Photo of Sgt. Steven Means courtesy of the Early (Texas) Police Department
"The stars at night…
Are big and bright…
Deep in the heart of Texas…"
If you were to take a dart and throw it at a map of the Lone Star State, you'd be hard-pressed to come closer to its heart than the town of Early. With its rolling plains, low crime rates, and population of 2,500, Early is not markedly different than many other small towns across our country: Nice enough places to visit, nicer places to live. Most of the time.
But the afternoon of Sunday, July 29, 2012, was not one of these times in Early.
As the only patrol officer working the town that day, Sgt. Steven Means knew that he might be called upon to roll outside the city limits. Sometimes, law enforcement officers from other jurisdictions rolled to assist him, as well. Such is the way of reciprocal law enforcement in rural America.
So when a call came out from the Brown County Sheriff's Office of a disturbance at a trailer park some six miles away in an adjacent area of the county, Means activated his lights and siren and advised his dispatch that he was rolling. While Means had the shortest ETA, another lawman—a Brown County Sheriff's deputy—had the handle and was likewise en route.
Both lawmen suffered from the same handicap: Conflicting information from dispatch. The deputy had understood from an initial radio transmission that a child had shot someone. Then it became that a man had shot a man and a woman, as well as a dog, and that the whereabouts of the suspect and the statuses of the victims were unknown.
There was one constant denominator to all versions of events—shots had been fired. Anticipating that more might be fired before the day was over, Means pressed the unlock button of his AR-15's vertical mount between the seats of his patrol car. Pinching the weapon between his knees, he racked the charging handle as he cleared the last intersection of the town.
Means turned off his siren so as to fly under the radar until he arrived at the trailer park, an only recently occupied 16-unit property. Had Means ever been to the park before, he would have used an out building located adjacent to it to get his bearings. As it was, the 16 x 20-foot structure served only as a visual barrier to the small trailer park beyond.
Pulling his patrol unit around the structure and off the roadway, Means found himself entering the driveway of the park just as an update came over his radio.
"Informant says that the shooter is at the first trailer on the right."
Earlier updates had sounded confused, sketchy, and even contradictory of one another. There was only one fault Means could find with this one. Timeliness.
The shooter was directly in front of him.
Put the Rifle Down!
Lane-committed in the trailer park driveway and right smack in the middle of the kill zone, Means figured tactical withdrawal was not an option—the shooter could nail him before he had a chance to get very far. Bailing out of the car, he ordered the man to come toward him.
The man chose to take another course. He drew a .30-30 rifle from the bed of the pickup truck and positioned himself behind an oak tree directly in front of Means' patrol car. As the man shielded himself behind the tree trunk, Means ran towards the trunk of his unit and took cover, as well, availing himself the advantage of an intervening engine block and additional distance. As he did, he saw something that simultaneously elevated the import of the former and diminished the role of the latter.
Shit! Means thought. He's got a scope! This just got real...
"Put the rifle down!"
Expectations that the shooter might suddenly experience an epiphany of mental clarity and comply with his commands were few, and Means' order was more of a formality than anything else. The suspect settled in behind the tree, and Means keyed his portable radio and advised dispatch of the threat that was unfolding. The last thing he wanted was for the responding deputy to roll up and be surprised as he had been.
Bracing for Impact
The first gunshot was followed by a couple more and Means hunkered low behind his unit, bracing for the impact of rounds colliding about him.
But none came.
Where are they going?
Moving to the right side of his patrol unit in a low crouch, Means popped out near the passenger side fender without exposing any more of himself than he had to. He saw that the man beyond the tree was now in a seated or kneeling position and had his rifle trained in the opposite direction. Means followed the man's line of sight toward some civilians on the other side of the trailer park.
As soon as the man fired, Means leveled his AR-15 on the man's position. Broad enough to provide adequate cover and concealment for a slimmer man, the tree's base provided only a partial eclipse of the suspect's girth and even at 40 yards his exposed left torso loomed large in Means' front sights as the five-year veteran squeezed off two rounds from the AR-15.
His first shot struck the suspect in the lower left abdomen area and the man fell over on his side. As the man struggled to get back up, Means fired several more rounds but failed to connect. The suspect somehow managed to regain his footing and take cover behind the tree. But in trying to get away from Means' rounds that were coming in from his left side, the suspect moved to his right. As he did, his right side became exposed to Means, who adjusted his aim and put two more rounds in him.
The first of these rounds struck the man in the point of the shoulder. The second impacted about an inch left in his spine. The man fell backward, a round from his rifle discharging into the ground as he did.
Landing on his back, the man beyond the tree ceased moving.
Sorting It All Out
The answers to Sgt. Means' many questions came after the fact—sometimes much after. But one of the most pressing mysteries was also among the first to be resolved: The source of the first rounds Means had heard being fired.
Means' observations of the shooter lining up his sights directly at him had led the officer to conclude that the suspect had been responsible for those first rounds of the engagement. They were, however, the rounds of a guardian angel—Vic Stacy.
Stacy—a fellow Texan and proud gun owner—had retrieved his own handgun after 58-year-old Charles Conner's initial volley had been brought to his attention by another neighbor. From a trailer, Stacy watched as Conner lined up his rifle sights on Officer Means.
