Editor's note: Listen to our podcast with Sgt. Dave Lawler about this officer-involved shooting.
Early afternoon. Sgt. Dave Lawler of the Linn County (Ore.) Sheriff's Office was helping a traffic car wrap up a crash investigation when a call came into the county dispatch: A man was standing in the middle of a Brownsville street and yelling.
When Lawler went back in service, the call of the asphalt toreador was assigned to him.
It was a five-mile roll to Brownsville, one of several small contract cities for which the Linn County SO provided extra patrol. The town had its fair share of dopers, but was generally quiet and nothing about the call made Lawler think that this call would change Brownsville's image any time soon. He began a code one response to the location.
But an update caused Lawler to bear down on the gas pedal-the disturbing party had retrieved a shotgun and was again in the middle of the street screaming. Another update indicated the man had entered a black Pontiac Firebird with shotgun in tow.
As Lawler drove through town, he passed Jerry's Gas Station. Seeing a black Pontiac Grand Am parked near the pumps, he thought about checking it out but recalled that the described suspect vehicle had been a Firebird. He continued in the direction of the call.
A third update came in. The man in the street had moved to Jerry's Gas Station where he'd discharged a couple of shotgun blasts. Muttering under his breath, Lawler realized that the car he saw at the gas station belonged to the suspect.
If informants reported their makes and models more accurately, he thought, they'd sure make my life a lot easier.
Doubling back on Highway 228, Lawler hurried toward the gas station.
As the gas station came into view, Lawler saw a man, Robert Earl Thompson, wrestling with a young girl near a car parked by the pump island.
Lawler parked his patrol car at the intersection of Highway 228 and Washburn Street, positioning the vehicle perpendicular to the pumps and hoping to block traffic and keep innocents from entering the scene. He jumped out of his car and watched as Thompson dragged the girl toward the front of the gas station convenience store. He held the girl's arm in one hand, a shotgun in the other.
Lawler thought about going for the AR-15 he kept in the passenger compartment of his patrol car, but knew that he'd be a sitting duck inside the vehicle: One shotgun blast through his windshield and he'd be done for. Foregoing his AR-15 for the immediacy of cover, he jumped out of his car and positioned himself behind its trunk.
The AR-15 was in the trunk, but popping it open would momentarily obscure his visual of Thompson's whereabouts. Maintaining his vigil on the man was a greater priority at just that moment.
Rambling and Ranting
Thompson dragged his hostage this way and that, yelling and screaming unintelligibly.
From behind his patrol car, Lawler called to the man, telling him to drop the gun and that they could work this thing out.
But Thompson proved oblivious to Lawler's words. His ramblings continued: He asked for a helicopter, a news crew, and the FBI.
Why don't you just ask for Efrem Zimbalist Jr. while you're at it? Lawler thought.
Lawler's money was on the man being high on methamphetamine, the drug of choice around these parts. If that was the case, the prospects of this situation ending peacefully weren't good.
Deciding to take advantage of the man's inner distractions, Lawler snuck back to the driver's side door of his patrol car. He retrieved his AR-15 and then positioned himself in the "V"-wedge between the open door and the frame of the car. Laying the barrel of his long gun across the hood of his car, Lawler took aim at the man.
Who's In There?
The backdrop was a huge concern for Lawler. The front doors and windows to the store were directly behind the shotgun-wielding man, but the afternoon sun was reflecting brightly off the storefront windows, rendering anything beyond invisible.
Lawler worried that people might be in the store and in the path of his fire. And his concerns were well founded.
The target of Thompson's outrage-his wife-had in the minutes prior to his arrival sought refuge inside the convenience store where quick-thinking employees had locked the front doors before taking cover.
Keeping aim on Thompson's center mass, Lawler continued to order the man to drop his weapon.
Instead, Thompson whipped the girl about unpredictably, hampering Lawler's ability to get off a shot: Thompson might swing her into the bullet's trajectory just as Lawler fired. Even if Lawler's round was on target, Thompson might reflexively squeeze the trigger of his shotgun, the barrel of which was aimed directly at his young hostage's head.
Lawler had to wait until Thompson positioned the barrel and himself away from the girl, who was holding up unbelievably well given her predicament.
The disjointed conversation continued. Thompson still made enraged demands to meet with various governmental entities, the girl repeating them so as to show solidarity with him (smart girl, thought Lawler) and Lawler tried to get a word in edgewise.
Suddenly and without warning, Thompson shoved his hostage down to the ground and started swinging the shotgun toward Lawler. As the shotgun's barrel rose toward him, Lawler squeezed the trigger of his AR-15. At the same time, Thompson fired his shotgun.
