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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Friday, Sept. 19, 2014

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In Movies & TV Commentary

Bob Vermiglio, a former photojournalist at WISN-TV Ch. 12, captured a shootout 19 years ago in Waukesha.

19 years later, shooting still a vivid scene


For videographers, the world is seen with one eye closed and the other focused on a one-inch black and white screen.

Nineteen years ago this week, Bob Vermiglio remembers his life nearly flashed before him in the viewfinder.

"What I see is that rifle coming out the window, and thinking 'It's all over now,'" Vermiglio said, recalling an incident in Waukesha County to which he was dispatched with a reporter and a car filled with gear.

You can see the raw footage (warning for language) on YouTube here.

The former photographer with WISN-TV Ch. 12 talked with me about the time his footage was viewed across the globe, after a work shift on April 29, 1994, that started like just about any other assignment did.

James H. Oswald and his son, Theodore W. Oswald, were on the run, trying to get away from law enforcement officers after allegedly robbing a bank. On an overcast spring day, Vermiglio was in the 12 newsroom a few minutes before his shift started … part of his routine to have some coffee and page through the newspaper.

Vermiglio said that there were reports on the police scanner, and they were looking to send out a crew, and, "I told them I had my gear, that I was ready to go."

Reporter Renee Riddle was in the passenger seat with a paper map, navigating the intersections called out on the scanner as Vermiglio drove the car down I-94 to Waukesha. After hearing a location, they got off the freeway and headed to where the chatter was coming from.

"We drove in thinking we would get as far in as we could and see what was going on," Vermiglio recalled, telling me that he didn't expect to be caught in the crossfire. They went to a road in a park near Pewaukee and saw a squad car blocking off the road. "We pulled off the side of the road and I got out to shoot what I could before we were asked to move. I overheard that this was going to be their command center."

Usually law enforcement will set up a command center, and mark off a place far enough away from the scene where media can gather and get updates from media liaison personnel and ranking officers. But in this case, the situation was so fluid, and in mere seconds, the sound of a roaring engine could be heard.

"I was on the side of the car and I heard the van, and started to see it on the screen," Vermiglio said. Before he knew it, a hostage was hopping out of the van, it collided into a car and shots were fired.

"I was worried about doing a double punch (accidentally hitting the record button again to stop capturing footage). I knew I had to keep recording this."

Vermiglio saw the van move toward him, and saw a military-grade rifle barrel come out of the passenger door window. That is when you see the camera point at the ground as he moved to the other side of the car.

"I thought that this was it. That they saw a guy next to a car with what looks like a bazooka pointing at them. I thought that they were going to kill me."

The van whizzes by, and careens into a tree. The impact moved the engine block and traps the Oswald father and son in the van. Vermiglio said that there was an officer in the road ahead of them, firing at the windshield and caused the younger Oswald behind the wheel to duck, and while doing so, pulls the wheel to the right. That sends the van, traveling between 30 to 40 mph right into the tree.

The officers that went by in pursuit asked if he and Riddle, who was in the car, were OK, and after confirmation, pretty much left them alone. Riddle had to walk the tape of the footage out of the scene and get transported to the satellite truck.

Vermigilo, at the scene for hours, ended up being interviewed live by car phone on the air. And afterward by Bill O'Reilly on his syndicated "Inside Edition."

In a day and age before video clips were viewed on the internet and on people's phones, it is impressive when a clip could be seen around the world.

"I heard later from people who were in Japan, and on CNN International they heard Waukesha and looked up to see what it was," he added.

The footage won a regional Emmy, and other broadcast awards, and was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for Vermigilo. Nearly two decades later, the footage is used in law enforcement classes as an example of what can happen out in the field. To approach the suspects, law enforcement brought in a snow plow and strategically moved SWAT members into place. The Oswalds were pinned in, but had to be approached slowly, packing military-grade weapons, armor-piercing rounds and already killed an officer before being stopped.

"I always tell them (law enforcement officers) that they are never fully appreciated for the situations we expect them to put themselves in," Vermigilo said.

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