From the archives: This feature, which was printed in the Miami Herald on October 26, 1997, was written by Herald staff writer Meg Laughlin. Laughlin passed away Wednesday.
On a warm, sunny Thursday morning two years ago, a yellow school bus carrying 14 children from 5 to 8 years old rambled through the city while a man held the passengers and driver hostage. Local and national TV news reported what police told them. The man had a bomb strapped to his body and a detonator in his hand. He had a gun. He'd threatened to kill the children. He wanted to go to the IRS office, where he had a beef.
It appeared that Miami was on the brink of its own version of Oklahoma City: a gutted federal building, a school bus blown to bits. And the unthinkable -- the charred, dismembered bodies of small children being carried from the smoking wreckage. With this vision, authorities had only one thought. The man must be stopped.
The bus meandered for 90 minutes, from Southwest Miami north on the Palmetto Expressway, south to the Dolphin Expressway, and east to Miami Beach. It was followed by a cortege of cop cars as a city held its breath.
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The bizarre caravan dead-ended in Miami Beach when the man on the bus was shot four times by police and dragged off the bus. He died in an alley, after police searched him and the bus for weapons, detonators and bombs -- and found nothing.
The initial reaction was great relief that the children and driver were safe. But as time went on, questions arose. Along with many letters praising police, The Herald and the state attorney received dozens of others asking if it had been really necessary to kill the hijacker.
One of the children on the bus had been blinded in one eye from flying glass and metal because of police gunfire. Others seemed to have deep psychological damage from the shooting. Some of the parents blamed the man for what happened; others suspected that police behaved recklessly. And, long after Catalino "Nick" Sang was buried, controversy over what happened continued.
An inquest into the killing of Sang was held on May 21, 1996 -- about six months after the hijacking. After listening to eight hours of testimony from witnesses, Judge Steven Leifman ruled that the homicide was justified -- that police had reason to think, based on Sang's actions, that they or innocent victims were in imminent danger of bodily harm.
But recently, when a Tropic reporter questioned the judge about his decision, he expressed some discomfort: "There is no real investigative arm at an inquest -- no cross-examination, no questioning adversarial position. I relied only on what was presented. And I can't be sure that there wasn't information out there that would have given me a fuller picture."
What follows is an attempt, on the second anniversary of the tragic events, to provide a more complete account based on police reports and audio tapes, sworn statements, recent interviews and the inquest testimony.
A Lost Soul
Nov. 2, 1995, was about a month after Metro-Dade police had practiced killing a terrorist on a school bus. The stand-in schoolchildren were helium balloons, the terrorist a silhouette from target practice. It was the day after a somber Clinton dedicated an Arlington memorial to the 270 people killed by a terrorist's bomb on a Pan Am jet over Lockerbie, Scotland. It was the day after the ABC evening news featured security experts talking about how to stop terrorist bombings. It was the day after a man in the Gaza strapped a bomb to his body, got on a bus and blew it up, killing himself. It was about six months after a bomb in Oklahoma City killed 168 people and left a nation reeling in grief and fear. And, it was the day that promised to be Miami's turn.
"There's no doubt in my mind," says Judge Leifman, "that police actions that day were influenced by an atmosphere of fear created by Oklahoma City and other terrorist acts."
As skies lightened and the sun rose over the angular, sun-bleached spires of the Alpha and Omega Church in Southwest Miami, a small, nervous man dressed in a tuxedo got out of his white Isuzu in the church parking lot and walked away, leaving the motor running. He walked to a nearby house and knocked. Is this the church? he asked the man who answered. Alarmed that anyone could be so confused, the man pointed toward the church and slammed the door.
Now the nervous man entered the church, fell on his knees and prayed silently. Then he stood up and began pacing, shouting, "God, where are you? Jehovah, don't desert me!" He raised his fist toward the ceiling and shook it. "Get Satan off my back," he yelled.
He was Nick Sang, a 42-year-old waiter and former restaurant owner with family and friends who loved and respected him. But, on this morning, he was lost and totally alone.
Minister Elio Escofet, who recognized Sang, was alarmed by his behavior. According to police reports, he approached Sang and led him outside. But Sang continued ranting. His burdens were too great, he said. He had quit his job as a waiter at Joe's Stone Crab the night before and had not slept all night. He had no income and the IRS was after him. What would happen to his family? Where could he turn?
