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Departments : Shots Fired

Shots Fired: Tempe, Arizona 03/03/2015

Called to check the welfare of a young woman, Officer Julie Werhnyak faced a knife-wielding man in a darkened condo kitchen.

June 09, 2016  |  by - Also by this author

Photo: Ziemba Photographic Arts
Photo: Ziemba Photographic Arts

Like many law enforcement officers, Julie Werhnyak of the Tempe (AZ) Police Department had a routine she practiced before reporting for her shift. But on Tuesday morning March 3, 2015, something didn't feel right. Officer Werhnyak had a premonition that something was going to happen. It bothered her so much that she altered her routine and even pinned her hair back differently.

Werhnyak then said her personal pre-duty mantra: "I accept and expect that I will be involved in a violent encounter today, and I will do whatever I need to do to ensure that I am successful." And before she left her home she pocketed a challenge coin given to her by a SWAT unit commander from a neighboring agency. It was inscribed "Our meeting is not by chance. It is God's will."

Werhnyak's first call that morning went without incident. Then dispatch sent her on a "check welfare."

Unanswered Messages

The check welfare complainant was a young man who had notified the police that something was happening to his girlfriend's sister.

The girlfriend's sister left a voice message on his girlfriend's phone asking for help. The girlfriend was at work at the time so the message was not noticed for several hours.

A subsequent message came in saying the woman had gone to a local theater to see a movie. Her loved ones went to the theater to look for her. They did not find her.

The woman's sister sent her boyfriend over to the condo where the woman lived with her boyfriend, Matthew Metz, 26. He found both their cars in the parking lot of the condo and went to their door.

Repeated knocks went unanswered. But he heard people talking. And he thought he heard a scream.

The sister's boyfriend dialed 911. Officers were dispatched shortly after 12:35 p.m.

Muffled Screams

Werhnyak arrived on the scene first, followed by her friend Latasha Hampton. They spoke with the complainant, the sister's boyfriend, and learned there was no history of violence in the couple's relationship. The complainant even described Metz as a "really nice guy."

The characterization of Metz as a "nice guy" should have been reassuring but Werhnyak was still uneasy. And so was Officer Hampton. Hampton turned on a voice recorder she carried on patrol and both officers went to the door of the couple's residence.

They knocked and announced. Repeatedly. Some 17 times. There was no answer.

Werhnyak had dispatch send the woman a text and she left her a voice message.

Hampton went around the back of the building to search for another entrance. She found a sliding glass door.

Hampton called Werhnyak to join her. She said she heard music turn on and then turn off then turn on and off again. She also said she had heard what sounded like duct tape being stripped off of a roll.

Hampton stayed in position at the back of the building and as Werhnyak made her way back to the front, she summoned a supervisor and other units to the scene. There she saw the father of the woman. He told her he had received a text from his daughter and all it said was "I love you."

We're Coming In

Hampton radioed Werhnyak, advising she heard muffled screams from inside. Additional officers were on the way. But Werhnyak decided she had to get in the condo's front door and stop whatever was happening.

The door itself was a standard wooden residential door, which could be easily defeated. But it was protected by a locked metal gate and Werhnyak did not have a Halligan tool or a ram. The victim's father had given her a tire iron, but it was too short and Werhnyak could not get enough leverage to pry open the gate.

While Werhnyak worked on the gate, Hampton, still at the glass door, called in to the victim by name and told her, "We're coming in to help you." She also told Metz, "We are coming in to get you."

Through the Door

Werhnyak was still working on the security door with the useless tire iron when additional officers, including a supervising sergeant, arrived on scene. They brought the tools needed to get through the door.

The officers formed a stack at the door. Sgt. Dennis Doran made short work of the security gate and Officer Richard Fairclough hit the inside door with the ram. It didn't just open; the bottom panel burst into pieces.

Werhnyak squatted down and looked through as she made entry. It was a bright day outside, but very little of the midday sun was reaching into the condo. The lights were off, the shades and curtains were drawn over the windows. A shadow moved inside illuminated from behind by light leaking through the blinds of the sliding glass door on the other side of the condo.

In front of the sliding door, Werhnyak observed the silhouette of the suspect, who had his back to her. She saw him reach over his head and drop twice with all his weight onto the victim who was on the floor. He then spun, looked in the officers' direction, and took off into the interior of the condo and out of sight.

