Photo courtesy of John Schoen.
White. The color of the snow blanketing the ground on that February day stood out in the mind of Dep. Sheriff John Schoen of the Jackson County (Kan.) Sheriff's Office. Having swapped shifts with another deputy, the swing shift K-9 handler found the snowfall blinding under clear blue skies and the light of day.
The sun's presence that day offered little relief from the biting cold that Schoen felt in his bones. Even the obligatory in and out of the patrol car activity that came with the morning's traffic accidents had failed to warm Schoen.
As he wrapped up a methamphetamine lab investigation on the Pottawatomie Indian Reservation, Schoen received a "check the welfare" call. Jeanette, his dispatcher, advised Schoen of an address whose resident had not reported for work in two days. Files showed no previous calls to the location, one that was so far out in the southeastern corner of the county that it was unfamiliar even to the veteran deputy.
Arriving in the vicinity of the call, Schoen was unable to locate an address number on any of the houses from the street. Not all of the rural residents had complied with requirements for new address signs as part of the department's enhanced 911 system. After running a check of the license plate of a car parked in one of the driveways, Schoen realized that he was just one house south of the dispatched address.
At 100 yards from the road, the curvy driveway leading to the house bisected the property with the house on the left and several out buildings and a barn on the right. The absence of vehicles in the driveway or tracks in the snow suggested that none had traveled in or out since the snowfall.
The house did not look much different from any other two-story farmhouse, at first glance. But as Schoen pulled closer, he realized that the house was a work in-progress. It looked like a single-story farmhouse had been lifted up, and a concrete first story shell had been constructed beneath it. Never before in his life had Schoen seen anything so austere.
That someone might actually be living on the property in its current state struck Schoen as unlikely—the only way to get to the living space was via an extension ladder leading up to the front porch. Moreover, if anything did go wrong up there, the scene would prove a tactical nightmare.
Between suppressing this instinctual warning and failing to communicate that he had actually changed locations when he transmitted his arrival, Schoen had unwittingly endangered his life.
Up the Ladder
Yellow. That was the condition Schoen was in when he exited his patrol car, leaving behind his dog, and walked around the perimeter of the residence. Other than a few support columns that amplified its hollowness, nothing stood out on the first story. Finishing his circuit of the empty first floor, Schoen again stared at the ladder leaning against the exterior. Whether he wanted to or not, he'd have to go up.
Ascending, Schoen reached the front porch, which had been turned into a balcony and glanced through the windows. His unanswered knocks at the door only strengthen his opinion that it was empty.
Still, Schoen had handled his fair share of "check the welfare" calls. Usually, the person being sought turned out to be just fine; sometimes he encountered someone ill or injured; and sometimes he discovered that someone had passed away alone in his or her home. But in all instances it was department policy to investigate thoroughly and enter the residence. And despite his every intuition that he was wasting his time, today would be no exception.
The glass front doorknob gave way under Schoen's grip and his arm extended into the house. With the door halfway open, Schoen stood in the doorway and began to announce his presence.
"Sheriff's Depart…," Schoen started to say. But before he could mouth the last syllable, the blast hit him.
It all happened so fast that Schoen didn't even see the shooter—or the muzzle flash of the gun.
Red. Schoen's blood was spilling from multiple wounds. The first shotgun blast struck Schoen in the right hand, arm, chest, neck, and face. The first shot had barely registered in his mind. Schoen wasn't sure what happened. He took a protective step back and mistakenly to the right.
And he fully framed himself in the fatal funnel. A second blast peppered the left side of Schoen's body, striking him in the arm, chest, neck and face.
Now the deputy began to fully comprehend what was happening. He heard a high-pitched scream of fear and anger. And he realized that it was his own.
Why is he doing this? And oh my God I have to get out of this position, Schoen thought.
The radial nerves of both his forearms had been struck, leaving Schoen with the loss of all strength and virtually all motor control of his arms and hands. His legs compensated and he turned and headed toward the edge of the porch.
An internal dialogue he'd had in the seconds before he'd opened the door returned to him as he stared over the railing: If all else fails, I'll have to jump.
All else did fail.
Hitting the Ground
Green. It was the color of the uniform Schoen had worn as an Airborne soldier. And while he was always proud of his service, never before had he been so happy for the training that he'd received in knowing how to fall. He jumped from the porch keeping his feet and knees together and performing the best parachute landing fall (PLF) of his life.
Hitting the ground, Schoen ran for a nearby wood line instead of his patrol car, using his mangled arms to retrieve the handheld radio on his belt. Ideally, he would have preferred to engage the man who was shooting him, but he knew there was no way for him to retrieve his weapon from its level three retention thigh holster. The radio could be pulled out with much less effort.
Schoen sprinted for the wood line as his assailant exited the house and resumed firing at him from the elevated porch. Four more blasts rang out as pellets peppered Schoen from the back of his head down to his calves.
His head down, Schoen saw his right pants leg fly apart as another blast struck him. And still he ran.
Throughout the attack, he yelled for his assailant to stop shooting, all the while knowing it would do no good. He simultaneously tried to call out for help on the radio, but the location was so far out in the middle of nowhere that the handheld's transmissions did not reach the sheriff's office's tower.
Schoen switched through several channels on the handheld and was at last able to make contact with the dispatcher via a volunteer fire department tower. Never in his life was he so happy to hear the telltale sound of a radio making a connection to a repeater.
"309 Sheriff, I've been shot!" Schoen screamed into the radio.
