To Jason Hendrix and his fiancée, March 30, 1996, seemed a perfect day to go shopping for appliances for their new home. It was a beautiful, warm Saturday-"postcard weather"-and pulling into the Circuit City parking lot in Palm Desert, Calif., the couple found plenty of similarly disposed customers inaugurating the first day of Spring Break with their own various shopping sprees.
What the off-duty San Bernardino County (Calif.) Sheriff's Office deputy couldn't have known was that he'd soon confront a man with a very different kind of spree in mind.
Hendrix parked and exited his truck and entered the Circuit City store with his bride-to-be. Passing through the doors, Hendrix noticed a heated discussion taking place at a customer service counter. Figuring it was just another business dispute and none of his business, he continued to the rear of the store where the appliances were located.
For the better part of a half hour, Hendrix and his fiancée priced washers and dryers as a store employee dutifully went over the relative merits of each model. Hendrix tried to be respectful of the employee's time, but repeatedly found his attention drawn to the front of the store. With each passing minute, the disturbance escalated, the voices of those involved grew louder, and their choice of words became more blunt and profane. The argument came to a head with a woman's sudden scream.
"He's got a gun!"
Come On, Cavalry
Now, Hendrix's whole attention was fixed at the front of the store. The disturbing party was a male about 30 in jeans and a shirt. But Hendrix didn't know what to make of the situation, none of the dynamics thus far suggested a robbery. Still, it was enough for Hendrix to know that it involved a firearm.
Retrieving his own revolver from his fiancée's purse, Hendrix shoved it in his back pocket then showed his badge to the store employee who'd been helping them.
"Do you have any armed security inside or outside the store?" Hendrix asked.
But the talkative employee had suddenly become mute, stupefied by what was unfolding.
At least he isn't panicking like the others, Hendrix thought.
Chaos had broken out in the store as customers and employees trampled over displays and one another to get away from the threat. Still, Hendrix wished that the employee hadn't vapor-locked. It would be up to Hendrix to somehow ensure that neither he nor anyone else who stood to interject themselves into the situation would become a victim of friendly fire. Hopefully, he wouldn't have to get involved at all.
Telling his fiancée to call 9-1-1, Hendricks started to make his way to the front of the store.
"Come on, cavalry," Hendrix said to himself.
Out of the Store and Into Trouble
The disturbing party exited the front doors. He was prodding a second male forward while dragging a woman by her neck.
As Hendrix followed the trio out, employees told him that the guy with the woman in a headlock had a gun.
Hendrix moved within 15 feet of the trio and tried to blend in with the rest of the people populating the parking lot. His game plan was to simply keep a vigil on what was happening. Off in the distance, he could hear the blessed sirens of responding Riverside Sheriff's Department deputies.
Good. Maybe I won't have to be anything other than a good witness, he thought.
Hendrix's desire to be nothing more than an observer ended very suddenly. The suspect produced a Glock 17 and jammed it under the front male's chin and said to the woman, "I'm going to blow his head off!"
Hendrix now knew that if he didn't do something there and then, these two individuals were going to be killed in front of him.
[PAGEBREAK]You're Making it My Problem
Hendrix's hand went to the snub-nosed Smith & Wesson.
Model 36, five-shot revolver he'd stashed in his back pocket while inside the store. Pulling it out, he adopted a Weaver stance and took aim at the suspect. For the benefit of all present, Hendrix loudly identified himself as a police officer.
With Hendrix's announcement, the suspect-Robert Ripley-swung the female between himself and Hendrix. The male hostage took advantage of the distraction to dive onto the ground.
Hendrix couldn't believe how quickly things were evolving-and not necessarily for the better. He'd succeeded in stopping the gunman from firing into the man's head, but now another nightmare was playing out: The man was holding a female hostage as a shield and preventing Hendrix from getting a clear shot.