God would help him work through his problems, the minister told him. Sang wandered around the church parking lot, then paced up and down on the edge of Miller Road. A secretary at the church, watching him out the window, described him later as "lost and disoriented." Sang approached a man sitting in his car at the curb and told him he needed a ride to the IRS office on Flagler. Afraid, the man drove away.
'I Was Scared'
Driver Alicia Chapman braked her Blue Lakes Elementary school bus to a stop on Miller Road. Waiting at the curb were Nubia Castellanos and her 5-year-old son Danny. After strapping the autistic child into his seat, Castellanos went back to the curb to get Danny's book bag and the small tank of medicated spray he needed for his asthma.
As Chapman opened the door to let Castellanos back on the bus, a man dressed in a black tuxedo marched up the steps behind her. Chapman took one look at him and knew he was trouble. She tried to close the door, but Sang pushed it open.
"I thought he had escaped from prison," says Chapman. "I thought he was some kind of crazy murderer who was going to kill us all."
She clenched the wheel and told him to get off. "No," he said. "I have to go with you."
"No," Chapman, told him. "You'll have to find another way. This is a school bus. I'm taking these children to school."
But Sang appeared not to hear her: "I have to go to IRS," he insisted.
Castellanos sat down beside her son, in front of bus aide Dorothy Williams, who prayed aloud: "Please God, don't let anyone get hurt."
Hands trembling, Alicia Chapman circled the blocks around the church. After a few miles, she stopped the bus and asked Sang for directions. The IRS office was at Flagler and 82nd, he said. He had to negotiate payments because of a problem, he muttered. Chapman, heart pounding, headed toward the Palmetto Expressway. Castellanos, the mother forced back on the bus, says Sang went to the back of the bus and put something under a seat. She couldn't see what it was and thought it might be some kind of weapon, maybe even a bomb.
"I thought he could do anything, I was so panicked," she says.
At school bus headquarters in Southwest Dade County, radio dispatcher Christine Robinson was surprised to hear a woman's scratchy, plaintive voice coming over the radio: "Please, I need help," said the voice. "This is not a joke."
Robinson then heard a woman say, "Please don't hurt the children," and a man say, "Just shut up and do what I tell you."
Robinson looked at her watch and noted that it was 8:33 in the morning. "Say 'check' if this is an emergency," Robinson told the woman. "Check," said Chapman. Nick Sang told Chapman to tell the dispatcher to call the IRS so he could negotiate. He called out the 800 number for the IRS, his full name, his Social Security number and his address, which bus dispatcher Robinson wrote down and relayed to police.
Chapman kept repeating: "Don't hurt the children."
That angered Sang. "Shut up," he yelled. "I have children of my own. I will not hurt these children."
Then he reached down and pulled the radio out of the socket, ending Chapman's ability to talk to the bus dispatcher.
Brian Morales, then 7, was sitting at the front of the bus. "The man jerked the radio out," Brian later told a Tropic reporter. "He said shut up to the bus driver, and it made me cry."
Brian said he was so afraid, he couldn't stop crying: "The man told me not to worry because no one would get hurt. But I was scared."
The bus dispatcher said in a sworn statement the next day that Sang had anger in his voice. She was asked if Sang said anything else that was threatening. "No," she said under oath. "All I heard him saying was 'Shut up. Just listen to what I'm telling you.' "
The Dark Object
Undercover cop Micky Valenzuela was working in the Dadeland Mall when startling news came over his radio: A Dade County school bus had been hijacked and was traveling north on the Palmetto Expressway about a mile from where he was. Valenzuela and partner Robert Berris tore off in their unmarked green Toyota Camry and overtook the bus just south of Sunset Drive. Valenzuela could see inside the bus well enough to get a good look at Sang.
"I'm a video game freak," he says, "and I play this game, Lethal Enforcer, where I shoot Chinese terrorists in black jackets, white shirts and glasses. I couldn't believe it when I saw this guy. He had on a black jacket, white shirt and glasses, and looked Chinese. I thought: 'This is the real thing right out of my video game."'
