When South Congaree, S.C., police officer Jason Pruitt showed up to work on Sept. 20, 2003, it was to snag a little overtime and capture a suspect who a few weeks earlier had dumped some dope before fleeing from an officer through the woods.
Using a confidential informant, the officers succeeded in corralling the outstanding suspect, Leavy Costello Rish, at a gas station while the C.I. went inside.
They found Rish kicking back in the front passenger seat of the C.I.'s car, feet atop the dash, and relaxing as much as a guy on meth possibly could. But when they brought him out of the car, Rish was anything but laid back. And by the time the officers got him in cuffs, he'd generated another charge for himself: resisting arrest.
With Rish double-locked in handcuffs in the back seat of Pruitt's caged unit, one officer went through the charade of handcuffing the C.I. to cover her ass and keep Rish from putting two and two together. Pruitt began a search of the vehicle for contraband when a fellow officer got his attention: His prisoner had somehow succeeded in maneuvering his handcuffs to his front and was busy trying to unlock Pruitt's back door.
Pruitt and his partner managed to get Rish out of the vehicle and re-handcuffed him to the rear. Shackling the man's legs, they again secured him in the backseat. Whatever else, it appeared that the fight had been taken out of the guy.
After finishing his inventory of the car, Pruitt re-joined Rish in the patrol unit. Letting his passenger know that he was going to be taken to jail, Pruitt closed the roll bar window and put the car in drive.
I Can't Breathe
No sooner had they pulled out of the parking lot than Pruitt's prisoner started mouthing off. An angry diatribe about how screwed up the officer's police agency was quickly segued into a rant about his personal discomfort.
"Open the window, man." Rish protested. "It's hot."
Pruitt told Rish to hang on and that he'd be out of the backseat soon enough. But with each passing minute, the more adamant Rish's requests became.
"C'mon," Rish pleaded repeatedly, rocking back and forth as much as his restraints would allow. "I can't breathe!"
About a mile-and-a-half from the jail, Rish's histrionics started to get the better of Pruitt. He glanced in the rearview mirror at his prisoner. Dollops of sweat poured down Rish's face and neck, saturating the man's shirt, pooling in his beard, and stinging his eyes. The officer momentarily put himself in Rish's shoes: handcuffed, miserably hot, with no adequate means of wiping the perspiration off his brow.
Pruitt reached back, unlatched the roll bar window, and slid it open so Rish could have some ventilation.
Taking a cool swig from his Mellow Yellow, the officer then turned on the air conditioner.
Without knowing it, he had just made the situation a whole lot hotter.
You're Dead, Pig
With a rap sheet of violent offenses ranging from assaults on officers to homicide, Rish harbored few illusions about the grim nature of his future. The ex-con knew the next time he was locked up, it'd probably be for good. Perhaps that was why he told correctional officers at the time of his last release that it'd be the last time they'd see him—no matter what.
Now, with the cage window open and the Lexington County Detention Center looming ever closer, Rish knew that it was now or never to make good on his word.
He lunged through the open cage window.
Rish's upper torso slammed into Pruitt's side. The officer's Mellow Yellow went flying and, to his horror, he realized that Rish had succeeded in again getting his handcuffed hands in front of him. Worse still, he had a grip on Pruitt's holstered sidearm.
"I've got your gun, cop." Rish yelled. "I've got your gun and you're dead, pig! It's coming out of the holster."
His ears pummeled by Rish's terrifying narrative, Pruitt tried to defend his sidearm against the attack of this homicidal "Houdini" while controlling the vehicle as best he could. He slammed on the brakes and the car's forward momentum catapulted Rish's body through the open window. Rish's back smashed against the dashboard, but if the blow stunned the man, he didn't let on. Worse still, between Rish's death grip on the gun and forward momentum, the ex-con succeeded in stripping Pruitt's .40 caliber Glock from its holster.
Jamming the Glock's barrel hard against the officer's uniform shirt, Rish went for the kill.
Pruitt's right hand shot up, shoving the gun's barrel upward just as Rish pulled the trigger. An explosion went off and gunpowder filled the driver's compartment as a round tore through Pruitt's middle finger, deboning it at the first knuckle. Ignoring the pain, Pruitt canted the Glock upward and away from him as Rish squeezed off another round that splintered the driver's side of the windshield.
With the first gunshot, a loud ringing sound descended upon Pruitt. Half deafened and his hand searing with pain, the officer fought with Rish over control of the Glock, their bodies stretched across the driver's compartment area.
With his back atop Rish's side and shoulder in the driver's seat, Pruitt groped desperately for the Glock, his efforts undermined by the blood spurting from his finger, saturating the firearm, and compromising his grasp.
"I got it pointed at your head," Rish hissed. "I'm going to kill you! I'm going to shoot you."
Bullshit, Pruitt thought.
He knew the weapon's barrel was still angled toward the windshield; he was making damn sure of that. Was Rish tr ying to rattle him or going for some self-fulfilling prophecy with his commentary? Pruitt didn't know. But he did know he wasn't going to let this dirtbag take him out if he could help it. Perhaps sensing the officer's resolve, Rish tried a very different approach.
