MIAMI (CBSMiami) – A man believed to have been one of three people who got into a shoot out with police in front of a burning home in southwest Miami-Dade Tuesday night was found hanging from a tree.
Wednesday afternoon, police confirmed that the body of 50-year old Dell Peter DiGiovanni hung himself on a tree in front of a home at SW 147 Avenue and SW 48 Terrace.
The gunfight between Miami-Dade police and DiGiovanni, 28-year old Michael DiGiovanni and 29 year old Brian Howell began around 7 p.m. when detectives went to a home in the 15400 block of SW 57th Street as part of a narcotics investigation.
“As they approached the door the subjects inside the house opened fire on the detectives,” said Miami-Dade police spokesman Det. Alvaro Zabaleta. “They immediately returned fire and three of the subjects were able to flee on foot.”
Alberto Oria, who lives in the area, thought he heard knocking and opened his front door:
“I see the flashing lights of the cops and then ‘rat-tat-tat-tat’. So I was ‘okay’. We closed the door and go to the back of the room and more shots and more shots and more shots,” said Oria.
Oria grabbed his two year old grandson and his wife and they huddled away from windows.
“I wasn’t panicking but it was a situation,” said Oria.
“I was having dinner and I hear shotgun. And I said maybe they are hammering something but it was not. A shotgun,” said Geronimo Pou who lives next door.
Pou said when he opened the door to see what was going on, he saw several police officers crouched behind cars.
“I hear three booms, gasoline bombs or something,” said Pou. “I tried to get out and they said ‘Don’t go out. Keep inside’.”
Pou said when his neighbor’s house began to burn, the situation changed.
“The told us to get of the house because the house was getting to close to the fire,” said Pou. “They put us behind the truck to protect us (from the shooting).”
“It was shooting and it wouldn’t stop, it was on and on and on, for like 30 minutes and it wouldn’t stop,” said Valeria Garcia.
“It sounded like metal. But it was a shooting. And it wouldn’t stop. It went on and on and on for like 30 minutes. It would not stop. All I heard was screaming and there was police and smoke. It was really bad,” said 14-year-old Stephanie Diaz.
As the bullets flew, police used megaphones to tell neighbors to stay inside.
“People were outside watching and they were telling them to come in the house,” Diaz.
During the exchange of gunfire, a fire broke out in the house which quickly spread.
“You could see the flames going up through the roof,” said Oria.
Arriving officers quickly established a perimeter and were able to nab one of the suspected shooters.
“We were able to apprehend Brian Howell, a white male, 29 years of age within the perimeter,” said Zabaleta.
Police were questioning Brian Howell Wednesday.
A neighbor said Howell showed up at her home during the gun fight.
“He wasn’t nervous or stressed out or like ‘you gotta hide me’,” Marla Iwers-Smith said exclusively to CBS 4′s Lauren Pastrana.
Iwers-Smith said she was at her home along Southwest 57th Street and Southwest 154th Court Tuesday when she heard heard the gunfire and a knock on the door.
“I open the door and it’s Brian, like ‘Hey Marla. Can I come in?’”
Iwers-Smith said she has known the suspects for about a year. She said they would sometimes mow her lawn or take out the trash.
She said Howell stayed for a few minutes on Tuesday night, but when she returned from another room, he was gone.
It wasn’t long before cops closed in.
“I go to step out of my bathroom and all of a sudden I have five men with guns on me, and I’m like ‘Oh my God! Don’t shoot! I have a 9-year-old daughter.”
Iwers-Smith said officers led her out of the house, along with her daughter and sister.
They were allowed to return to the property more than 24 hours after the chaos initially ensued to find a burned home next door.
CBS 4 News contacted the owners of the property.
They did not wish to be identified by name, but their son said the men who lived there had been there for more than a decade.
He said they paid their rent each month and he rarely heard any complaints from or about them.
Neighbors alerted the owners to the shooting and subsequent fire.
When he arrived on scene, the owner’s son said cops had them draw a layout of the home and asked for information about the tenants.
He told CBS 4 News he grew up in that home and was devastated to see it destroyed.
“It’s hard to believe that’s basically burned to the ground. That’s where I grew up,” he said. ”It’s really, really sad to see that.”
He said the property was paid off and they did not have insurance.
Due to the intensity of the fire and the unknown location of the two armed men Tuesday night, police decided to wait until daylight to enter the house. A preliminary search uncovered one body. Police have not said if they believe it is one of the DiGiovannis.
Neighbors said the three men lived in the house for at least five years and they had their suspicions.
“People had all sorts of rumors around about a grow house and nobody went anywhere near there because of that,” said Diaz.
After hearing of the shoot out John Rivera, the president of the Miami-Dade Police Benevolent Association, went to the scene to check on the officers.Rivera said he was shocked but grateful that no officers were hurt.
“They were fired upon with high powered rifles. But for the grace of God, we don’t have an officer injured or killed,” he said.
Rivera told CBS4′s Peter D’Oench, “We are also starting to see an increase in ambush attacks on police officers. And that’s alarming. We are also seeing an increase in the use of high powered rifles for illegal activities. And that’s alarming too.”
Coincidentally, the shootout happened just blocks away from the home of Elizabeth Somohano, whose 37-year-old husband Jose, a Miami-Dade Police officer, lost his life to gunfire from a criminal’s AK-47 in 2007. Somohano was killed and three officers were wounded when they were sprayed with bullets while trying to arrest Shawn Labeet after a traffic stop in Cutler Bay.
“It’s like so close to home,” said Somohano in an exclusive interview with D’Oench. “I’m scared because whether I knew the officers or not, they are my family and the first thing that comes to mind is their safety and what their family is going through.”
“As a police officer’s wife,” she said, “you are always aware of the dangers.”
Evelao Morfa, whose family lives behind the home where the shooting happened, said it was a little scary.
“A battery of gunshots started going off, I thought something real bad was happening,” said Morfa. “I told my family to move away from the windows and shut off all the lights.”
Neighbors said the shots sounded like they came from an automatic weapon.
“I heard like 20 shots,” Gabriel Rivera said as he waited at a gas station to be allowed in to his neighborhood.
Others driving nearby heard similar sounds.
“I thought the world was ending for a minute,” Rodrigo Ruiz told CBS 4′s Lauren Pastrana.
Ruiz said when he tried to go home police turned him away without giving much of an explanation.
“It’s scary. It gives you panic and you don’t know what to do,” Ruiz explained.
By late Wednesday morning the active search for the two men was called off and area residents were told it’s safe to go to work and send their kids to school. However Miller Driver remained closed to traffic between SW 152nd Avenue and SW 157th Avenue.
“I feel like they could have handled things way differently,” said one area resident who did not wish to be identified in this report.
He said police prevented him from going to his home Tuesday night after police knocked on his door.
“I was told that they were tipped off that there was a grow house in the neighborhood. They went and knocked on the door and apparently somebody fired shots,” he said.
Some parents thought schools in the area should have canceled classes for the day since there were still two armed men on the loose and Miller Drive was closed,
“These kids are trying to go to school, they need some protection, you know,” said parent Alejandro Alzugaray. “Why are you going to send them to school? Why are you going to put them into the fire? It makes no sense.”
Miami-Dade School District officials said classes were in session since there was no longer an active perimeter in the area at the start of the school day.