Friday, Sept. 3, 1999 | 11:15 a.m.
The staccato blasts of gunfire spoke for themselves. So Martin Fischer didn't wait for official confirmation of bodies inside. He just walked away.
"I'd heard enough," he said. "I knew what it meant. I was in shock. Total shock."
Dozens of Metro Police officers and SWAT team members converged on the Budget Suites of America at 4625 Boulder Highway early Sunday morning. Authorities had learned the night before that fugitives Timothy Blackburn and his wife, Puthea Lim-Blackburn, were hiding out at the hotel with their two daughters.
Fischer said he received a call from Timothy Blackburn, his friend since childhood, sometime after negotiations between the family and police began around 2 a.m. Sunday. Fischer, 25, drove to the hotel at Blackburn's request with a single purpose: Work with authorities to spirit the Blackburn children -- Tiana, 5, and Tiara, 4 -- out of harm's way.
Hours later chaos erupted. At around 6:30 a.m. SWAT team members inside the hotel reacted to a gunshot inadvertently fired by a uniformed officer in the parking lot. As they stormed the family's room, Metro Sheriff Jerry Keller later explained, Blackburn shot his wife and children before turning the gun on himself. Officers Gavin Vesp and Manuel Rivera fired 10 shots, hitting Blackburn five times.
Fischer listened in disbelief -- twice. First to the violent end of his friend's life, then to Keller, who at his televised press conference Monday also described the four-hour siege as a "classically perfect tactical operation."
"The sheriff said it was a 'perfect operation.' When you have two young children dead, that's not perfect. That's the furthest thing from perfect," Fischer said.
His thoughts echoed those of other Blackburn friends and relatives who gathered Thursday at Bunkers Mortuary for the family's visitation service, a precursor to today's funeral and burial. If at first they were seized by a numbing grief at what happened Sunday, a sense of outrage -- and pointed doubts about the version of events offered by authorities -- has started to sear through the pain.
"I don't think Tim would've done that to his family," Tammy Afalla said. The 24-year-old mother of one graduated from Las Vegas High School in 1993 with Lim-Blackburn and regarded her as a sister. Afalla's daughter often played with the Blackburn kids, and the families held backyard barbecues together.
"Tim could not have put a gun to his wife's head and his children's heads and just blown them away. He couldn't have done it. He loved them too much. We're not being told everything" about the stand-off, she said.
Blackburn, 25, a suspect in the armed robbery of $1 million from a Bank of America ATM repository in December, broke out of jail Aug. 11. His brazen escape from the North Las Vegas Detention Center came with the help of Lim-Blackburn, 24, who managed to unfasten the window pane that separated her from Blackburn in the jail's visitation area. The couple exchanged gunfire with warrant officers while fleeing across the jail's parking lot to a pickup, and they eluded authorities until a confidential informant tipped police off to their whereabouts Saturday night.
A coroner's inquest has been scheduled for Oct. 1.
In a rare twist for fugitives, who generally run from the law alone, the Blackburns went on the lam with their children. Thursday's visitation marked the first time in months that those close to the family had seen them together.
The Blackburns each laid in an open casket amid bouquets of flowers, with Tiana and Tiara nestled between their parents. The muffled sobs and occasional quiet laughter of mourners blended with contemporary gospel music drifting through the chapel. Near the entrance stood a wastebasket half-full of crumpled tissues.
Outside the chapel Seila Lim, Puthea's sister and the wife of Blackburn's brother, Terry, hugged a friend who cried softly into her shoulder. But for Lim -- who along with Terry Blackburn was indicted Wednesday on charges of helping Timothy Blackburn escape -- anger prevails when discussing her brother-in-law's death.
"The cops were so hot -- they wanted him so bad -- that they marched in knowing children were in there. They knew what could happen, and that makes me sick," Lim said. "They (authorities) put those children at risk."
Lim also rejects Keller's depiction of Timothy Blackburn, whom she remembers as a loving husband and father, as the murderer of his wife and children. "How would he have enough time to do that? It was not even 10 seconds from when they (police) came in to when it happened. None of it adds up," she said.
Both Lim and Fischer said police refused to let friends or family talk with the Blackburns during the stand-off -- conversations, they insisted, that could have saved lives. "But (the police) claimed that if we talked to them, they would just say goodbye and kill themselves," Lim said.
Fischer and Timothy Blackburn became pals in middle school, and the two were "like brothers" as adults, playing basketball every weekend and water-skiing together. Fischer remains adamant that Blackburn did not kill his family, characterizing his friend as a "Mr. Mom" who adored all kids.
Yet even as he acknowledged that Blackburn's flight from authorities put his family in jeopardy, Fischer wondered why police -- since they regarded Blackburn as a potential threat to his own children -- chose to confront him rather than furtively stake out the hotel until he emerged by himself.
"I'm not defending the actions of Tim or Puthea. My concern that day was for the children, first and foremost. Adults make bad decisions all the time," Fischer said. "But if there was so much concern about the suspect Tim Blackburn being considered armed and dangerous, why couldn't they wait for him to come out? That could have saved two children."
Theories aside, friends and relatives take the smallest solace in their belief that the Blackburns, always a tight family, are together in death. Karla Rodriguez, 20, a busperson at the Las Vegas casino where Lim-Blackburn held a job as a waitress, recalls her co-worker as someone for whom motherhood was the highest calling.
"She loved her family. They were together all the time," Rodriguez said. "It's impossible to believe what's happened."