"I thought, 'He's fixin' to kill that boy'," Stacy told the Brownwood Bulletin afterward. "And that's why I squared off and hit him in the leg and knocked him down."
Stacy had opened up on Conner from a distance of 150 feet with a .357 Colt Python pistol, striking the man twice. In doing so, the citizen had both disrupted Conner's aim and caused him to fall so that his torso became exposed to Means, who finished the job.
Stacy's presence at the location was understandably appreciated by Means. That of the storage building the officer regarded as more of a mixed blessing.
Because of the storage building, Means couldn't see the shooter until he was right on top of him. On the other, the shooter couldn't see Means, either, so it became the tactical equivalent of a push. But the structure might well have proven more problematic had the officer not deactivated his siren prior to getting close to the location. Means believes that had the suspect heard the approaching sirens, he would have been able to exploit the building for cover and concealment and take him out in the driveway or even prior to that.
As it was, the combined efforts of Officer Means and Vic Stacy were effective in putting the suspect down. When the deputy, a game warden, and a highway patrol trooper showed up minutes later, Means had them wait behind a shed until he came to them. With the new arrivals providing cover, Means ran back to their group where they convened a quick tactical huddle up.
"We decided that we didn't know the status of the two people who had allegedly been shot, so our first thing was to clear the shooter," recalls Means. "It turned out that he was obviously deceased so we left him as he was and went across to talk to other park residents who confirmed that Conner had been the shooter. That was when we saw the two people dead on the ground."
The decedents were residents of the park, a couple whose dogs had a history of relieving themselves on Conner's property. In the minutes preceding Means' arrival, Conner had approached their trailer where a verbal confrontation quickly escalated, with Conner drawing a SIG Sauer 9mm pistol that he used to shoot the man several times before bending over the victim to put a bullet in the man's head. With her phone out to dial 911, the victim's wife had tried to run away but tripped and fell. The suspect then walked up and shot her in the head, as well. At some point, Conner had also shot the couple's dogs. His weapon of choice in engaging Means had been a .30-30, and a small caliber pistol was recovered from his pants back pocket.
"We made sure no one else was shot and there were no other shooters," says Means. "Once the scene was clear, I went back to the patrol car and put my rifle up and got something to drink. Everybody started showing up then, including the chief who took me back to the office."
As the shooting was Means' first, it'd unfolded faster than he'd imagined it might. Not that the officer hadn't adequately prepared himself for its eventuality. Means had not only made it a point of going hands on with his firearms training but supplemented that training by exposing himself to a variety of officer survival seminars and readings, including "The Warrior Mindset" and a pair of Lt. Col. Dave Grossman's books, "On Killing" and "On Combat."
"Reading those books helps cultivate the type of mentality you need for this kind of incident," asserts Means. "As the firearms instructor for our agency, I'm always trying to stress to people you've got to practice on your own. You've got to get out and be proficient with your weapons. I'm big on fostering that mindset."
Yet for all his preparation, Means was still surprised at how the shooting evolved and his responses to it.
"You go through this in your head, playing that 'what if' game. Everything turned out quicker than what I had pictured in my mind prior to this, including my responses. I know I had some tunnel vision there when I was firing. When I stopped shooting, I came back out of it because from the corner of my eye I was able to see Stacy coming toward me alongside a trailer. But I didn't know who he was at that time so I ordered him to return to his trailer."
Means did make a point of visiting with Stacy later and extending his heartfelt gratitude.
Conner was and still remains a bit of a cipher. He'd gotten crossways with his family several years earlier and had been pretty much estranged from them since. In speaking with Conner's sister, the Texas ranger who investigated the shooting was told that a couple months prior to the shooting Conner had said that he'd come close to killing another Texas lawman who'd pulled him over. Had Conner been able to vacate the trailer park as he'd intended—Means pulled up right as the man was hitching up his trailer—his escape might have proven fateful for more than one officer down the line. Thankfully, Means' and Stacy's actions prevented such an eventuality.
Whereas Conner's end was as ignoble as they come, the two men responsible for it fared considerably better—and no less deservedly so.
Vic Stacy, a middle-aged welder, received an award from the Commissioner's Court for the County. Moreover, Gov. Rick Perry, apparently intent that he be better able to assist law enforcement in the future, presented Stacy with an AR-15 rifle.
Sgt. Steven Means received the department's award for valor, as well as a well-deserved award for valor from the state. He continues to serve the citizens of Early, Texas...and elsewhere, as needed.
See photos from the crime scene.
What Would You Do?
Put yourself in the shoes of Sgt. Steven Means of the Early (Texas) Police Department and consider the following questions:
- How often are you called upon to respond to incidents outside your regular jurisdiction? To what extent do you familiarize yourself with outlying areas? Are there any places that you might want to recon ahead of time?
- Sgt. Means adopted an "active shooter" protocol in his response. Would you? How much have you prepared yourself to function in that role?
- In engaging a target, to what extent do you train for optimizing whatever sight acquisition you may have? How comfortable do you feel with the prospect of "whittling down" an active shooter?
- Do the demographics and gun laws of your area lend themselves to the potential of an individual like Vic Stacy coming to your assistance? Do you ever factor a citizen backup into your "what if" scenarios?