Having been pulled from their usual gang assignment to work a Fourth of July detail, Fontana, Calif., officers Frank Tolerico and Brian McLane resigned themselves to the usual aggravations associated with the holiday shift: Citing people for possession of contraband fireworks, confiscating explosives, and generally preventing associated fires and mayhem.
But as their slick car neared the intersection of Holly and Juniper, various illegal combustibles illuminated the night sky and something caught their eye: a lone male BMX rider doing a serpentine weave on the sidewalk.
The cyclist's attire suggested "gang banger" and their spot lamp illumination of him confirmed it. The rider - Camilo Morales - leaned forward and pistoned his legs faster.
Heading Him Off
Officer McLane wasn't having it. He jumped out of the car and initiated a foot pursuit of Morales as Officer Tolerico exited the passenger side of their patrol car and ran around to its driver's side.
During the years they'd worked together, Tolerico and McLane had been down this road before, with one going in foot pursuit and the other driving ahead to cut off the suspect. Tonight, it was Tolerico's turn to do the corralling and he put the car in gear.
Driving past his partner, Tolerico angled his car in front of the cyclist in a bid to head him off. But as he did, Morales pulled up short, jumped off the bike, and ran in the opposite direction. Tolerico jumped out of the car and took chase after Morales.
Sprinting down the alley, Tolerico felt good about his prospects of catching the cyclist. A longstanding regimen of weight training and running had endowed the 43-year-old officer with the strength and stamina of a much younger man, and at 6-foot-1-inch, 215 pounds, a stride tWhat he didn't know was just how pivotal his conditioning would prove to be over the course of the next few minutes.
For he had no idea who he was chasing. Ironically, during the preceding weeks Tolerico and McLane had searched for Morales in a bid to stop the man's ongoing campaign of terror in the neighborhood. Morales, a member in good standing of gangs in the nearby cities of Ontario and Lynwood, had been responsible for generating numerous "man with a gun" calls during the preceding weeks. But thus far, they'd been unable to locate the man who was called "Sniper" by his homies.
Now, that same man was leading Tolerico full speed down an alley.
How far had he chased this guy? A hundred yards? Two? Tolerico didn't know. But he closed the distance and clothes-lined the suspect from behind. The blindsided gang member skidded across the pavement. Jumping atop Morales, Tolerico grappled for control.
Morales immediately began punching Tolerico with his fists. Tolerico punched back, and Morales' head banged hard off the bumper of a pickup parked in the alley. The blow was jarring enough to make Tolerico wince and give him cause to think he might've gained the upper hand.
But it was Tolerico who found himself doubling over, centerpunched by something that was followed a split-second later by a searing pain that tore into his neck.
There'd been no report, no flash. At least, nothing that registered within his sensory perception. Yet Tolerico recognized immediately that he'd been shot. And while he still didn't know who this man he was fighting was, he intuitively knew that he was on the same page as the suspect on one thing: The man's bid for independence would only come at the expense of Tolerico's life.
Tolerico seized the barrel of Morales' gun with his left hand and torqued it away from himself. Both men were now on their knees facing each other, each with one hand on Morales' gun, each slamming their free fist at the face of the other. Throughout, Tolerico's chest and neck screamed for relief from the fire-like pain. But he refused to allow his mind to focus on anything other than the challenge before him.
That he might be fighting for his life against some gang member in a dark alley with no cavalry in sight was not how Tolerico had envisioned this Fourth of July. The occasional blast of a skyrocket and its punctuating percussion only added to the surreal nature of the scene.
However nightmarish the situation, Tolerico's mind retained a perfectly clear appraisal of it: This lowlife was determined to retain his ill-deserved freedom by taking away from Tolerico everything that was dear to him. That determination fostered Tolerico's resolve to take the bastard out whatever it took.
Tolerico's mind was firing on all cylinders, too. And at one point between punches, Tolerico's hand ventured down toward the duty holster on his thigh. But the holster had twisted behind his leg during the struggle and he couldn't get to his gun.
Tolerico couldn't reach his gun so he focused on the greater priority: Retaining what control he had of Morales' 9mm Taurus. It wasn't easy.
Morales continued to violently jerk the Taurus back and forth in an effort to simultaneously free the barrel and angle it at Tolerico.
"Hey," Morales' fetid breath whispered in Tolerico's ear. "Just let me go."
"All right," Tolerico replied with an incredulous tone, sure that any such amnesty would only guarantee his own death.
As though to confirm his suspicions, Morales laughed at the officer's words and bit down hard on Tolerico's scalp.
[PAGEBREAK]"This Cop is Dead"
The pure evilness of the laugh struck Tolerico every bit as hard as the fingers that gouged at his eyes and the teeth that tore at his head. The officer realized that Morales genuinely believed he was gaining the upper hand. For Morales, it would prove a fatal arrogance.
While Tolerico didn't initially recognize Morales, he had at least since taken stock of his situation and now knew what he was up against. But in keeping with his sociopathic nature, Morales' take on his predicament seemed to be one of assured victory. This cop is dead. If it meant his surviving the reality, Tolerico would allow this dirtbag to hold on to that fantasy.
Three minutes passed by-long enough for most men to become exhausted, let alone one who'd been shot multiple times. But Morales' grip gave out first, and Tolerico finally wrested the gun from him.
