SUWANEE, Ga. — A gunman who lured firefighters to his Georgia home with an emergency call, then held four of them hostage for hours before being shot to death faced a series of personal and financial calamities before he lashed out violently at the rescue crew.
Lauren Brown’s life reached a crisis this spring. With his power, cable and other utilities cut off because of nonpayment, the 55-year-old had half a dozen guns in his house and spent weeks planning the kidnapping, targeting firefighters rather than police Wednesday so he wouldn’t be shot, authorities said Thursday.
The specific reasons he chose to lash out aren’t known, but Brown had separated from his wife years earlier, though he still lived across the street from her, her new husband and his two children, according to neighbors and people who knew the family.
Brown had worked as a consultant for IBM in 1999, but described himself as disabled when he filed for bankruptcy protection three years later, according to court documents.
He said he owed more than $100,000 to the Home Depot, banks and credit card companies. The records suggest that Brown was tapping into his retirement savings to make ends meet. A series of tax liens had been placed on his home, which slipped into foreclosure in recent months.
He was arrested and booked into the Gwinnett County jail in 2010 after he failed to appear in court on a charge of striking an unmanned vehicle.
Brown called 911 Wednesday and said he was suffering from chest pains, and five Gwinnett County firefighters arrived at 3:48 p.m., believing it was a routine call, said Police Chief Charles Walters. Brown was lying in bed and appeared to be suffering from a condition that left him unable to move. But when they approached the bed to help him, he pulled out a handgun.
He let one go to move the vehicles from the front of his house but kept the other four.
That began a 3½-hour standoff. At about 7:30, police were convinced that even if they met Brown’s demands, he had no intention of releasing his hostages, Walters said.
Brown had requested items from a fast food seafood restaurant for himself and his hostages, and a SWAT officer carrying the food approached the house in Suwannee, about 35 miles northeast of Atlanta.
Other SWAT members set off a stun blast to distract Brown and stormed the house. Brown opened fire on the first officer as he entered the bedroom. The man was hit in the left arm by one of the shots but managed to return fire, killing Brown. Before Brown fired, police told him to drop his weapon, Walters said.
After the hostage-taking was reported, dozens of police and rescue vehicles surrounded the home and a negotiator was keeping in touch with the gunman, police said. The situation remained tense until the blast rocked the neighborhood of mostly two-story homes and well-kept lawns.
“The explosion you heard was used to distract the suspect, to get into the house and take care of business,” Gwinnett County Police Cpl. Edwin Ritter said in a news conference minutes after the ordeal ended. He said the situation had gotten to the point where authorities believed the lives of the hostages were in “immediate danger.”
“It’s an unfortunate circumstance we did not want to end this way,” Ritter said. “But with the decisions this guy was making, this was his demise.”
Firefighters were able to use their radios to let the dispatch center know what was going on and that’s how negotiators communicated with Brown initially, Walters said. Once they got his cellphone service turned back on, they were able to speak to him by phone.
Fire officials did not believe there was any danger in responding to the initial call that seemed routine and dispatched the usual one engine and one ambulance to the house.
This was the second time in recent months that firefighters have been targeted.
On Dec. 24, a man in upstate New York set his house ablaze and shot and killed two firefighters as they arrived, then himself. Two other firefighters and a police officer were wounded.