Chapman saw the Camry approaching from the rear of the bus with its headlights flashing and thought it was probably cops coming to rescue them. As he pulled even with the bus, Valenzuela saw that Sang had something in his hand -- "something compact and dark" -- and reported this over the radio. "He's holding something in his hand," says the voice on the police audio tape.
Valenzuela says now he couldn't be sure what Sang was holding, but in the heat of the moment, Valenzuela tuned into another frequency and said something more specific to undercover officers who were speeding to the location: "This guy has a weapon -- apparently has a weapon," he announced.
"I would feel terrible," says Valenzuela, "if I thought Sang got killed because of what I said. I was the first car behind the bus, and I was there when he got shot. After it was over, I saw things a lot differently. But during the chase we saw the man on the bus as a criminal terrorist who would kill the children."
Sang told Nubia Castellanos to get off the bus and ask the police for a phone. Castellanos moved up to the door and stood beside Chapman. The two women both say they spoke briefly about whether or not Sang had a weapon or a bomb. "We decided he probably didn't," says Chapman. "The thing under the seat looked like a folder."
Chapman stopped the bus near Sunset Drive. Castellanos jumped off and yelled to Valenzuela: "He wants a cell phone. Please, get him a cell phone!" Valenzuela yelled for Castellanos to get in his car, but she refused, running back to the bus. Her son was on the bus. She wasn't about to leave him.
Minutes before, Sang had rifled through the purse of bus aide Dorothy Williams, mumbling that he had to have a cell phone. When he didn't find one, he threw the purse down. "When he did that, I was really afraid of him," says Williams. "But other times, he seemed afraid and weak, like a hurt animal. He seemed to go up and down."
Williams says Sang said something that she thought was threatening -- "something about being dangerous." Chapman also remembers Sang's using the word dangerous : "He was talking about IRS. He said IRS better leave his family alone, that he loved his family and he could get dangerous if they tried to hurt his family."
Chapman says she asked Sang why, if he loved his family so much, he was making her and the kids take him to the IRS. She asked him if he realized that the parents of the kids would be worried sick about them. "He didn't answer," says Chapman. "He was in his own world."
A Book in Hand
A month before the bus hijacking, Sang received a letter from the IRS that said: "If we don't receive your full payment by 10-25-95, we may levy (seize) your property . . . such as real estate and personal property (for example, automobiles and business assets) . . . wages, bank accounts, commissions and other income." (This same form letter is now being investigated by a Senate panel as one of the ways the IRS intimidated middle- and low-income taxpayers.)
Sang couldn't understand how he could be working two jobs, not spending beyond his means, and still getting so deeply in debt. He had been notified that a 1985 tax debt for $11,000, which he thought the IRS had agreed was incorrect, had grown to $22,000 with interest and penalties, and amounts owed for subsequent years had increased the total owed to over $45,000. Then, the letter came: It said that the IRS was garnishing his wages for the week of 10-25-95, and planned to take his house, business, savings and car.
The week of Oct. 25, Sang told his boss at Joe's Stone Crab, Steve Sawitz, that he was drowning in tax debts. Sawitz told Sang to call a tax attorney that the restaurant used, that the attorney would be able to negotiate with the IRS.
"But," says Sawitz, "in retrospect, I think it was too late. The tax thing had triggered a depression in Nicky that he couldn't overcome on his own."
As the bus crept north on the expressway and police squad cars began to gather around it, Sang looked out the window and told Chapman: "Good, the police are here. They'll protect us so we can get to IRS."
Then he told bus aide Dorothy Williams to get off the bus and ask police if they had a cell phone he could use to call the IRS and begin negotiating. Williams got off near the Miller Road exit. But unlike Castellanos, police did not let her return, despite her protests that she needed to go back with a phone so "he doesn't get mad and hurt someone."
"He could hurt someone?" Officer Scott McEachen asked Williams, according to police reports. "Is he armed?"
"I haven't seen anything," said Williams. "But he keeps his hand inside his jacket, and there could be something in there." Williams also told police Sang had said something about being dangerous -- though she couldn't remember exactly what.
Right after Williams talked to police, the police radio dispatcher relayed this message: "The bus is going northbound from Miller. Subject is armed."
