Tacoma’s leaders had a public relations uproar on their hands.
Mayor Doug Sutherland suggested limiting civil rights in certain areas of the city. His would-be successors, mayoral candidates Karen Vialle and Tim Strege, jousted over who could be tougher on crime.
Police demanded more bodies – 100 additional officers, right away, a budget-buster.
Gov. Booth Gardner said he wasn’t ready to call the National Guard, but he would certainly consider it if police were overwhelmed.
Chief Fjetland took the local heat. At a hastily arranged public meeting, neighbors ripped him for transferring officers out of the Hilltop.
Media pundits chewed on the shootout. TV reporters turned Ash Street into a stock backdrop. Newspapers fretted.
Tacoma, always Seattle’s scruffy sibling, had a new bruise.
“The shootout ... was on the fringe of anarchy. And it represents just the beginning of what will happen in Tacoma and other communities if police don’t get substantially better at dealing with drug dealers.
“...These are sorry and frightening times when citizens feel they have to do law enforcement’s job because they no longer trust the police to do it.”
– The (Spokane) Spokesman-Review, Sept. 25, 1989 (editorial)
Community groups and the Safe Streets organization met with neighbors and batted opinions back and forth. Luckett went to those meetings and felt growing anger as the discussion shifted to a race debate.
“They tried to make it a black-white thing – it was never that – it was always residents against alleged drug dealers,” she remembered. “You cannot make that shootout on Ash Street a racist thing because it was not a racist thing. I don’t care. If you want to fight alongside to clean up this place, you’re my brother.”
Police pulled overtime shifts, keeping constant vigil on Ash Street, walking up and down the block, talking to combatants from both sides. At one point, police brokered a truce between the two sides – an agreement that seemed to wink at drug-dealing, as long as there was no violence.
Luckett wanted no part of it.
“Why were we gonna sit down and negotiate with some dope-dealin’, gun-slinging, drug-using fools?” she said. “That didn’t make no sense to me. They didn’t have no right to be doing what they were doing up there.”
THE ARMY REACTION
Bill Foulk had a new problem. His commanding officers didn’t like the publicity surrounding their sergeant. His home on Ash Street was declared off-limits to other Rangers. There was talk of transferring him to another base.
“I was an embarrassment to the Army, because I did what I thought was right,” he remembered.
A meeting at the Fort Lewis public affairs office shortly after the shooting underscored the situation. Foulk remembers a tough colonel going straight at him.
“Sergeant Foulk, I want you to know you can forget about being promoted,” the colonel said.
“Why is that, sir?”
“Because you’ve become too well-known for the wrong reasons.”
After weeks of nonstop tension, Foulk had to get away from the house, just to feel normal for a while.
He picked a barbecue joint on Mildred Street. Not so far from Ash, but it felt like another country. He sat down and ordered a beer.
He heard someone at another table hailing the bartender.
“Say, this guy’s money’s no good here,” the voice said.
Foulk turned and saw a table full of off-duty cops: Tacoma police officers and Pierce County sheriff’s deputies – about a dozen of them. For the rest of the night, beer was free.
Frankie Stricklen, the only man charged in connection with the shootout, was convicted of second-degree assault. He was later sentenced to 22 months in prison.
The years that followed led to more convictions for drug-related offenses. Stricklen is currently in the Pierce County Jail, awaiting trial on a drug possession charge. He declined requests for an interview.
The only record of his views comes from a 1990 broadcast of “48 Hours” on CBS. A reporter interviewed Stricklen in the jail. He denied involvement in the shootout.
Did you start the shooting?
No. I didn’t.
So let me make sure I understand this, Frankie. You and your friends are hanging around, minding your own business, not doing anything illegal at all...
... not selling any drugs, not buying any drugs, not using any drugs, not shooting anybody...
. ...or at anybody. And these guys come along, these Army Rangers, and shoot up the neighborhood.
Forgive me. It just doesn’t sound like it makes any sense.
– Excerpt from “48 Hours” broadcast, Feb. 22, 1990.
Bob David retired from the police department in 1997; a decade of chasing bad guys wore him down, and the death of a colleague soured him on police work.
The shootout was bad, an embarrassment for the department, but it was good, too. Old habits began to die.
“With (Foulk) doing what he did, bringing all this up to make a it a huge political football, that’s when things started to change,” he said.
Fjetland’s plans for community-oriented policing took hold, jump-started by the controversy. By degrees, the Hilltop crime management team was reassembled. The department assigned community liaison officers to specific areas, breaking the city into sectors, and refining data-gathering.
“I look at the Ash Street shooting as kind of the pinnacle of all that stuff, because it became national and it really got our attention. It was huge, it was a big deal,” said Sheehan, the veteran assistant chief. “(Fjetland) started training the department and making the necessary changes to get a better handle on what was going on.”
Shirley Luckett moved out of Ash Street years back. After the shootout, she learned that people in her own household had been buying drugs from the dealers on the block. It was a disappointment.
She lives near Foss High School now. She still watches the street, and calls police sometimes to warn them about suspicious activity – not as much as the old days.
Ash Street is a better place now, more peaceful. Whatever people thought about the shootout, something good came from it.
“A lot of people misunderstood what it was really about,” she said. “If neighbors get together instead of peeking out from behind their blinds, you can make a difference. You can really make a difference.”
Renae Harttlet is a single mother with seven children. One is a miracle – born premature, given no chance to survive, in surgery before he weighed a pound.
“I’m just blessed,” she said. “I never thought I was blessed before. I’ve been through so much in my life, and I never thought any good things would happen for me, but they have.”
She doesn’t claim innocence. She hates to relive the shootout, or think about it. It was crazy, a mess. She doesn’t fault the Rangers. Upstanding citizens, she says. Good people, though she didn’t understand it then.
Her older children know the shooting as a story their mother doesn’t like to tell. They ask her questions sometimes, and she sums it up short.
“I’ve been in trouble even after that happened. But I also changed up,” she said. “I have these kids that look at me. If my kids get taken or I get in trouble, who’s gonna take care of them? These kids are my life. I have to do right. I would never allow that to ever happen again. I’d never live like that.”
ROOTS RUN DEEP
Bill Foulk could have moved. He never did.
As the tough colonel predicted, he was never promoted. He left the Army in 1993.
His house at 2319 South Ash is bigger than it was, after 20 years of puttering. He repaired the bullet holes long ago.
Twice the square footage now, he guesses: add-ons in back, covered porch in front, new picket fence. On the side, a deck and small swimming pool, and green grass, and flowers and tomatoes.
“I like it here,” he says. “I like this neighborhood.”
He’s had the front windows redone. About halfway up the front siding, between the window and the wall, a pockmark lingers – the last bullet hole.
It’s a ladder job. He means to patch it, but he keeps forgetting.
Staff writer Brian Everstine contributed to this report.