New Year's Day 2010 had been shown the door and if the employees of the Mt. Orab McDonald's had their way, so would a couple of their more intoxicated patrons.
To that end the Mt. Orab (Ohio) Police Department had been called and two of its finest, Officers Justin Conley and Chris Hodges, dispatched. The duo contacted the disturbing parties who, electing to forego civic accommodations in deference to the prospect of sleeping in their own beds, arranged to have sober relatives pick them up and return them home. As the officers walked out of the establishment, Hodges noticed a less than appreciative glance from the elder of the two.
"You catch that glare?" Hodges asked Conley. "Talk about if looks could kill…"
Conley had entertained such looks before and no doubt would again. Hard looks came along with the territory. Still, he thought it prudent to hang around a bit while Hodges responded to a separate call. No sense leaving only to have a "return to" call for what'd gotten them there in the first place.
Parking his patrol car in a nearby "park and ride" lot, Conley maintained a vigil as he completed his paperwork and awaited the arrival of the family shuttling service. What he saw instead was a car exit from the McDonald's parking lot and turn right at the stop light without using a turn signal. The man behind the wheel was George Ruby, the elder of the two men who'd been causing chaos inside the eatery.
Conley pulled over the vehicle and conducted a field sobriety test of its occupants. While Ruby may not have been a model of decorum inside the McDonald's, his manner now was downright belligerent, with his questionable compliance punctuated by a series of epithets and obscenities. Only after he'd been handcuffed and seated inside the patrol unit did Ruby seemingly calm down. Later, at the station he even saw fit to joke with the officers.
Breathalyzer test and booking complete, Ruby was cited at the station and released to family members, along with his passenger, who'd been popped for narcotic paraphernalia. For all of Ruby's mouthiness, everything had apparently ended on an "all's well that ends well" note.
By 4 a.m., the jail's visitors had been long gone and things had settled into the kind of quietude one would expect given the hour and the four-degree temperatures. With the paperwork stemming from the men's arrests pretty much done, Conley decided to retrieve his lunch from his car.
As he walked out the rear door of the station, Conley fumbled with his keys. But it was a different metallic sound that registered with him, a click that came from just behind him. Glancing over his shoulder, he saw George Ruby standing near a trash can outside of the station.
He realized that the click he'd heard was that of the hammer cocking on a revolver.
Ruby held a .357. Its muzzle pointing at Conley.
Its lack of any elemental properties does not prevent a split-second from possessing a certain type of elasticity, the kind capable of entertaining thoughts and actions that minutes would be hard pressed to accommodate. To Conley, it lasted long enough for him to react to the threat and draw his Glock 22 even as he felt something strike him just to the right of his spine, something that sent searing pain across his back.
Did my vest do its job?
Conley didn't know. What he did know was that he'd taken a bullet to the back, but he was still conscious, breathing, and mobile—and therefore able to fight.
And so fight he did.
Finger on the trigger, eyes on his target, and feverously multitasking, Conley returned fire at his assailant as he started to work his way laterally across the parking lot, simultaneously keying his radio mic.
"Stay inside!" he said, for the benefit of Hodges, who took Conley's advice to heart.
Conley gravitated to the edge of the parking lot where some parking blocks and a flag pole afforded the closest measure of cover and concealment. Throwing himself into a prone position behind the parking blocks, Conley continued to engage Ruby, who ran toward the office.
Hodges positioned himself just beyond the office door as Ruby charged it. Seeing Ruby come into view, Hodges opened fire through the office wall.
Realizing that he was now fighting a battle on two fronts, Ruby ducked down behind a wall. Hodges began peppering the barrier with gunfire, his rounds stopped by cinder block and concrete. Angling for a better shot, Hodges moved to a second exit door where he again confronted Ruby and fired rounds through the glass at the gunman.
The two men continued circumnavigating the office on opposite sides of the wall, and Conley provided a kind of play-by-play from his vantage point across the parking lot. Both officers continued to fire on the man.
Ruby took four steps away from the second door, then fell to the ground.
Where Are You Hit?
A silence settled on the scene and Hodges exited the office through a door around the corner from where the shooting had occurred. Doubling around the building, he found the downed assailant and secured Ruby's gun, then made his way into the parking lot where Conley lay.
"Where are you hit?"
"I don't know," replied Conley, who joined Hodges in assessing his injuries.
Just where the first bullet had ended up was anyone's guess. The one thing that left little room for ambiguity was the fiery pain that pierced Conley's back and not even the freezing cold could abate.
"I see where it entered…"
Hodges fingered a bullet hole that went through the bottom of Conley's shirt. Worried that the bullet had struck his partner below his vest, Hodges checked further then realized that Conley's shirt had ridden up when he spun to look at Ruby over his shoulder—but his vest had stopped the bullet from penetrating further.
The news was as good as could be expected, but Conley would have to wait until he arrived at the hospital to get a full understanding as to his overall condition.
For Ruby, it was a different story. The 61-year-old would be pronounced dead at that same hospital having suffered three gunshot wounds. Two sets of entrance and exit wounds—one in-and-out and in-and-out again through his arm—were created from a single round. Two more rounds hit the man's chest.