Let's Make a Deal
"Let go of the gun," Rish said. "And I'll let you live."
Great, thought Pruitt. Now, the son-of-a-bitch thinks he's Monty Hall.
"No," the officer counter offered. "You let go of the gun, and I'll let you live."
Rish saw that his bid for a deal wasn't going anywhere—and neither was Pruitt. He reverted to his original tack, a renewed conviction with it.
"You're a dead pig, motherf___er!" Rish screamed.
Rish wrestled for control of the firearm with renewed vigor. But Rish had no monopoly on adrenaline or determination, and with every spittle-laced threat the ex-con's coppery breath expelled, Pruitt felt his own blood boil.
The officer knew that the two of them were hamstrung, with his own finger virtually blown off and Rish handcuffed. The damnable confines of the car didn't help, either. Nor did it comfort Pruitt to know that Rish could turn his liability into an asset should he start beating Pruitt with the cuffs. The longer the fight went on, the greater the likelihood the man would try it.
They'd been in this life-or-death struggle now for...how long? A minute? Ten? Forever? Pruitt had to go on the offensive. His mind went to a backup weapon he kept in his uniform pants, a .32 caliber Kel-Tec. He reached for it.
"I see what you're doing," Rish warned Pruitt. "I see what you're up to."
Pruitt pulled the Kel-Tech out of his pocket. But as soon as it cleared, Rish compensated. Bucking with the savagery of a Brahma bull, Rish kicked at Pruitt's arms with his knees. A sharp blow struck the officer's elbow and jarred his grip. The backup gun flew onto the driver's side floorboard.
Pruitt's heart sank.
Visibly delighted and emboldened by his success, Rish renewed his threats of Pruitt's impending doom.
What Rish didn't know was that Pruitt had one last surprise up his sleeve. That is, down his left ankle: A five-shot Smith & Wesson.
Reaching down with his left hand, Pruitt grabbed the .38. Before Rish could react, the officer whipped the weapon out, stuck it in the man's side, and fired.
The two rounds that Pruitt fired seemed to do little more than piss the man off, and feeling that the man was getting the best of the Glock, Pruitt kept firing. He didn't stop until the weapon went "click."
"Let go of the gun!" Pruitt yelled, figuring that the man had surely had enough.
Five .38 caliber bullets were now in Rish's side and abdomen—and still the ex-con fought, his strength seemingly
With his own burst of adrenaline, Pruitt jerked the Glock gun out of Rish's hand and dropped the spent .38 revolver on the driver's seat.
Desperate to put some distance between himself and his assailant, Pruitt leaned over and opened the driver's side door. But as he tried to get out, Rish seized his elbow and tried to pull him back inside. Now in control of the Glock, Pruitt inverted his arm, causing Rish to lose grip of his elbow. Before the man could knock the gun from his grasp, Pruitt shot him once in the chest.
Jumping out of the car, Pruitt turned around just in time to see Rish's eyes lock onto the .32 Kel-Tech on the floorboard.
Rish moved for it.
And Pruitt fired two more rounds from the Glock into the man's head.
Rish had succeeded in making good on one of his threats.
He would not be going back to jail.
Backup for Your Backup
Through the years, Pruitt had endured the requisite Travis Bickle jokes about carrying multiple guns. He sees it as simply a matter of having "backup for your backup." After the incident with Rish, the jokes have tapered off.
While he wishes he didn't have to take a man's life that day, Pruitt doesn't regret much about how things went down otherwise. Still, he searches for how things might have been done differently.
"I hadn't even seen Rish before," Pruitt explains. "I had no idea what he looked like. I didn't know that he had an 18-page rap sheet. I didn't know that he'd tried to kill a Greenville, S.C. deputy in 1996. If I'd known all this, would I have had somebody ride with me to the jail? Would I have had somebody follow me? I don't know. We could play the guessing game all day long. But it would have been nice to have known."
To this day he is amazed that Rish was able to disengage himself from the seatbelt without being detected. Today, he suspects that Rish's rant accomplished two things at once: keeping Pruitt distracted while he engineered his way out of the seatbelt and getting him to open the window.
Rish was apparently content to obtain his freedom at any cost. And the price he paid was dear.
And he wasn't the only one who suffered because of his actions.
Pruitt received death threats from Rish's relatives who accused him of shooting himself before executing their kinsman in front of all manner of civilian motorists who were somehow in their minds complicit for watching the fight as it played out in front of them.
The Rish incident also affected Pruitt's mindset. Having been shot and nearly killed, he felt as though he was marking time on this Earth and that he was apt to be killed at any moment. But in time, he came to his senses. And he was able to recover and find peace with the shooting, the aftermath, and most importantly with himself.
Pruitt was feted as a Top Cop, and met "America's Most Wanted" host John Walsh. He is thankful for the support he received from family, friends, co-workers, the State of South Carolina, the Lexington County Sheriff's Office, the Town of South Congaree, and Police Chief Jason Amodio.