If the loss of the weapon shocked Morales or proved a point of concern for him, nothing in his manner betrayed as much. The gang member simply leapt up and took a couple of steps toward the fence as Tolerico staggered to his feet.
Was Morales going to jump over the fence, or spin, and fire with another gun?
"No you don't," Tolerico thought.
Drawing his own .40 caliber Glock 22, Tolerico squeezed off six quick rounds at Morales' flank.
Morales went down hard.
Alone In the Dark
Badly injured, exhausted, and still finding no other officer in sight, Tolerico keyed his portable and advised that he'd been shot.
His exact location remained as much a mystery to himself as it was to his fellow officers, many of whom had begun searching the area south of his patrol car in the belief that he'd run in that direction.
The pain in his chest and neck was overwhelming and the temptation to lie down and close his eyes was strong, but Tolerico leaned against the truck, determined not to go down.
Stay awake. Can't go into shock. Have to keep my wits.
As a department helicopter flew overhead, Tolerico used the tac light on his gun to get its observer's attention.
Seconds later, a corporal from Tolerico's unit, Pat Mackey, arrived on scene. Knowing that Mackey wasn't the kind of guy to panic gave Tolerico a genuine sense of relief. As Mackey began coordinating assistance and emergency rescue, Tolerico allowed himself to relax just a little.
His fellow officers loaded Tolerico into a black and white for the ride to Kaiser Hospital a half mile away, but then opted for the trauma center at Arrowhead Hospital. They also decided to forego waiting for an ambulance as a similar "scoop and load" had figured prominently in saving the life of Kevin Goltara, a fellow Fontana officer.
Until now Tolerico's mind had been too committed elsewhere to have acknowledged fear, but his chest felt as though someone had been using it for batting practice with a sledgehammer. During the eight-minute roll to the hospital, Tolerico suddenly wondered if he was going to make it. For a second, he felt his body go limp and he asked another officer if it looked bad.
"No," the officer assured him. "You're going to be OK."
So what if the guy didn't have a medical degree. He had told Tolerico what he needed to hear and the wounded officer willed himself to believe his peer.
As they pulled up outside the ER doors of the hospital, Tolerico made clear his intentions of walking in on his own power. But his friends let him know otherwise and placed him down on a gurney.
In a mordant bit of humor, Tolerico recalled a debriefing in which the previously transported Officer Goltara detailed the process by which the ER team had cut off his clothes and cautioned "not to worry about the shrinkage."
As they wheeled him into the emergency room, Tolerico figured that would be the least of his worries.
The first thing Tolerico did when he woke up the next morning was ask, "Is the son of a bitch dead?"
Tolerico was told that paramedics had arrived at the scene and were unsuccessful in their attempts to resuscitate Morales, who'd been shot three times by Tolerico's Glock. Having insinuated himself back in the country despite being previously deported, the gang member had ultimately succeeded in getting himself killed at the scene.
Several factors played pivotal roles in Tolerico surviving the incident, not the least of which was his ballistic resistant vest: Two of Morales' rounds had center-punched the officer in the heart area leaving a grapefruit-sized bruise on his chest; a third had been a through-and-through in his neck.
Tolerico's conditioning had also saved him-not once, but twice. "It saved me during the fight, and it saved me in dealing with the aftermath and recovery," he says.
Looking back on the incident, Tolerico believes that a controlled and constructive fury also played a part in his ability to prevail.
"I knew that I'd been shot and I was angry," he says. "There was no time to have fear. I've seen videos of other officers who'd just given up, or had died of non-lethal wounds, and that just wasn't an option. Even though I'd been shot and was in a lot of pain, I wasn't going to go down or sit down.
"We fought for about three minutes and I had a death grip on his 9mm Taurus from the second I'd realized that I'd been shot," Tolerico continues. "When I finally succeeded in getting the gun from Morales, I didn't know if he was going to go for a second weapon or not, or try to take the gun away from me as I had him. But throughout that entire incident, I felt that one of us was going to die, and it wasn't going to be me.
"Not that he didn't try. The entire time we were fighting over the gun he was still trying to shoot me with it. But I wasn't going to give up my life. He was going to have to take it. And that's why the second I felt I had an opportunity, I took it."
That opportunity came when Tolerico wrested the gun from Morales' grasp and simultaneously starting firing rounds from his Glock.
Adrenaline continued coursing through Tolerico's body for some time following the shooting, as did his determination to retain control over his destiny.
Later, and with the benefit of medicinal insight, Tolerico realized just how close his brush with death had been.
"They said it was a miracle that I'd lived. It missed my carotid artery by an angel's wing and exited within an inch of my spine," he explains.
Tolerico spent five days in the hospital. Despite being shot on July 4, he was back to work on August 20. Among his numerous awards and recognitions, Tolerico was named a Parade Magazine Top Ten Officer of the Year for 2006 and received both the Medal of Valor from Fontana PD and the California State Medal of Valor.
Tolerico has since retired from law enforcement and currently runs his own security company, Sheepdog Security.
He says he wishes to impart one last thought to those officers who still do the job. "The biggest thing is to never give up no matter what. The adrenaline, the will to survive, you owe it to yourself, your partner, your department, your family to fight. You have to do whatever it takes to survive."