A few minutes later, a Metro-Dade cop communicated to police dispatch: "He says he'll hurt someone. No, I mean he says he doesn't want to hurt someone but if the bus driver . . ." Here, the message is cut off on the police audio tape. The next communication is the police dispatcher saying: "The suspect says he will hurt someone. If the driver doesn't do what he says, he will hurt someone."
Sang told Chapman he would open all the windows. It was hot on the bus, he said, and with so many police cars blocking the road, it would be a slow trip. He reached his hand out of a window and motioned for the growing armada of cops to go around the bus. "Two cars protecting us will be enough," he said.
Police psychologist Scott Allen later told a Tropic reporter: "Sang's reality was something entirely different from what police were perceiving."
Sang talked to Castellanos in Spanish as the bus crawled along. He told her he had no intentions of harming anyone. And he told her that if she wanted to get off with her son and Brian Morales, the 7-year-old who kept crying, she could.
Brian remembers that before he, Castellanos and her son, Danny, got off the bus near Bird Road, Sang took his hand, kissed it and said softly, "Don't worry. Everything will be OK."
But Castellanos wasn't reassured. She was still thinking it was possible that Sang had slid a bomb under the seat in the back of the bus. And it seemed to her that Sang had said something indicating he might blow up the bus, though she couldn't remember exactly what that was.
"If you'd been there, you'd understand," she says. "We were so paralyzed with fear it was hard to get things exactly right."
Chapman says she never heard Sang say anything about explosives or blowing the bus up: "I heard about the bomb and the gun from police," says Chapman. "Not from Sang."
Castellanos hurried off the bus with the two kids. The three of them got in the back seat of a police car. She and Brian were crying, and the police did not ask her if Sang was armed or had a bomb, Castellanos says. They drove to Tropical Park, where Brian's 21-year-old sister met them. It was after they got word that the hijacker was dead, says Castellanos, that police asked her if he had said anything threatening.
Policeman Raul Gonzalez, who drove Castellanos and the two boys to Tropical Park, is quoted in a police report as saying that Castellanos told him she thought Sang had explosives. But the report does not say when she told him this, and Gonzalez did not return calls from Tropic.
An audio tape of police talking on the police radio just as Castellanos and the two children arrived at Tropical Park offers this: "We have hostages and children. They are advising that the man could be armed or could have some kind of detonating device strapped to him. They don't know. We're not sure right now."
Shortly after, a police dispatcher says over the radio: "He has a detonating device strapped to his waist."
After Castellanos and the kids got off the bus, Sang ordered Chapman to resume driving. Chapman hit a police car partially blocking the road and did minor damage to it. "Sang told me to drive and I couldn't get around it," she says.
The bus moved slowly northward toward Flagler, surrounded by squad cars, unmarked cars, undercover cars. The IRS office on Northwest 12th Street and 82nd Avenue had been evacuated. (Sang had apparently been confused when he thought the office was on Flagler.) According to the police audio tapes, security officers at the building were saying a terrorist on a school bus full of children was going to blow up the bus and their building. Employees passed on the information that a bomb was already in the building, though a search of the building turned up nothing.
Says one IRS employee who asked not to be named: "We were all so afraid. We couldn't believe Oklahoma City was about to be repeated."
As the bus moved toward the Flagler exit, according to police reports, police yelled to Sang that they had a cell phone. The bus stopped again. A man in gray pants and a blue shirt -- Metro-Dade Officer Ned Valois -- walked toward the bus with a phone in his outstretched hand. But before he got to the bus, a beige LTD U-turned in front of the bus. A policeman jumped out of the LTD with a gun. He pointed the gun at Sang and yelled through an amplifier: "It's all over for you." Sang, who had come to the door of the bus, backed away, and the bus started up again.
Florida Highway Patrol Trooper John Koch says he and other police witnessed the cop with the gun and amplifier, but don't know who he was. Bus driver Alicia Chapman says she doesn't recall a policeman pulling a gun. "By this time," she says, "I was blocking out everything outside the bus."
But police audio tapes include a brief allusion to the incident: "Where'd that beige LTD come from?" yells a cop. "Who is that guy, anyway?"
And in a sworn statement, undercover policeman Robert Berris said that just as Valois approached the bus, "something spooked the subject and he told the driver to keep going." (Berris did not return calls to Tropic.)
