It was 2:30 in the afternoon when Officer Alan Freed and his trainee finished eating lunch at the local Pizza Hut and headed to their cruiser. Just as they opened the car doors, a man approached.
The man identified himself as the manager for the property across the street. He pointed toward a Trak Auto store nearby and described a stranger who had parked a vehicle behind the building and proceeded to spray paint the car from white to blue. The informant seemed less concerned that the stranger was up to no good than he was that the guy might be a little off: Who suits up and paints a car with a spray can?
To Freed's mind, spray painting a vehicle wasn't without precedent. But some guy painstakingly painting his own ride? That was a new one on him.
Freed decided to check it out.
As the officers pulled behind Trak Auto, they were greeted by the sight of a man wearing jeans, a denim jacket, and a mask with dual air filters. Parked near two large dumpsters at the rear of the property was the car in question—a Ford Tempo—its chrome and windows covered with newspaper, fresh paint adorning most of its exposed body.
Of his own volition, the masked man approached their cruiser. Freed's trainee asked what was going on.
Something's Not Right
Thomas Morgan Price explained that he was simply painting his car. Freed saw that while the middle-aged man was cooperative, it was possible that he was not firing on all cylinders. The officer wondered if the air filters were a little more porous than they should have been. When asked for his identification, Price replied that it was inside the Ford.
Directing his trainee to get to the bottom of the situation, Freed thought of a nearby low income housing project, one of those places that has an inordinate share of crime. To Freed's mind, it was even money that the man was one of its residents and retreated to this parking lot to get away from the innumerable aggravations that would have undermined his work of art otherwise. If the trainee did his job right, Freed's suspicions would be confirmed or refuted within moments.
Explaining that he'd just bought the car, Price took the driver's seat and began looking for his ID. Satisfied with Price's cooperation, Freed allowed himself to relax a little. He decided to find out what magic a determined eccentric could accomplish with a few cans of Trak Auto spray paint.
Walking along the passenger side of the car, Freed was surprised to see just how well the man had done. Price had evidently taken his time, and his efforts were rewarded with a finish that was surprisingly smooth and free of the gloppy build-up Freed expected to find.
But opening the passenger door revealed another aspect of Price's personality: From floorboard to headliner, the car was a testimonial to packratdom. It became clear that Price was less a resident of the nearby housing project than he was of his car.
As Freed took further visual inventory of the vehicle, something on the floorboard caught his eye: a silver gun. He reached down and picked it up, relieved to find that it was only a Sears timing gun for tuning up cars. Shrugging his shoulders, Freed tossed it back in the car, then shut the car door.
As he did, Freed experienced something that he'd never felt before or since in his years on patrol. The hair on the back of his neck stood on end as though the very air about him suddenly became ionized with some ill-defined threat. Nothing about Price's disposition had changed, nor could Freed identify anything about the scene around him that set off any red flags. Still, the officer couldn't suppress the sensation that something was terribly wrong.
Check the VIN
Inching his way down the side of the car to the right front fender, Freed looked for a tax decal or inspection sticker in the middle of the windshield, something that would validate the man's story. Nothing.
Getting the trainee's attention over the rooftop, Freed mouthed the words for him to check the vehicle identification number (VIN) on the car. Freed then walked around to where his trainee had been standing on the loading dock adjacent to the Ford.
Meanwhile, Price continued to rummage around inside the car, his driver's license still unaccounted for.
The day was damp and misty, with the temperature in the 30s. Up to now Freed had appreciated the warmth of his jacket.
But with the visceral sense of unease that he was experiencing, the jacket suddenly grew heavy and confining. Freed consciously squeezed the lower edge of the garment between his sidearm and torso, ensuring a clear draw from his holster. Every fiber in Freed's body seemed to be telling him that this situation was going to go south in a hurry.
Before he could do anything else, Price suddenly stepped out of the Ford. And it wasn't an ID in the man's hand.
It was a pistol—one that he pointed directly at the head of Freed's trainee.
"Don't You Move!"
Freed's first thought was, "Oh shit, don't let this be happening." He silently prayed that God wouldn't make his wife a widow as he pulled his own 9mm SIG Sauer P226 and pointed it at the subject.
Freed yelled at Price to drop the weapon. But Price wasn't having any of it.
"Don't you move!" Price warned, his eyes darting back and forth between the two officers. "Don't you move or I'll shoot you! I'll shoot you!"
Price started to back along the driver's side of the car, his aim alternating back and forth between the two officers. As he reached the rear wheel, Price suddenly aimed the gun at the trainee and fired, then just as quickly, spun and fired a second shot at Freed.
