As an oil rig driller in Freer, Texas, Dennis Gurney had just disconnected an oil pipe when a heater used to warm workers ignited the diesel-laced mud that was being used in the drilling process. He was enveloped in flames a split-second later.
On fire, Gurney started down the stairs of the platform. But his presence of mind had not abandoned him, nor had the implications of the disengaged pipe for his co-workers. He doubled back and closed off the spewing pipe. His fellow workers then smothered the flames on his body and Gurney was transported to a hospital.
It was Feb. 27, 1980. Gurney was 23 years old, and the U.S. men’s Olympic hockey team had just defeated the Soviet Union in a game that would become known as the "Miracle on Ice." Burned over 75% of his body, Gurney would pull off an even greater miracle on this night. The young hero would die multiple times in the emergency room—and be revived each time.
Many painful surgeries and skin grafts later, Gurney set up a new life for himself in Montrose, Colo. What the town's dry climate did for him physically, its locals did for him emotionally as they welcomed the big-hearted and likeable Gurney into their fold. For a time, life in Montrose seemingly agreed with Gurney.
But the one-time hero remained acutely aware of the deep scars that traversed the most visible part of his body. Even if he didn't formally acknowledge the slights of ignorant strangers or fixate on every reflective surface that cruelly reminded him of what he’d lost, introspection sometimes got the better of him.
To balm the pain, he took to drinking. His capacity to lash out while under its influence soon took a toll on his marriage and resulted in repeated call-outs by the Montrose Police Department.
Officer Rodney Ragsdale was among those officers who responded to the Gurney residence. During one arrest, Gurney was as cooperative as any officer could ask for. He even joked with Ragsdale, both at the time and later when he was booked by another officer for yet another charge.
But Gurney's life spiraled downward. And it would all come to a head on one final call-out to the man's home.
On July 25, 2009, Gurney's wife, Pamela, called Montrose PD to report that he had assaulted her. Anticipating the response from law enforcement, Gurney retreated into his garage.
Among the responding officers were Sgt. Dave Kinterknecht, Sgt. Bernie Chism, and Ragsdale.
The trio arrived simultaneously. Walking around the house to the front of the offset garage, they found fellow Montrose PD officers and Montrose County Sheriff's deputies holding down the scene. One officer suggested that they kick the door in.
"No," said Sgt. Kinterknecht. "Let's first see what is going on."
Ragsdale accompanied Kinterknecht around the back of the garage to see what they were up against.
One side of the garage was solid wall; the opposite side had a bathroom window. Tinted windows ran the length of its rear, obscuring anything inside while backlighting any cumbersome entry attempt. This left a closed overhead door and a locked walk-in door adjacent to it the only options for entry. Sgt. Chism had already tried to gain access through each of these two doors. The family provided a variety of means—a key...access code…door opener. None worked. Each portal had been sabotaged by Gurney.
Meanwhile, officers milled about outside the house and beckoned for Gurney to come outside and talk. Finally, they received a response from inside.
That articulated refusal to leave fostered some initial optimism: Where communication was established, a dialogue might grow.