Now Sang told Chapman he'd changed plans: "Forget IRS. Too many police cars blocking the way. I'm going to Joe's Stone Crab to ask for my job back."
The children sat quietly on the bus. Chapman says she didn't sense that they were terrified. But she was. At times, says Chapman, Sang seemed lucid. But at other times he seemed to be hallucinating. "The unpredictability made me very nervous," she says.
Shortly after the bus started east on 836 toward Miami Beach, Trooper Koch drove beside the moving bus, which was traveling at less than 10 miles per hour. Chapman opened the door and Koch threw in a phone.
"I was really scared," says Koch. "Some cop had just pointed a gun at the guy on the bus and told him this was it, and I thought if the guy on the bus has a bomb, he'll probably do us all in right now."
Metro-Dade Policeman Rudy Espinosa then pulled alongside and shouted the number of his cellular phone to Sang, whom he could see writing it on the back of a bus seat. A short time later, police relayed the following information over the police radio: "The thing in suspect's hand is not a detonator; it's a Bible."
In 1979, Nick Sang, then 26, came to Miami from the Dominican Republic, where he'd been born to parents who had immigrated from China in the 1940s. In the early '80s, he worked as a waiter at Christy's, an up-market beef restaurant in Coral Gables. In 1986, he started at Joe's, where waiters pull in about $40,000 in the seven months that the restaurant is open.
Sang had been one of Joe's most popular waiters for over eight years. The restaurant managers had never had a problem with him until the week before he commandeered the bus, when he began mumbling about being followed by IRS agents. Customers complained that their waiter kept disappearing, and he would be found standing in a corner, staring off into space.
"This behavior was so out of character for Nick," says Joe's retired owner, Jo Ann Bass. "He had always been so thoughtful and conscientious."
When Joe's was closed from May to October, Sang worked in a Coral Gables Chinese restaurant, which he partially owned with his brother José. During Joe's bustling winter season, Sang frequently brought food from the Chinese restaurant to fellow employees at Joe's.
"Nicky was so generous," says maitre d' Dennis Sutton. "He would feed the staff at Joe's and never take a cent for it. We all loved him."
Sang rented a two-story house in Sable Chase, a community in West Kendall, where he lived with his wife and two teenage daughters. A look around the house said something about his interests: loads of photos of his family; shelves of Mozart, Bach and Chopin CDs; stacks of magazines, including Smithsonian and National Geographic; a chess set in midgame; tennis racquets propped by the door; thick encyclopedias of science and engineering; Oxford dictionaries and poetry books.
"My father was such a large part of our life," Nick Sang's younger daughter, Jamelle, recently wrote in a high-school essay. "I never could have imagined living without him."
Sang, his wife and daughters played tennis together, went to church together, read books together and, every Sunday, had a long lunch together at a restaurant after church. It was during such a lunch at La Carreta on Mother's Day in 1993 that Sang introduced a man, sitting at a nearby table, to his wife and daughters as "my IRS agent." At the time, the two men laughed over the coincidence and Nick sent a bottle of wine to the agent's table. But a few weeks later, when the agent came to the house while Sang was at work and questioned Purita, his wife, about their spending habits, Nick began to think that the agent was following them.
"My brother's feelings of persecution about IRS had a real basis," says his brother, José. "But because he had some kind of untreated illness, they got out of hand."
Four months before he hit bottom, Nick Sang flew to Scottsdale, Ariz., to his beloved nephew's funeral. The 19-year-old son of his older brother, Al, had been killed in an automobile accident. At Al's house the night before the funeral, Nick lost it. "We were all so distraught and grief-stricken," says Al, "but Nick was so upset, he went over the edge."
Nick, who had gone days without sleep, began hallucinating -- punching the air, jumping around and screaming, "Satan, get off my back! Satan is in this room!"
Al Sang thought his brother was having a serious breakdown and took him to a nearby hospital. Doctors said he seemed delusional from severe anxiety. They gave him a sedative shot and a prescription for Xanax, an anti-depressant. Nick slept through the night at his brother's house and woke up his usual calm self. Al made his brother promise he'd take the pills.
"I would've done more," says Al. "But I was in such a state over my son's death, I couldn't think straight."
When Nick returned to Miami, he refused to take the anti-depressants, saying that the pills made him nauseated.