Further complicating Hendrix's situation was all manner of seemingly clueless people walking around them, between them, and behind the suspect. Hendrix had a clear shot on everyone but the suspect. Figuring the oblivious throng about them was a lost cause, Hendrix tried to reason with the man, advising him again that he was a cop and asking him to put the weapon down.
"It's not your problem!" Ripley yelled.
Hendrix wished it wasn't.
"But you're making it my problem," Hendrix told Ripley. "I can't just let you shoot these people. This is not the way to handle this."
That's Gonna Hurt
The female-who Hendrix later learned was Ripley's ex-wife-started to struggle, pulling the suspect to the ground with her. But as soon as he hit the ground, Ripley rebounded, yanking the woman up with him before opening fire on Hendrix.
Having already drawn a bead on Ripley, Hendrix immediately returned fire when he saw the first muzzle flash. His aim was true and both rounds tore into Ripley's torso.
Unfortunately, Ripley's aim had proven accurate, as well.
A bullet struck the earpiece of Hendrix's glasses before deflecting through his left ear and out the backside of his head. Reflexively, Hendrix reached up and touched the side of his head. As he did, he glanced down. Blood was seeping across his T-shirt above the abdomen, and Hendrix's weird sense of cop humor struck him then, too. Chuckling under his breath, he mused to himself, "Shit, that's gonna hurt."
Yet Hendrix felt no pain-not in his stomach, at least. His head was another story. It felt like Mike Tyson had beat him with his fists then done that Holyfield thing with his teeth to his ear.
Ripley had been hit, too, but one wouldn't know it to look at him. Incredibly, the man was moving toward Hendrix.
Hendrix had seen a big pillar in front of the store. In a bid to put some distance and cover between himself and Ripley, he ran for it.
Ripley stalked after him. Both men exchanged more rounds as they moved. Hendrix's third shot hit Ripley just as one of Ripley's rounds stuck him in his right lower leg, causing Hendrix to collapse onto his back as his fourth round went wide of Ripley, striking the store behind him.
Lying on the ground like some upended tortoise, Hendrix knew he had but one round left. From the outset, Ripley hadn't had to concern himself with conserving rounds, and was even still shooting at Hendrix. Desperate, Hendrix raised his gun once more at Ripley and fired his last round. It struck Ripley in his left leg, severing the femoral artery.
Still the man kept coming.
Hendrix was in a state of terrified disbelief-why weren't his rounds doing what they were supposed to do? Why was this crazy son-of-a-bitch still on his feet? How was he still able to advance?
As he dropped his spent revolver to the asphalt, Hendrix could only hope that Ripley might still retain some vestige of humanity and show some mercy.
Thirty feet away and closing, Ripley continued to fire at Hendrix. The officer could actually see the rounds exiting Ripley's firearm, peppering the asphalt around him. In a bid to protect vital body parts, Hendrix curled up into a fetal position wrapping his arms around his head. Another bullet tore into him, entering his left inner thigh before traversing through his pelvic girdle and out his left hip. Still another round shattered his right cheek.
Suddenly, Ripley was right on top of him. Hendrix began to beg and plead with Ripley to please stop shooting him. He told the man that he could go. There was no filter, no false macho bullshit, just a desperate effort to say and do anything that might mitigate his fate. He started to cry, and told Ripley that he wouldn't tell on him. He told him he had a family. He told him that it hurt-all in a desperate hope that some part of the man's humanity might assert itself.
Ripley wasn't having any of it. When he did stop firing, it was only to walk over and pick up the officer's handgun off the ground. Then he bent over Hendrix with his own firearm and put it to Hendrix's head.
Realizing the cold-blooded bastard was going to execute him, Hendrix raised his arm to cover his face just as Ripley fired. The bullet tore into Hendrix's right elbow and lodged therein.
The pain was beyond excruciating and Hendrix wanted to scream, but he knew that his only chance was to play dead and hope that Ripley decided against an insurance round.
