadly incident, one of my co-workers, obviously shaken by the story herself, said to several of us in our newsroom, “This is why we need to tell the people we love that we love them everyday and every time we leave them, because we never know if we will ever see them again.”