Violence on TV
As the bus headed on the nine-mile journey east to Miami Beach, a Channel 7 helicopter filming the procession joined the caravan of police from Kendall, Doral, South Miami, the city of Miami, the Florida Highway Patrol, the Special Response Team (a heavily armed team brought in for hostage situations), Metro-Dade and the school board. FBI, IRS and Secret Service agents waited near Joe's in Miami Beach.
By this time, most of the parents of the kids had gathered at Blue Lakes Elementary School in Southwest Miami and were watching TV together. Local stations had preempted programs to cover the bus' progress. CNN was broadcasting minute-by-minute updates. Reporters were saying that a terrorist with a bomb strapped to his body had seized the bus. The parents were paralyzed with fear that their children would be killed at any moment. People all over the country watched the procession on TV, and motorists sat in snarled traffic, as the bus moved slowly toward Miami Beach on the sealed-off expressway.
Yolanda Creamer's daughter was on the bus. "From the time that man got on the bus until now, our lives have been hell," says Creamer two years later. "You cannot measure the toll this took on our lives."
Creamer says her daughter still cries when she sees police, still has nightmares about police shooting people and blood spurting everywhere. "But I don't blame police," Creamer says. "I blame him."
When the bus was about six miles from Joe's, SRT negotiator Lew Phillips announced over the police radio that he had made contact with Sang on the cell phone. Records show that at 9:23 Sang was engaged in a 17-minute phone conversation. About five minutes after he got Sang on the phone and about 15 minutes before Sang was shot, Phillips reported: "He [Sang] wants to negotiate. We need to call IRS on that. He's going to Joe's Stone Crab. He says he doesn't wish to hurt anyone."
But Phillips said something different in a sworn statement taken three hours after Sang was killed. Phillips said Sang told him: "If you don't take me seriously and get me to the IRS, I'm going to kill someone."
At the inquest, six months later, Phillips testified that Sang threatened to "hurt" someone. He also said Sang refused to negotiate.
"I'd love to talk about it," said Phillips when told there were apparent contradictions, "but I can't because of a lawsuit in the works."
After Phillips lost contact with Sang, according to phone records, Sang tried six times to call the number police Officer Rudy Espinosa had given him on the expressway, but Espinosa, setting up a security perimeter in South Beach, had left the phone in his car.
Then, a second SRT negotiator, Bill Garrison, got a call through to Sang. From the moment Sang spoke, Garrison says he knew Sang was not a terrorist or a criminal, but an extremely distraught person in a "double bind" with "no way out."
"From what he said," Garrison told Tropic, "I had a lot of hope for a win-win situation, where no one would get killed. [Sang] said he didn't want anyone to get hurt, that he wanted to go to Joe's and ask for his job back."
The bus rolled down Fifth Avenue in Miami Beach at between five and 10 miles per hour, turned south on Ocean Drive and then west on Biscayne Street, beside Joe's Stone Crab. Lew Phillips had tried to get Sang back on the phone, but had gotten a busy signal because Sang was talking with Garrison. Now Phillips was trying to get Sang's attention over a PA system in front of Joe's.
Crouched in the grass not far away, SRT sniper Joe Derringer peered through the sights of his semi-automatic AR-15 assault rifle.
Says Metro-Dade police spokesman Pat Brickman: "SRT [sniper] only has one job -- to neutralize the individual." When asked to define "neutralize," Brickman said, "To kill him."
Through his sighting scope, Derringer saw Sang stand up by one of the children, Marlon Robles, and talking to Garrison on the phone as the bus rolled slowly forward. Just as Sang came into clear focus in the scope, Derringer said in a sworn statement, his hands disappeared from view.
"I felt in imminent danger and I thought the children were in imminent danger," Derringer said in the statement, explaining why he shot without an order. "I thought he was reaching down to pull a detonator."
Derringer pulled the trigger
The bullet slammed through the metal at the base of the bus window and fragmented next to where Sang sat. Glass and metal hit the face of Marlon Robles, the 6-year-old harnessed in his seat next to Sang. (As a result, Marlon was blinded in one eye and his parents recently filed suit against police for recklessness.)
