A suicidal Vietnam veteran facing deportation straddled himself over a ledge on a South Florida highway ramp with a rope around his neck in an hours-long standoff before surrendering to authorities Monday morning.
As police negotiators tried to keep 59-year-old Fredy Gutierrez from jumping, the vet told officers he wanted to speak with NBC 6 reporter Willard Shepard, an Air Force officer who had been in combat over Iraq.
"As I was driving to the police command center this morning, I was able to communicate with Mr. Gutierrez through the police negotiator who had him on the phone," Shepard said. "It was very clear Gutierrez had reached a point where he couldn’t take it anymore and later said to me he prepared to die today."
Shepard said that he spoke to Gutierrez in military terms as he was on the phone with him, trying to make him see that taking his own life or harming other wouldn't improve his situation and would only make matters worse for his family.
"I spoke to him in military terms, telling him that the Air Force jets were on the way to provide the Army close air support – a reference to war scenarios where the Army ground troops can no longer fend off an enemy attack," Shepard said.
He told Gutierrez not to take action until he arrived at the scene.
"I had some sense of relief when Gutierrez acknowledged my message to him and the police negotiator indicated Gutierrez understood," Shepard said.
There were two things on Gutierrez's mind that drove him to publicly threaten suicide. First, Gutierrez said he has felt a lack of support from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
The second is his immigration status. Documents show the U.S. government awarded Gutierrez for his valor in Vietnam at the age of 18 in 1972. The Colombian native, who has been in the U.S. since he was 4 years old, applied for citizenship a year later, but he has yet to receive it.
While Gutierrez was still on the highway ledge, Shepard asked Hollywood immigration lawyer Angel Arias to speak with Gutierrez about his legal troubles. Arias said police negotiators had him on speakerphone with Gutierrez for about five minutes during the ordeal. He tried to quell his fears of deportation as police officers addressed his issues with the VA.
"Pretty much when I was talking to him, I kept it with the legal aspect of it and tried not to get involved with any other area," Arias said. "He told me his case is on appeal, that he lost his case in February of this year at an immigration court in Miami."
Then Gutierrez revealed he had spent nearly $50,000 in legal fees trying to fight his case. That's when Arias offered to represent him pro bono.
"At first he was hesitant about it," Arias said. "I represent someone I took to the Supreme Court that I didn't charge a dime. We won that case. When I told him that he started to relax a little bit."
A Navy and National Army Guard veteran himself, Arias said the experience was not completely nervewracking for him.
"I guess because most of my clients come to me with the same type of issues ... they're just not on a ledge," Arias said. "It was kind of different. Being a veteran myself it was a different Veterans Day."
After Gutierrez surrendered to police, nearly three hours after the standoff began, he was taken to the police station where Shepard offered advice on the VA.
Gutierrez also revealed what he was thinking in the moments before he got onto that highway ledge.
"In the hour I spent with him after that surrender, he told me that he had been up all night, didn’t say anything to his wife about his plans and picked the location for the standoff with police, while out on one of his air conditioning jobs," Shepard said.
In the end, Gutierrez will not face charges and is headed for a mental evaluation. Arias will review his documents Tuesday to see what legal help he can offer.
"By the end of the ordeal he said he felt much better that he wasn’t being arrested for a crime," Shepard said.