A mere 10 feet separated officer and suspect, and Freed's sense of surprise at escaping injury was nothing less than shock. But Freed was sure that his trainee hadn't fared as well, and immediately returned fire, squeezing off two rounds that forced Price to turn on his heels as a third shot splintered the concrete wall behind him.
Price headed for cover behind a seven-foot-tall steel dumpster.
In front of the dumpster, Freed paralleled Price's steps, moving to his right to head off Price should he come down the side of the dumpster for a tactical advantage. As he did, Freed held his gun down to his side, and poked his head around the far corner of the dumpster for a quick peek.
To Freed's horror, Price had already skirted around the rear of the dumpster and was now right on top of him. And unlike the officer, Price's gun was held at high ready.
Freed reflexively ducked and stepped backward just as another shot rang out. The round whizzed past Freed's head, and he brought his own sidearm up and immediately re-engaged the suspect, aiming for center mass.
Freed knew the round had hit home—he saw the man's flannel shirt billow with the impact—and still the man fired back at him twice more.
The first round sped past Freed's throat, smashing into a wall behind him. But Price's second round didn't miss. It caught Freed in the lower abdomen. The bat-like impact knocked Freed backward. Knowing better even as he did it, Freed looked down at his torso, checking for the blood he was sure to find there.
But Freed quickly realized that his vest had done its job, and got his mind back in the fight. Bringing his gun back on target, Freed crouched in a Weaver stance and, as he'd practiced so many times at the range, fired two more rounds at the suspect's head.
As on the range, Freed picked up his SIG's sights as they lined up center on the oval. No longer distracted with any primal need to verify his condition, he initiated a smooth trigger squeeze.
The double-tap was textbook, only this time, there was no metallic clang, no shredding of paper.
When Price fell, he fell for good.
Decoding a Cipher
Freed spent the night in a local hospital but was released the next day with only minor injuries. Despite Freed's first impression, his trainee was not wounded in the fight.
It turned out the car that Price had been painting wasn't stolen, just not properly registered in Price's name.
The post-shooting investigation revealed that Price was something of a cipher—a transient who sometimes stayed in one place for stretches at a time, but never accomplished much of anything good or bad to put him on anyone's radar.
So why did the man fire on the officers?
Unknown to Freed and his trainee, the man was wanted in two states for firearms violations. Still, to a right-thinking person that seems like small motivation to shoot it out with the police. After all, his penalty for such charges would have been relatively minor.
Perhaps an entry in the drifter's diary is telling.
Price had written of a dream wherein he got into a shootout with small town police officers. Whether Price deemed it a premonition or the manifestation of some wish fulfillment no one will ever know. But if Price didn't come out on top in the shooting, it wasn't for lack of effort.
Indeed, Freed says Price's determination throughout the shooting left a huge impression on him, and no more so than when it came to seeing just how a human body could absorb multiple impact rounds and still remain a threat.
"I remember thinking, 'Am I hitting you?'" Freed says, the lack of credulity still resonant in his voice. "Because this guy didn't grunt, flinch, moan, nothing."
In fact, Freed believes that the number of rounds it took to take Price down may have had some influence on the department's switch to a .40 caliber H&K P2000SK and Winchester 180-grain hollowpoints (as opposed to the Winchester 147-grain round he used in his shooting).
"I had developed auditory exclusion and tunnel vision through the entire incident. I only heard my weapon and saw the subject's weapon firing," Freed continues.
"I lost all track of the new officer, I am ashamed to say. This subject fired five rounds at us—one at the new officer and four at me, hitting me once. The new officer and I each fired six rounds. He hit him four out of six and I hit him five out of six. According to our radio transmissions this entire incident took place in 68 seconds."
Looking back, Freed wishes he'd done several things differently.
First, he regretted assuming that Price was nothing more than a local who'd sought sanctuary from his neighbors. And he's not shy about emphasizing the point.
"I was stupid—each situation is a new one. You can't be thinking it's anything other than what it is. You take each piece of the puzzle and figure it out accordingly."
Tactically, Freed wishes his tactics in approaching the other side of the dumpster had been more sound.
"Like a ding dong, instead of keeping my pistol at the ready, I put it down on my side and I shuffled to my right and poked my head around the corner of the dumpster. That's when Price fired at my head. You'll never catch me doing that again."
Indeed, the lessons that Freed learned that day have occupied his thoughts ever since and have helped get him through the succeeding 10 years.
Freed readily acknowledges his debt to his department and the training he received through the years, and is appreciative of the Valor Award given him by the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police.
But most of all, he is thankful that he kept his head in more ways than one, never panicking and remaining focused on the threat at hand and dealing with it.