A large fragment tore into the upper right side of Sang's shoulder and came out his pectoral muscle. Sang went down on his knees, as Chapman turned the corner in front of Joe's and stopped. Lario Gonzalez, 5, managed to wriggle out of his seat belt and ran to the front of the bus. "Go, Lario," screamed Alicia Chapman, pointing toward the open door.
The child ran out. The others, still harnessed into their seats, were dazed and confused. Chapman motioned frantically to police to come aboard. The injured Sang told Chapman: "We have to leave! Drive!"
She moved the bus forward about 10 feet and stopped, as SRT officers moved toward the bus. "Kill him!" she screamed.
"I was hysterical at that point," she says. "Later, I realized I really didn't want Sang dead."
Sang, bleeding profusely, moved toward the door of the bus on his knees, stopping at the seat of Yorleny Ordiz, Yolanda Creamer's daughter. He spoke softly to Yorleny, says Chapman, but to this day, Yorleny has not repeated what he told her. "It will all come out eventually," says her mother.
Some SRT cops rushed the bus door, while others smashed the windows with rifle butts in an attempt to distract Sang from the cops at the door. SRT cop José Fernandez, the first to creep on the bus, fired his revolver. Fernandez said in a sworn statement that he fired twice, but ballistic reports said that of the four bullets that hit Sang, three came from Fernandez's semi-automatic pistol. In police reports and a sworn statement, Fernandez gave this reason for shooting Sang: "He stuck it [his left hand] in [his clothing] and I couldn't see it. . . . I thought he was going to blow us up."
Both Derringer and Fernandez declined to be interviewed for this story. Neither testified at the inquest. "They are not required to possibly incriminate themselves," says their attorney, Mike Cornely.
The second bullet hit Sang in the right elbow. The third bullet hit him in the upper right back, traveling downward through his body and severing his spine, paralyzing him from the waist down. The fourth bullet hit him in the upper right arm. Police dragged Sang off the bus in a supine position just as his oldest daughter, Michelle, then 18, turned on the television at home.
Her father had not slept the night before. He had come home from Joe's Stone Crab and said he had quit his job. He wouldn't eat dinner. He wouldn't talk to anyone. He sat at the kitchen table with his head slumped over. He lay on his bed in his waiter's tuxedo. A few waiters from Joe's called him and told him not to quit, to come back to work. His sister-in-law came to the house and gave him a pep talk. His wife was up much of the night with him telling him that everything would work out. He lay awake fully dressed staring at the ceiling, tears rolling down his face until 6 a.m., when he asked his wife and daughters if they would go to church with him. They told him they were too tired. "We didn't know how needy Papi was," says Michelle.
Three hours later, a friend called Michelle and said only, "Turn on the TV." Michelle saw a man lying on the street by a school bus covered in blood. When the cameras moved in closer, she saw that the man was her father. "It's Papi!" she screamed. "No, Papi! No!" Her mother ran down the stairs, looked at the TV and ran out the front door in shock.
As police reached down to search Sang, he moved his hand toward his face. A policeman hit him in the face with his rifle butt, as his daughter watched. Members of the bomb squad searched his clothing and body for a detonator, bomb or gun. They grabbed something that police reports described as "the wire-like thickening resembling a detonating device." But it was only Sang's suspenders.
They searched his tux jacket, shirt, pants and underwear, but found nothing -- no gun, no detonator, no bomb. Then a cop yelled that the bomb was still on the bus, and all but one of the police officers -- John Koch -- scattered to get out of the range of a possible explosion, leaving Alicia Chapman and Trooper Koch to get the 11 children unharnessed and off the bus.
Within a minute, the suspected "bombs" were removed from the bus by the bomb squad, and the rest of the police returned to help evacuate the kids.
The objects removed by the bomb squad were the book bag and the small tank with the asthma medication that Nubia Castellanos had brought on the bus for her son. Metro-Dade police public information Officer Ralph Fernandez announced on Channel 7 that "the hijacker had a canister-shaped device he wanted us to believe was a bomb."
"In the melee," Fernandez says now, "you don't always get accurate information."
Sang had no canister -- only two leather datebooks (one of which was mistaken by police for a gun, a detonator and a Bible) and a folder of papers from the IRS, which he put under the seat in the back of the bus. In his pockets were some credit cards, $121 in cash and a bow tie for work .
