Eleven years ago today, I was a young rookie police officer with barely eleven months on the job. I was heading in to start my 3:30pm shift just like any other day.
As I went through the intersection a block from work, I saw three police cars go flying by with lights and sirens blaring. I didn't really think much of it because this was a very active high crime district. Not an unusual sight.
I pulled onto the street next to the office but couldn't get through. There were police cars just left haphazardly parked everywhere. I left my car by the side of the road and ran towards the building. No idea what was going on.
I was stopped by a sergeant telling me to take up a position for crowd control. He thought I was already on duty because I always came to work in full uniform instead of dressing at the office. I told him I was just trying to get to work to start my shift. I asked him what the hell was going on. A pained look came across his face. Like he had something to say but didn't know how to say it.
He told me that two members of my squad had been ambushed in the district parking lot and shot. I just stood there. I felt the hair on the back of my neck stand up and the blood drain from my head. I can only imagine the look on my face since he immediately started asking me if I was okay. I felt like I was going to pass out. I was in shock. I didn't understand. How could this happen? We all knew that this was a risk of the job. But they weren't out patrolling the streets. They were walking in to work. Just like me....
The shooter had mental health issues. His family owned a local convenience store. This day was the day when he finally flipped out. No one knows why. He shot and killed a truck driver as he was delivering potato chips to their store. He stole the delivery truck and drove straight to our police station. He sat out in the parking lot and waited to murder a police officer.
Jake and Rob were walking together through the lot on the way to the door. They were even greener than I was... only graduated from the police academy 3 months before.
The gunman approached them just as they were about to enter the building and said "Hello Officers." They turned to return the greeting and he shot Jake. The bullet hit him in the hand but he was completely stunned, knocked off balance and fell to the ground.
The shooter immediately pointed the gun at Rob and shot him in the face. Rob went down. The shooter turned the gun back to Jake as he lay on the ground and executed him with a shot to the head. The whole thing took only about 2 seconds. Jake didn't even have a chance to react.
By now other officers coming to work ran across the lot. Others came out from the office. The shooter ran to the truck. A large gun battle ensued until finally he was killed. Fortunately, no other officers were injured.
It was a day that changed our department forever. Rob survived his injuries. But we lost Jake.
He was a third generation police officer. His grandfather retired from our department. His father was the sergeant over the homicide squad at the time. He responded to the "Officer Down" call that day as did everyone else on duty.
He had no idea it was his own son. But realized it once he arrived on scene and was physically held back by his fellow officers. No one wanted him to forever have that image of his dying son burned into his memory. He retired shortly after we buried Jake, his only son.
The funeral was one of the hardest things I've ever had to get through. There were 373 police cars in the processional. It stretched for miles. Every major city in Ohio was represented. Officers came from Michigan, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Indiana and beyond.
The weather was cold and dreary. There was a light misty rain all day. I guess that was fitting. I wept as we rode to the church in our police cars.
There were hundreds of people lining the route, standing out in that cold drizzle to pay their respects. Young and old. Black and white. Children and parents. Some crying. Some holding little American flags. Some with their hands over their hearts. Some standing at attention with a salute. Some held signs with words of support and condolences. It was one of the most touching things I've ever seen.
The church couldn't hold the more than one thousand officers, firefighters, emergency workers and civilians who attended the service. They set up loud speakers out in the parking lot for the overflow crowd. We, the squad that worked with him, took calls with him, and drank beers after our shift with him, had seats right up front. So did the members of his police academy class.
A fire department ambulance brought Rob to the service. He had not yet been released from the hospital but insisted on being there for his friend and classmate. He was in uniform, pushed in a wheelchair up to the front with his jaw wired shut, still recovering from the damage of the bullet.
I'm not sure how I held it together. I didn't think my legs would take me as I walked past his casket to say good-bye. All I could do was cry when I hugged his father.
After we left the church, we proceeded to the cemetery. There were two fire trucks at the entrance with their ladders up. In the center, where the two ladders crossed, hung an American flag just like in this photo.We, as his squadmates, wore special dress white uniform shirts. We lined the path as his casket was carried down between us. I felt like I was going to collapse as I stood there at attention holding my salute.
Directly across from me was Jake's training officer, trying to be stoic, but with tears streaming down his face. We just stared at each other. Both crying. But so focused. We stared.... until it was time to drop our arm from the brim of our hat. It was as if we were afraid that we might just fall over if we broke eye contact. I'll never forget that moment.A riderless horse was escorted past the gravesite as the bagpipers played. A lone trumpet played Taps. Then a 21 gun salute. Some words were spoken. The flag was folded and presented to his family. And then it was over.
I was numb for a few days after. But I returned to work. Because that was my job. We all continued to walk through that parking lot and deal with the memories of that day.
We entered our office through that door right next to where Jake's body had fallen. There were flowers there for a long while. Just placed on the ground right beside the door. We saw them but tried not to think about it. Some of the calls we'd take were awkward as the citizens would offer condolences after we took their accident report or quelled their family trouble.
I wore Jake's crew number memorial pin on my uniform shirt every day after that for the next 8 years until I went into a plainclothes assignment. 334A.... that was him. I wore it to honor him and everything he lost that day.
I wonder how things might be now if he were still here. Would we have been great friends? Would he be married with kids by now? How different would things be today? So many questions. What if I had been just a few minutes earlier coming to work that day? What if it had been me? Even after all these years, I still ask myself .... what if?
Every May 23rd I allow the memories of that horrible day to resurface. I let myself be sad. And I cry. I try not to think of it the rest of the time. But I'll never forget Jake. I'll never forget that day. So many details of it and the funeral that followed are forever a part of me.
Even with so many conflicted feelings of "why?"..... I still thank God that He left us with Rob. And I'm grateful I was running a little late on my way to work May 23, 1996. Those few extra minutes may have saved my life.