20 years ago, a Sand Island standoff riveted Hawaii TV viewers

20 years ago, a Sand Island standoff riveted Hawaii TV viewers
Sheryl Sunia (Courtesy Image)
Sheryl Sunia (Courtesy Image)

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - The standoff lasted for more than six hours. And it was all broadcast live on TV.

On Feb. 6, 1996, John Miranda burst into former employer Seal Masters of Hawaii with a sawed-off shotgun, shot the company's vice president in the leg and took a former colleague hostage.

Miranda, 28, then taped the gun to hostage Tom McNeil's neck to ensure he couldn't get away.

Images of a leering Miranda standing in front of the Sand Island Access Road business, holding the gun to McNeil's neck, were broadcast into homes and businesses across the state in real time.

Twenty years later, Sheryl Sunia can't drive by the scene of the standoff without thinking about that day. "You never forget," she said.

She was one of six police hostage negotiators dispatched to the scene to try to get Miranda to let McNeil go, turn himself in.

"It didn't look good," she recalls.

Miranda seemed ready to die – and to take people with him. He called a radio station at one point and said, "Believe me, there's people going to die."

The police standoff, among the longest in the state's history, started just before 7 a.m. Miranda said the shooting was the result of him being fired some eight months earlier. He alleged he had been fired because of his race.

The man Miranda shot in the leg, Guy George, was able to make it out of a window to safety. And Miranda let three other employees go free.

But he held on to McNeil, as police negotiators frantically sought to reason with him, even playing him a recording from his sister.

All the while, Miranda remained largely in view of TV cameras, walking back and forth in front of the Seal Masters building, marching up and down a flight of stairs, with his shotgun trained on McNeil.

Sunia, who's now chairwoman of the Criminal Justice Program at Hawaii Pacific University's College of Extended and Interdisciplinary Education, says she shows Miranda standoff news footage to her students, many of whom plan on careers in law enforcement or law.

And one part of the video she plays over and over: The moments before the standoff ended.

After close inspection, and with a little prodding, her students notice McNeil doing something that would save his life: He's moving his head and neck ever so slightly. They realize: He's testing the duct tape holding the shotgun to his neck.

The hostage crisis would end a few moments later, when Miranda started a 60-second countdown. Miranda hit the count of 15, McNeil spun away and sharpshooters shot the gunman.

McNeil walked away with a few scrapes. Miranda was killed.

"Tom McNeil, God, that was a miracle," Sunia said.

And she says one of Hawaii's worst acts of workplace violence did have significant ramifications for policing in the state.

Some of the more immediate changes: Communications during standoffs were streamlined so a better picture of the subject could be formed at the scene. And law enforcement and workplaces sought to work together to formulate risk assessments of disgruntled employees who might pose a threat.

"We learned from the situation," she said.

But, of course, the efforts didn't prevent the worst mass murder in Hawaii's history: The 1999 Xerox murders.

On Nov. 2, 1999, Xerox technician Byran Uyesugi gunned down seven of his coworkers, then fled to Makiki. During a five-hour standoff, he read magazines and smoked cigarettes. The standoff forced nearby schools to go into lockdown; a group of schoolchildren at Hawaii Nature Center was trapped without food or water until the standoff ended.

Sunia was the lead negotiator in that case, and it's one that still haunts her.

Like with the Miranda case, she's spent many hours replaying the events of the day in her head. "I did my job," she said, adding it was hard not to take comments from the public about how police handled the Uyesugi standoff personally. "Everybody's an expert."

In 2000, Uyesugi was convicted of first-degree murder. He's serving a 235-year sentence, and is not eligible for parole.

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