SRT cops dragged Sang, still alive and moving his head slightly, about 50 feet to an alley on the north side of Joe's. They did this "to get him away from a possible bomb on the bus," says Assistant State Attorney Sally Weintraub.
When police dropped him, two of them did high-fives over his prone body -- something that TV cameras caught. Then, two policemen stood over him with guns pointed at his head. SRT officers sent the three units of paramedics on the scene to check the children, and called in a fourth unit to come from Lincoln Road to administer to Sang. When that unit got to Sang 20 minutes later, he was dead.
Dade County Assistant Medical Examiner Bruce Hyma reviewed the case and wrote that Sang died of "multiple gunshot wounds." Asked to be more specific, Hyma says: "He died due to blood loss. It was too late for him when fire rescue got to him."
Says Hyma: "Even if he'd been shot in a hospital parking lot and rushed to a trauma surgeon, it would have been tough. Without surgery, with blood collecting in the chest cavity, he probably wouldn't have lasted much more than four, five, six minutes."
Where the Truth Lies
Undercover cop Micky Valenzuela, the first policeman behind the bus, remembers how relieved he and the rest of the police felt when the children were safe and Sang was dead. But then something odd happened, says Valenzuela. He went inside Joe's Stone Crab to check on the children and accidentally walked into a room full of staff.
"They were all crying," he says. "They were all saying Nick was such a good person who would never hurt anyone."
Valenzuela says he listened to them talk about the hijacker's IRS problems and how stressed he had been. He listened to them talk about how much they'd miss him. And, he says, he realized the perceptions of police had been wrong.
"That was no terrorist," he says. "That was a regular guy who snapped under stress. It could happen to anyone."
When Valenzuela talks about Sang's death, he gets tearful. "From what I know about Sang," he says, "he was not the type of guy who deserved to get wiped off the Earth like a character in a video game."
A few months ago, Steven Leifman went through the notes he took as judge at the inquest into the shooting. According to the law, says Leifman, a reasonable person has to believe that he or she or someone else is in imminent danger of being killed for a homicide to be justified. He is convinced police believed they, the children and the bus driver were in imminent danger of being killed.
For Leifman, the "crux of the justification" for the homicide lay in the hostage negotiations. "According to the inquest testimony given by Phillips," says Leifman, "Sang refused to negotiate. He told Phillips he would hurt someone if he didn't get to the IRS. As far as I'm concerned, he sealed his fate with this."
But Leifman never heard the police audio tape of Phillips talking to police dispatch after speaking with Sang on the phone: "He wants to negotiate . . . Get IRS on the phone on that. He wants to go to Joe's Stone Crab. He says he doesn't wish to hurt anyone."
Nor did Leifman see the cellular phone records that show Sang dialing police six times after the disruption in the call with Phillips.
Prosecutor Sally Weintraub, who asked the questions at the inquest, says she didn't ask Phillips about what he said on the tape, or why it contradicted his inquest testimony, because "that part happened earlier. It didn't have any bearing on the moment of the shooting that we were focusing on."
Leifman said he was further persuaded the shooting was justified by hostage negotiator Bill Garrison's inquest testimony that Sang "picked up a child in a shielding action." To Leifman, this meant Sang was putting the child's life at risk.
Garrison says now that he didn't mean to say Sang lifted a child; he never saw that. He only saw Sang move a child past him.
"He didn't have to lift a child," Garrison says. "Being on the bus with the children was a shielding action in itself."
"It's easy to look back at everything that happened that day and question it," says prosecutor Weintraub. "But Mr. Sang got on that bus and created an extremely difficult situation. He put himself in harm's way."
Leifman says that once police believed Sang might have a bomb or a gun -- even if it was from police passing on their own "embellishments" -- they were right to err on the side of over-reacting: "To understand the justification," says Leifman, "you have to ask yourself what unthinkable tragedy would have occurred if they hadn't over-reacted, and there had been a bomb."
But, after reviewing audio tapes and other information gathered for this story, which were not presented at the inquest, he says: "What I've heard is very disturbing. I hope the testimony in court was accurate and honest but [now] I have serious reason to doubt it. I thought I was very clear on what happened that day, but now I don't know where the truth lies."