Werhnyak said, "He's running," and continued through the door into a narrow entryway. She stated, "He went to the right," and waited for the other officers to enter. Officer Fairclough button-hooked into a small bath/laundry room, immediately to the right. Just beyond that, there was a doorway to a small kitchen and then it opened into the living area. Werhnyak no longer had eyes on the suspect.

"Where is he?" Doran asked from behind. Werhnyak wasn't sure, but thought the suspect had gone to the back of the condo to escape or barricade himself. "I think he went to a back room," Werhnyak said. She continued to slice the pie around the corner to the kitchen, expecting a long threat, but the threat was actually much closer. The suspect was hiding around the corner to the kitchen. He leaped out of the darkness into the hallway with a large hunting knife overhead.

Werhnyak fired two rounds.

The suspect was so close that the muzzle of Werhnyak's gun touched his body as she fired her first shot. At the same time, the knife penetrated the front of Werhnyak's neck, just above her left clavicle and less than an inch from her carotid artery. Werhnyak was launched backward through the air. On her way down, she fired a second round before crashing onto the tile floor.

Werhnyak's head hit hard and she knew she had been injured, but she didn't know how badly. The officers behind her were now shooting at the suspect. Werhnyak took advantage of their protection and scrambled out of the condo on her hands and feet. As she ran to cover, she called for medical assistance. "Two Paul Thirteen, I need an ambulance… I've been stabbed," she reported over the radio.

The Hospital

Metz was killed at the scene. His girlfriend—whose name has not been publicly released—survived. She had been bound and then stabbed repeatedly. She stated that Officer Hampton's reassuring words helped her to hang on.

The first officer to get to Werhnyak was Ryan Garnett. He did his best to comfort her and control her bleeding while EMTs were en route to their location.

Werhnyak stayed calm while Garnett rendered aid. "I was focusing on relaxing my breathing," she says. "I was also wondering if I was hit in the carotid and if I was, whether Fire would be able to save me."

Officers later told Werhnyak they were surprised at how composed she was during and after the incident. Werhnyak believes the reason she could stay in control after the stabbing was that she had mentally prepared herself and preplanned what to do in such an incident. "I knew if I was ever seriously wounded at a hot scene, that I would make sure I did everything I could to get to where Fire could reach me," she says.

Werhnyak was transported to the emergency room from the scene. The stab wound and a medical complication caused by the attack kept her in a hospital bed for four days. She also suffered a concussion and a shoulder injury.

Back to Work

Four weeks after leaving the hospital, Werhnyak was back on duty. She says it was not easy coming back, primarily because of being assigned to the Tempe Police Department crime prevention unit, where she says she had absolutely nothing to do.

"When somebody deals with a trauma like this, you can't put them in an assignment that is very stressful and you can't have them doing absolutely nothing," Werhnyak says. "That was really difficult." After two weeks on the crime prevention detail, Werhnyak requested to go back on patrol.

In hindsight, she recognizes she wasn't ready. Shortly after going back to patrol, Werhnyak was one of several officers sent to a call of five people stabbing each other in an apartment parking lot. After that call, she says she "hit the wall" emotionally.

Werhnyak didn't feel as though she initially received the psychological assistance that was right for her. "Law enforcement agencies need to do a better job of vetting the therapists we send our people to. The therapist needs to be someone trained in trauma who understands law enforcement officers."

Moving On

Julie Werhnyak retired last month from the Tempe PD with 20 years of service.
For her actions on March 3, 2015, Werhnyak received several awards and honors, including the Police Cross and the Life-Saving Medal from the Tempe PD and Officer of the Year from the Elks Club.

One of the reasons Werhnyak was eager to retire after 20 years was to dedicate herself to her company, Artemis Self-Defense. Werhnyak, a defensive tactics instructor who holds black belts in Taekwondo and American Karate, says the company offers tactical and self-defense education. In addition, Werhnyak presents and speaks regularly about this incident.

She credits her martial arts training for helping her both physically survive the stabbing and prevail against the emotional challenges that followed. "When the shit hits the fan you will not rise to the occasion, you will fall to your level of training," she says.


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