As unexpectedly as the attack had started, so had it ended. One second Conley had been at work leisurely talking with his good friend and partner. The next, he was engaged in a full-fledged firefight.
"We'd been trying to get caught up on our paperwork in a locked building that the public doesn't have access to," Conley notes. "Nothing suggested any kind of threat whatsoever. Who would anticipate that somebody would be standing outside our office at 4 a.m. in sub-freezing conditions?"
And yet that was the reality that awaited Conley when he'd decided to grab something to eat.
"I let my guard down as I walked outside the office. With a simple sound and a turn of my head, I was thrown into the middle of a gunfight."
The ensuing violent exchange saw Conley firing nine rounds, Hodges seven, and Ruby five. Ruby's sole hit was his first—right in the officer's back.
"I went from right here on base with the police department, somewhat relaxed, as relaxed as you would want to be on a shift, to being ambushed and having no idea I was even in a fight until I was already hit."
It is a testimonial to Conley's training and will to survive that he responded as quickly and as decisively as he did, keying his mic with his left hand even as he drew his gun with his right.
"I didn't remember after the fact how many rounds I'd fired at all," Conley says. "I had auditory exclusion from my rounds. I never heard my gun go off. I felt the recoil and I knew I was squeezing the trigger. But I wasn't counting my rounds. I never heard my gun go off, but I heard every round that he fired.
"I knew he'd fired five rounds at me. I never heard Hodges' gun fire. I zoomed in on the fact that Ruby was firing at me, and I remember thinking over and over again as I was running across the parking lot, 'Don't get hit in the head. You've got to make the distance.' I was hit already and I wasn't sure if the bullet was in or not," he remembers.
Conley had a history of prior surgeries, including an experience wherein he'd hemorrhaged through his throat and lost enough blood that he lost the ability to stand.
"It's amazing the things that your mind goes over within just 47 seconds of the firefight," Conley says. "I flashed back and thought that I needed to get somewhere where he's not going to kill me. I knew I had to get to some type of cover where I could defend myself. I was already behind the eight ball insofar as I was already hit."
Conley credits his training for his ability to quickly react to the threat, weighing the pros and cons of the situation. As he continued to return fire toward Ruby and make his way to cover, he never lost track of the man's whereabouts outside of the office. He managed to maintain communications on the radio, notify his command center that an officer had been hit, and advise Officer Hodges to remain inside the office.
He is appreciative of the rigors of training and how muscle memory works.
"It was almost as if the gun just appeared in my hand," he says. "My body was doing what it was trained to do all those times over and over. That repetition from firing at the range and the tactical training we had done, it all fell into place."
At no time did he lose hope. That optimism played a substantial role in his survival. So did his choice of ballistic vest.
The vest Conley was issued when he joined the department in 2005 fit well, but it was too short for him. When its warranty expired in 2009, Conley was fitted for a new Level IIA vest from Safariland. He'd been wearing this body armor for just six weeks when it saved his life. Had he been wearing his original vest, the bullet would have impacted him two and a half inches below the bottom of the vest.
That Ruby set up an ambush was, in retrospect, not a total surprise given the hostility he'd displayed toward the officers. Still, his motives remain a mystery; even his choice of tactics has invited speculation. Other officers noted that he could have fired through the window at any time prior to Conley's exiting the station's rear door. Some even speculated that Ruby's actions were a bid for suicide by cop. But Conley isn't buying it.
"If that's the case, why did he back into a darkened area, one that would facilitate his escape? Why did he shoot me in the back?" asks Conley. "He fired five shots at us and was found with two speed loaders in his pocket. Seems like overkill for a suicide by cop to me…"
In any event, neither Conley nor Hodges regretted his actions in taking the life of Ruby. Conley's sole regret is that he'd been shot in the back.
Justin Conley and Chris Hodges both received the Mt. Orab PD's Medal of Valor for the heroism they displayed that night. Conley was also the recipient of a Purple Heart. Accompanied by his wife, Laura, and son, Hayden, Conley was feted on a trip to Jacksonville, Fla., where he met the people who had fashioned the Safariland vest that saved his life and was inducted into the Safariland Saves Club as save #1,724.
Conley and Hodges continue to serve the citizens of Mt. Orab, Ohio.
WHAT WOULD YOU DO?
Consider the situation that Office Justin Conley of the Mt. Orab (Ohio) Police Department faced when he was ambushed outside of his station. Ask yourself the following questions and tell us your responses in the comments, below.
- Cops routinely try to maintain a condition yellow mindset. Place yourself in Officer Conley's shoes as he exited the rear doors of the station. What frame of mind would you have? How would you hope to respond to such a sudden ambush?
- Throughout the midst of the firefight, Conley had the presence of mind to consider the whereabouts of his fellow officer and to minimize the likelihood of his friend and colleague getting hit by the suspect or his own return fire. In envisioning your own responses to possible firefight situations, to what extent do you entertain notions of collateral concerns?
- Smaller agencies don't have the logistical support of their larger counterparts, which sometimes finds their employees having to compensate out of pocket when it comes to purchasing protective gear. How comfortable are you with the protection afforded you? Would you be inclined to pay out of pocket for an upgrade to the vest you are currently wearing?