Where the suspect's shotgun pellets went, Lawler didn't know. He was just thankful to still be around to consider the mystery.
But his own aim had been on the mark. Thompson tottered for a second and the hostage heard him say, "Man, you got me real good with that one." He fell to his left behind the Pontiac and below Lawler's visual plane.
Lawler advanced on the pump island in a crouch, using the Pontiac for cover. Nearing the vehicle, he realized that there were two children in the backseat.
Lawler knew he couldn't run the risk of the man resuming the firefight with the children between them. He'd have to close this deal right now.
Lawler popped up over the hood of the Pontiac just as Thompson's upper torso rose off the pavement, his gun again swinging in Lawler's direction.
Lawler squeezed off three quick rounds from his AR-15.
One round split the man's spine while another joined Lawler's first in the man's heart. This time when Thompson hit the ground, he didn't move.
One of Lawler's rounds from this second engagement went straight down the magazine tube of Thompson's shotgun, disabling the weapon and probably saving his life.
After Lawler's first shot, the hostage quickly got herself out of the kill zone. Relieved that the girl had escaped, Lawler radioed for backup. A retired sergeant from the Linn County SO, Rick Benson, just happened to be driving by.
The owner of a firing range just down the road, Benson had his AK-47 in the back of his truck. He jumped out of his truck, AK in hand, and ran to assist Lawler who immediately recognized him.
The two men were joined by a third, Dep. Brent Hauke, who'd rolled hard from some distance out.
With the retired sergeant covering them, the two on-duty deputies approached Thompson, took away the shotgun, and cuffed him.
Lawler is surprised at how well things turned out, considering his usual marksmanship issues.
"Normally I get a little shaky. It was like someone was behind me the whole time telling me what to do, guiding me. I've never been so calm and steady in my life, like someone was looking over me. I felt like I had a bubble around me, like this guy couldn't hurt me. This was probably a dangerous way to feel, but it was just there in the back of my mind."
This time, the shaking didn't come till afterward.
"The only thing I had was an adrenaline dump afterward, which is typical," Lawler continues. "My wife was over the mountains near Bend, Ore., on a little vacation retreat and one of my partners had to go pick her up and drive her rig back. She said I was real jittery the rest of the night. That's pretty typical. When you're in that situation, you think, Wow, did that really happen?"
Lawler says that he hasn't had any problems with the shooting on any front.
"It went perfectly as far as nobody else getting hurt. So I've never had a problem. Still, I was surprised that there was this sense of equilibrium about it.
At first, this unexpected equilibrium response to the shooting concerned him.
"There'd been another shooting incident involving a kidnapping situation several years prior to this. I called the guy who was involved in that shooting to drive me to the hospital. I asked him if I was supposed to feel bad about this. He said that depends on you. He never felt bad or had bad dreams and neither have I.
"My office paid for a couple of visits to a psychiatrist in Portland who specializes in officers who are involved in traumatic incidents. I went for my benefit; it wasn't a fitness for duty deal or anything like that. I had an hour visit and she said I was doing fine and didn't need to come back."
Lawler knows it might sound like a redundant observation, yet he feels compelled to drive home the importance of mental and physical preparation for such an engagement.
"You mentally prepare yourself for any situation, as you're driving to it or any time you think about it. You think, 'What would I do in this situation?' I think that mental preparation pays off tremendously," he explains. "So does practicing a variety of shooting positions around your patrol car or different types of cover. You have to prepare yourself tactically, physically, and mentally on several different fronts, and the more that you do that, the better the likelihood you'll come out OK when something like this happens. When I got into this job, I had to decide that if I had to kill someone I wouldn't hesitate, that way I wouldn't have any problem in that respect later. And I didn't."
Lawler says his appreciation for the men and women he works with has only grown since the incident.
"I have total confidence with the people I work with and feel that my office is the best in the country. I know there are others who feel the same way about their agencies-ideally, they all should. But my sheriff and the administration took care of me. They hired me a good lawyer that deals only with officer-involved deaths and shootings. I didn't have any legal problems in regards to the shooting, either.
"Of course, it helped that the office did things by the numbers in the first place. Before I even got to the hospital to have blood and urine drawn the lawyer came in from Portland to make sure everything was done right. So there were no concerns there."
Lawler received the American Legion state and local awards as Officer of the Year. He was also given the Oregon Police Officers' Association's Medal of Honor and the Oregon State Sheriffs' Association Medal of Valor, as well as his agency's Medal of Honor, the first time the honor had ever been bestowed.