Apparently satisfied that the round had passed through Hendrix's elbow and into his brain, Ripley walked back to his estranged wife and grabbed her, then hobbled toward his car.
That was when an unarmed off-duty highway patrol officer tackled him. A store employee jumped in to assist, and the two men held Ripley for responding officers.
Get Me to the Hospital
"This is not how I'm going out," Hendrix said to himself through teeth clenched in pain.
He lay on the ground, blood pouring from 13 holes in his body. He'd been shot seven times; most had been though-and-through wounds.
He tried to get up, but couldn't. His leg hung off to the side. He began yelling, telling people he was a cop and to get him an ambulance. It appeared as though everybody was in shock, but him.
"I looked up and saw my fiancée in the glass doors looking out at me," Hendrix recalls. "I laid my head back down and couldn't believe that I had just done that to her. I was frustrated and upset with myself."
A woman rushed out of the store for Hendrix. An off-duty trauma nurse from a nearby hospital, she immediately applied tourniquets to the serious injuries to his leg and arm. He was bleeding from his head, and internally, as well.
"An indescribable pain was starting to set in, mostly in the stomach," Hendrix says. "I never felt anything like it. I couldn't move to make it go away, so when the pain hit every 30 seconds, I focused on my breathing. By breathing in through my nose and out through my mouth and trying to keep my heart rate lower when the pain hit, I was able to make it bearable."
The first officer arrived on scene and advised over his radio that he was with an off-duty San Bernardino deputy who had been shot multiple times.
"When I heard that," recalls Hendrix, "it made it all real for me."
"I knew it had happened, but now I'm sitting there listening to one of my brothers putting it out over the air that I was the officer that was down. I knew it was bad at that point. My fiancée had come out and was crying. I knew I was dying, but I didn't want to do it right there in front of her. I hoped they could load me up and get me to the hospital quickly. I was getting really tired, extremely tired, and I just wanted to go to sleep because I had lost so much blood. I started to get angry and I said to myself, 'This is not going to happen here. I'm not going to die here on the asphalt in front of her, in front of everybody. This is not how I'm going out.' I started to make demands, 'Let's hurry up. Let's get me to the hospital.'"
What Hendrix was doing was trying to maintain some sort of control over both the situation and himself. He knew he had to keep himself engaged and aware of what was going on to keep himself from going into shock.
"They loaded me up for the 30-minute ride to the hospital-made longer because of the spring break commuters-then moved me straight into surgery. The doctors saved my life."
Ripley ended up surviving, as well, and was sentenced to 32 years, of which he has to serve 28 years.
Today, Hendrix routinely shares his experience that day with academy cadets, as well as his feelings on what things he would have done differently.
"I was carrying a five-shot revolver," Hendrix says. "None of the trainees that I have spoken to will carry one of those as their primary off-duty weapon. Five shots is simply not enough."
Hendrix also explains to new recruits the difference between shooting on a range and shooting to save your own life.
"I'm shooting five shots, and people think that it's easy to place those rounds where you want them. But when you're taking fire-and worse, when your body's taking rounds-you're putting yourself behind the eight ball the moment you engage with a limited number of low velocity rounds and your suspect isn't so hamstrung. You need to carry a larger caliber firearm with greater round capacity.
"I hit the suspect four out of five shots, and I think that's very good after being hit as many times as I was and returning fire while he was shooting at me and from a distance of 31 feet. But a larger caliber gun, with its longer barrel and better sights, also allows for greater accuracy."
Hendrix has only one other regret-not taking advantage of cover sooner.
"I should have been behind that pillar as soon as possible," he says.
Nonetheless, Hendrix's heroic actions brought a lot of positive recognition for law enforcement because of the outcome and the circumstances. He was chosen as Officer of the Year for the entire United States, the Police Hall of Fame. He also received the Frank Bland Medal of Valor, the highest medal of valor that one person can receive from his department. And the Hall of Fame awarded him a silver star and a purple heart.
He also continues to serve the citizens of San Bernardino County.