Patrolling the Motor City isn't for slackers. Officers seeking an easy ride would be well advised to gravitate elsewhere. And if handling calls in a marked patrol car is busy, then prowling Motown's mean streets in an undercover slick car can be downright wild. What with the Devils' Night fires and the city's perennial candidacy for being murder capital of the country, working Detroit while wearing a badge could give new meaning to the term "insane."
But such insanity can be invigorating and when combined with a likeable partner who shows initiative, a Detroit cop is apt to find himself having as much fun as is to be found making arrests.
Such was the agreeable situation that Officer Roy Gilbert and Officer John McKee of the Detroit Police Department found themselves in during the early morning hours of December 30, 2006.
Gilbert was the senior officer in the car, having worked the dedicated unit for a few months before bringing McKee on board. The two men's work with and around each other had been enough to establish a degree of mutual respect and trust for one another's work ethic and instincts, feelings that had only strengthened during their time together in the car. But then, months spent targeting felony crimes in progress, keeping tabs on the 3-1-0's hot spots and problem children, and making heavy-duty collars can do that to a team.
This night had been typical, with the arrest of another suspect for carrying a concealed weapon. Dropping off their prisoner at the station, the crime-fighting duo went back in service.
It would prove to be a fateful return to the field.
With Gilbert a half-hour away from starting a well-deserved vacation, the two men were decidedly on the downshift slide.
That was when the call that an "armed carjacking just occurred" went out. Taken was a 2006 Dodge Charger.
While the suspects' taste in cars wasn't indictable, their means of procuring one was, and the two officers set out in search of the men. Traveling northbound on a street paralleling the one where the crime had occurred, McKee observed a newer model Charger in the parking lot of a restaurant at the corner of Wyoming and McNichols. Inside were two black males who fit the description given of the carjacking suspects.
As the officers sat for a red light at the intersection, they did the math: A mere 10 minutes and three miles separated the men and car from the scene of the crime. Factoring in matching suspect descriptions, it added up to something smelling decidedly wrong.
They waited for the Charger to pull out of the parking lot. As it did, they were able to see that the last three letters on the license plate matched those of the car that was reported stolen.
McKee pulled up behind the Charger. Running the plate might be a mere formality, but it was a necessary one. Dispatch confirmed that the Charger had been taken in the carjacking.
If the Charger caught the officers' eyes, the Crown Vic in the rearview mirror had done as much for the suspects who were every bit as fixated on the officers as the officers were on them. Before Gilbert could activate the inside lights of the slick car, the suspect driver hit the gas.
The Charger veered sharply into an alley. McKee accelerated the Crown Vic to keep up with it as Gilbert activated their lights and siren.
Over the next four minutes, the officers followed the Charger as it sped through residential streets, making unpredictable turns in an attempt to lose its pursuers. Arriving at a clearing, the Charger's doors flew open and the two suspects bailed out, allowing the car to roll on.
Gilbert keyed his mic to advise responding units that the suspects were now on foot. As one ran by his passenger door, Gilbert noticed the man's dark lavender jacket matched that ascribed to the armed member of the two suspects.
Knowing the bigger fish when he saw one, Gilbert dropped the radio and began to chase the man on foot through an alley.
At 28 years old and apparently in the prime of his ex-con life, Oneal Anthony Ellington had a good lead on the Detroit officer. But he was not so far ahead that Gilbert couldn't see Ellington reach into his waistband with his right hand and retrieve a firearm.
Just then, McKee sped past Gilbert in the slick car, hot on the heels of Ellington. In a bid to alert his partner, Gilbert yelled out to him.
"Gun! Gun! He's got a gun!"
But three o'clock on a cold Detroit winter's morning isn't the best time to find a patrol officer driving around with his window down, and McKee was no exception. Gilbert's heart sank as he realized that his partner hadn't heard him.
McKee closed in on the suspect, and Gilbert lost sight of the two as they turned into a fenced-in church parking lot. Moments later, Gilbert arrived at the scene. From across the parking lot, he saw the parolee hanging on a fence trying to scale it. Ellington dropped from the fence and started running back toward him on the passenger side of the stopped Crown Vic.
Opening his driver's side door and exiting the car, McKee ran around its rear on an intersecting path with that of Ellington. Tackling the man, McKee shouted, "Give me your hand! Give me your hand!"
Gilbert ran forward to assist his partner. He'd closed the gap to maybe 15 yards when…
There was no mistaking the sound, and the blood pumping through Gilbert's system suddenly froze. Pulling up short, Gilbert tried to get a bearing on who had fired.
He saw McKee down on the ground, blood pooling from his face onto the asphalt.
Gilbert looked up.
Ellington was standing up, facing him. He charged Gilbert. As he ran, the man raised something from his hip. Another flash lit up the night sky like a fireball.
Gilbert fell hard onto his back. A mere five feet separated officer and suspect, and there was no doubt in Gilbert's mind that the suspect's bullet had struck home. He waited for the inevitable and debilitating pain to register.