Somewhere in his mind Schoen knew that the radio code for an officer in trouble was "signal 14." A confused response from dispatch to repeat his last transmission found Schoen screaming into the radio again. This time he got the desired response.
Reaching the wood line Schoen encountered a three-strand barbed wire fence. He didn't hesitate to dive over the fence.
Having raised the alarm with the radio call, Schoen now turned his attention toward defending himself. Summoning all of his strength and using the ground and his body weight for leverage, he worked his gun out of its holster. The frustration he felt over his inability to manipulate his hands and fingers further fueled his indignation about the situation.
The house was now about 40 yards away, and Schoen couldn't see the man who had been shooting at him. He surmised that the man had retreated into the house, possibly to reload.
Shoen decided that he needed to get to a better position for both tactical and rescue purposes. He followed the woods and fence toward the road.
"Don't worry, John, we are on the way." The words coming over the fire channel of his handheld were those of a fellow K-9 handler from the highway patrol, Scott Morris. Never before had Schoen felt such comfort in the words of a fellow human being.
The wounded deputy reached the road and stationed himself at the end of the driveway where he could maintain watch over the house and hopefully spot the cavalry as it arrived. Suddenly, a car approached from the south.
Schoen waved it over. He could only imagine what a horrifying sight he was to the driver who rolled down her window.
"I'm a police officer!" he told the driver. "I've been shot and I need help. Do you have a cell phone?"
The woman looked at him very calmly. "Where's your badge?" she asked.
As a K-9 officer, everything on Schoen's uniform was sewn on. That the woman had fixated on the lack of any metal badge on his bloodied chest struck Schoen as even more incredible than his shooter's house design.
"Are you kidding me?!" he exclaimed angrily.
No sooner were the words out of Schoen's mouth than he observed the shooter coming down the ladder in front of the house and walking toward his patrol car. He heard his K-9, "Falco," barking at the man from his back seat kennel.
The man opened the driver's door and fired two shots over the driver's seat and into the kennel. Schoen heard Falco's death yelp.
Turning from the woman in the car, the deputy raised his Glock, aimed at the shooter, and began firing as accurately as his maimed arms would allow. The woman in the car decided it was time to leave.
She wasn't alone. The shooter retreated momentarily into the barn before walking out with a red container in his hand and returning to the house.
One-Sixteenth of an Inch
A Hoyt Fire Department truck arrived on scene. The firefighters saw Dep. Schoen collapse to his knees in the middle of the road and with complete disregard for their personal safety came to his aid. Scooping up the wounded deputy, they took him out of the kill zone.
At the hospital Schoen was treated for multiple shotgun wounds. The most life-threatening wound was caused by a pellet that embedded in his neck and missed his left carotid artery by one-sixteenth of an inch. Doctors told Schoen that he should make a full recovery, but the nerve damage would take longer to heal if it ever did completely. Had he not been wearing his body armor, he would probably not have survived.
Back inside the rural house, the man who inflicted Schoen's wounds held numerous officers at bay for over two hours. Taking periodic shots at the helicopters overhead, he finally set the house ablaze. His body was later found with self-inflicted shotgun wounds.
The ensuing investigation uncovered two bodies buried beneath a mound of plywood behind the house. Schoen's assailant, 27-year-old Ilish Abhir Shimpi, was a paranoid schizophrenic who lived at the house with his parents. While his mother was away from the house two days earlier, Shimpi is believed to have argued with his father and shot him with a shotgun at point blank range. When his mother returned home, he shot her as well.
Schoen suffered extensive nerve damage in both arms, which is still manifest in the numbness of his fingertips some 13 years later. Periodically, one of the estimated 250 bird shot pellets that had become embedded in his body works itself out, rarely more conspicuously than when one spontaneously shot out of his shoulder and flew across the table during a training session.
Reflecting on takeaways from his shooting, Schoen identifies his greatest regret as having stood in the "fatal funnel." He also hopes that officers act upon their intuitions.
"Number one, trust your instincts," Schoen says. "I kick myself for not listening to myself when I felt that I shouldn't go up alone." He also advises officers who find themselves injured in action "to remember that just because you're hit and hurt doesn't mean you're down. That warrior mindset of 'never give up' is paramount."
Others have taken note of the courage that Schoen displayed that day. Beside his agency's Purple Heart and being awarded a Meritorious Service Medal for Bravery by the Sheriff's Department, the Washburn University School of Applied Studies Criminal Justice in conjunction with the Topeka Optimist Club recognized Schoen as Outstanding Law Enforcement Officer while the Kansas Air Guard selected him as Officer of the Year.
Schoen continues his law enforcement career, albeit in a federal capacity.
And he refrains from standing in fatal funnels.
What Would You Do?
Put yourself in the shoes of Dep. John Schoen of the Jackson County (Kan.) Sheriff's Office. You have been called to a rural farmhouse to check the welfare of the residents and you have come under fire. Now ask yourself the following questions:
- Schoen's military training paid off for him decisively. Is there any training that you have acquired outside of law enforcement that may prove instrumental in your performance someday?
- How conscientious are you in keeping your dispatch aware of your location, particularly as it relates to an ongoing investigation? Do you make a point of relying more on your MDT than your radio?
- Have you considered the prospect of not being able to engage a suspect in a firefight? What other recourses might you explore? Do such considerations ever enter your mind upon arrival at a call?
- As maimed as Schoen's arms were, his legs came through for him, even though they'd suffered trauma, as well. Do you keep yourself in good physical shape? Could you have covered the 400 yards to safety?