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Cover Story

After the Echo

Forced to kill a suicidal subject, the author found himself snared in a web of legal proceedings and personal guilt.

March 01, 2004  |  by Russ Clagett

The following is excerpted from "After the Echo: A Survival Guide for Police & Military Snipers," published by Varro Press.

On April 9, 2000, at about 2:30 or so in the morning, my pager went off. I called dispatch, and they told me the team was being called out to respond to a suicidal person who was barricaded in her car.

This would be the fourth armed standoff our team had had with the same person. Two took place at her home. The third at a local restaurant.

After each incident, she would be taken for a mental evaluation and then released. Another month or so later, we would do it all over again. We all realized she was suicidal and sooner or later she would either kill herself or make us do it.

This incident started with a call to the suicide hotline. She was then located by patrol and pursued until she stopped in a business parking lot. During the stop she displayed a handgun from the driver’s window. The patrol supervisor called for SWAT.

I was the last team member to arrive on the scene. The incident commander gave me a brief. And my sniper partner and I made ready and began deploying into position.

The first thing I did was turn up the power ring on my scope all the way and take a good look at her. The focus wasn’t good in the dark, but I was able to clearly see that she had a revolver, and it was cocked.

That was bad. Normally she had a gun, but tonight it was cocked. Normally she would wave the gun around, but tonight she held it up to her throat. She was definitely escalating toward something.

Negotiations continued but they were becoming pointless. The incident commander called me and told me to cover the entry team. They were going to move up and try to introduce some pepper spray through her car’s back window using a 37mm launcher.

The first 37mm shot bounces off the top of the car. The second hits the chrome strip at the top of the window and shatters the glass. But it stays in place, and now the officers can’t see through it.

She sees the officers and begins to move. She puts the gun in her left hand, moves forward toward the steering wheel, and begins to turn around, away from me.

After she switches the gun from her right hand to her left hand, she lowers both of her hands from my line of sight. The officers behind her car are just a few feet away, using her car as cover.

My partner is watching through his binos, and I hear him say, "Uh oh," just as I see her hand start to come up into view. It’s her left hand, and there’s a gun in it. I say out loud, "See the gun?" as I quarter her head with my reticle.

My partner says, "Yep!" Then I see her gun hand come up fully in line with the entry team members. She straightens her arm as if taking aim, and I squeeze the trigger.

The rifle fires. But I don’t hear it. That’s not quite true; I hear it but it sounds very far away. There is no recoil. The sight picture is not lost. I see a small, white hole form in the glass and her head explodes. I cycle the bolt for a second shot if necessary, but I already know it won’t be.

Her arm comes down. She turns around slightly in her seat and slumps over toward the driver’s door. Then I notice something odd. The sight picture has turned murky. Then I realize why. Her skull and brain have been blown all over the inside of the car and are now dripping from the headliner and sliding down all the windows.

My partner tries to radio the team and tell them that we fired the shot, but he can’t because everybody else is yapping. Someone deploys a flashbang in front of the car, and the team rushes the vehicle. The entry team leader breaks out the driver’s side window with his rifle butt, and another officer reaches inside to unlock and open the door. They both recoil in shock at the gore.

My partner and I pack up our stuff and start walking back to the staging area. I meet the incident commander halfway. His face is white. Really white. Mine probably is too. He asks me what happened. I tell him she pointed a gun at Jim and I had to shoot her. "OK, secure your weapon," he says.

After the Shot

I thought about going up to the car and taking a look. I wanted to see how the round made out after going through the passenger window. But I didn’t do it, and I’m glad.

The boss tells us to go back to the office and start writing statements. And without my knowledge, the negotiator calls the Texas Municipal Police Association (TMPA) and informs them of our shooting. They dispatch an excellent attorney.

Back at the department, the team gathers around computers so we can type our statements. And I meet my attorney.

We talk about the incident and he says everything is good to go. A deadly threat is a deadly threat, and must be dealt with. He outlines the legal process, and I feel pretty good about what is to come.

But when the chief hears there is an attorney here he gets mad. He gets mad at me. He says I don’t need a lawyer.

As politely as I can, I tell him anyone who stands a chance of being charged with murder better get a lawyer, and a good one. (Ask OJ.) After all, even when the criminal investigation is over, the civil stuff begins. And the city will not help me with that, and we all know it. So the attorney is here to stay, thank you very much.

Feeling Dirty

The interviews take all day. Everyone gets interviewed, and I am almost last.

By the time the detectives interview me, I feel dirty and clammy. Crawling around in the dark in the dirt and the wet grass with a rifle will do that to you. But that’s not why I feel dirty. I feel very exposed. When I pressed the trigger and killed her in front of God and everybody, I felt like I had just crossed a line.

And I had. At that moment I felt more exposed than if I had walked into a crowded room and dropped my pants. So here I am trying to make some sense out of all these different emotions. At least I have the knowledge that I shot to save another officer’s life, and that makes it OK. In the days to come I will have second thoughts about that.

So now I’m in the interview, and something happens for the first time ever. The detectives I work with all the time are reading me my Miranda Warning. I’ve read all kinds of people their rights over the years, but I had no idea it felt this way.

My own agency is basically working a murder case on me, with extra detectives from another agency to help. No one is allowed to talk to me, and now I see the offense report. It says, "Murder" at the top.

What I did was certainly not murder. I ask why it doesn’t say "Officer-Involved Shooting" instead. They tell me the Grand Jury only hears offenses, and "Officer-Involved Shooting" is not an offense.

Great. That makes me feel just right. Anybody want to handcuff me so I can get the full treatment?

Finally, the interviews are over. I leave for home.

I pull into the driveway, but leave the garage door down. I need a few minutes to sort myself out. But the door opens, so my wife must have heard me pull up. I say a quick prayer and ask the Lord to take care of this. I don’t know what lies in store for me, or how it will work out, so I ask Him to handle it.

My wife walks into the garage carrying our little girl, just four months old. It’s then that I get the greatest gift I have ever received. As soon as my baby sees me, she smiles. Not just a regular smile. It was one of those smiles that says, "I love you with all my heart, just because you’re my daddy." At that moment I knew everything was OK.

The Mark of Cain

I have been off for three days, and today should have been my first day back on patrol, but obviously that didn’t work out.

So I’m home and I go in the bathroom to clean up. First I’m going to shave, but I stop cold when I try to look in the mirror. I realize I can’t look myself in the eye. Nothing like this has ever happened to me before, and I don’t like it. I shake it off and try again.

CONTINUED: After the Echo «   Page 1 of 2   »

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