Ellington stopped and turned toward McKee, and raised his gun yet again.
Gilbert's mind kicked into high gear. Whatever injury he might have sustained, he knew that he was still alive and capable of fighting back and, if he and his partner were going to survive this night, he would have to make it happen.
Ellington fired a second round into McKee's body.
That cold-blooded act was going to cost Ellington, for it gave Gilbert the split second he needed. Gilbert leapt to his feet and bladed his body as he drew his Glock 22 and fired.
Ellington just stood there, staring at him.
Gilbert was surprised…and scared. Even if he hadn't been an expert shot—and he was—there was no way that Gilbert's round could have missed. The officer expected the round to have taken its toll, to have knocked the man on his ass, or at least forced him to haul ass.
Fire and Advance
But the 6-foot, 3-inch Ellington just stood immobile, confronting Gilbert, as if relishing the carnage to come. Indeed, he looked refreshed.
All that energy, Gilbert thought of the suspect. And here I am, spent.
Gilbert stared down the length of his weapon at eyes that regarded him with murderous contempt. He fired again. And he kept on firing, advancing a step with each round, his eyes fixed on his sights, which were oriented dead center on the man's upper torso.
The suspect's upper torso spun with each impact, and still Gilbert fired. There was no way in hell he was going to let this man take another shot at him or his partner.
Suddenly, the suspect fell face first then rolled over.
Gilbert was wary. He took stock of his situation.
The possibility that Ellington was wearing a bullet proof vest weighed heavily on Gilbert's mind. Here he was in a parking lot with no cover and no cars, just the suspect, his downed partner, and nobody to help him.
He knew he had about four rounds left and was ready to unload and reload again.
But Ellington lay motionless.
Convinced that his shots had ended the threat, a new priority loomed for Gilbert: his partner's life.
Gilbert glanced at McKee, whose expressionless eyes suggested something terrible that he didn't want to contemplate. Turning his back to McKee, not wanting the bloody image to crystallize in his mind, he spoke hopefully.
"Hey, McKee…are you all right?" He repeated the words, hope dissipating.
"McKee…speak to me…"
Then…from behind him…a familiar voice.
"Hey, Gilbert," McKee wheezed. "I think I'm shot. Did he shoot me?"
Gilbert nearly jumped out of his skin.
Never before had he felt so startled or relieved. He immediately turned and went to his partner. Not knowing how McKee might react to hearing that he, in fact, had been shot, Gilbert sought to calm him.
"No, man," he said. "He punched you. Lay still."
"No, Gilbert, I'm shot," McKee protested. "I can't move."
Gilbert bit his lip.
Just minutes later, McKee was lying in an ambulance.
"I freaked out," recalls Gilbert. "When he was en route to the hospital, I overheard conversations over another officer's radio saying that he was in critical condition and it didn't look good. I thought, 'It can't be. I was just talking to him.' About an hour later, I found out that McKee was OK."
Back to Work
After several months of painstaking recovery, McKee returned to duty. Initially, he and Gilbert had planned to work together as partners after the shooting. But the shooting had left its mark on McKee in more ways than one, and he ultimately decided to transfer to a shift that allowed him to spend more time with his young children.
Looking back on the shooting, two important things stuck out to Gilbert. One, when he fell backward, his coat flew open, and Ellington's round missed him and went through his coat pocket instead. Two, if Ellington had used a weapon like his or an automatic weapon, it probably would have been a different outcome. As it was, he used a .38 caliber revolver that carried five rounds.
Gilbert remains on the shift, despite another incident that happened to him just one month after the Ellington shooting.
While working a three-man unit, Gilbert rolled on a call of two males stripping an auto. Entering an alley with his partner, he saw one suspect casually enter a parked car. As Gilbert approached a nearby pickup truck with only his flashlight, a guy jumped out of the bed of the truck, looked in his direction, and fired six shots.
"That was the scariest," Gilbert reflects. "There was no time to react. I kind of froze and I thought, 'There's a lot of pain I'm going to feel.' When it was all over and done with, evidence found live rounds."
Fortunately, Gilbert's luck held out: He survived the second shooting unscathed, as well.
For the heroic actions he displayed during the Ellington shooting that frigid December morning, Gilbert has received all manner of recognition. Among them: the Detroit PD's Medal of Valor and selection as the department's Officer of the Year, as well as being feted as Parade Magazine's Police Officer of the Year. He appreciates the recognition even as he downplays it. For Gilbert, the work is reward enough.
"Ever since I was five years old, this is what I wanted to do—something that I have to do. My 16-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son have never questioned me about the job because that's all I talked about when they were born: to be right, be law abiding. This is something I believe in and it's the only thing I can do: law enforcement."
The shootings haven't dampened Gilbert's enthusiasm, either.
"Besides," says Gilbert, "if a cat has nine lives, I figure I've got two left."