Forty-four-year-old Jerry Kane's life had largely been spent outside the lines proscribed by society. And his contempt for the law was often manifest in violation of it, so it was perhaps predictable that the ex-con found himself on the morning of May 20, 2010, saddled with an outstanding warrant from New Mexico for carrying a large quantity of marijuana and an illegal firearm. As a member of the radical group Sovereign Citizens, Jerry probably saw that warrant as a badge of courage.
Unfortunately, this romantic image of himself extended to his son, Joseph Kane. Having been home schooled, Joseph's devotions to his father extended beyond his affections for the man. He hung onto his father's every word, and believed the man to be correct in his vitriolic appraisals of American society. And like his dad, Joseph was determined to live outside any conventions others might have decreed upon him.
The lives of Joseph Kane and others might have been well served had the young man exhibited some of the rebellious tendencies associated with adolescence. Unfortunately for West Memphis police narcotics interdiction officers Brandon Paudert and Bill Evans, that was not to be the case.
When Paudert and Evans initiated a stop of the Kanes' Dodge Caravan on Interstate 40, the elder Kane yielded the van without incident. But that quickly changed when the officers parked behind the van and approached on foot.
Perhaps it was the strong possibility that his father might be arrested that led Joseph to arm himself with an AK-47. Maybe it was the knowledge that he, too, would be subject to arrest for the firearms and marijuana the Kanes had in their possession. Whatever the impetus for his actions, they were as sudden and aggressive as they were decisive.
Sixteen-year-old Joseph Kane gunned down the two lawmen with the assault rifle.
Arkansas Game and Fish Warden Mike Neal was working 65 miles from West Memphis when he got word of the officers' murders. The news hit him hard and the fact that their shootings had taken place within his patrol jurisdiction made the news resonate all the stronger. He headed toward the scene.
Neal arrived in West Memphis 90 minutes later. The general consensus of officers communicating over police frequencies was that the two suspects were still in the area. The Game and Fish warden patrolled the area in hopes of spotting the outstanding van. He'd been on the streets for about 15 minutes when an update went out: Possible suspects were spotted in a Walmart parking lot.
Neal happened to be driving in front of that very parking lot and pulled into an entryway. While he waited for other units to arrive, he rolled down the window of his truck to listen for activity. When a West Memphis officer pulled into the parking lot, Neal fell in behind him. As they drove past the store's front doors, Neal heard gunfire.[PAGEBREAK]
Moments earlier, Crittenden County Chief Deputy W.A. Wren and Sheriff Dick Busby had entered the opposite end of the Walmart lot. Seeing the suspect van turn from a parking aisle directly in front of them, the officers pulled face-to-face with the van to prevent the suspects from escaping. The two officers immediately came under fire.
Jerry Kane stepped one foot outside of the van and aimed his pistol between the door and door post at the officers. The younger Kane raked the windshield of their patrol unit with automatic fire from his AK-47. Wren was hit four times in the abdomen and Busby was shot once in the shoulder.
The Kanes had wounded the two officers but they had also disabled their patrol car, effectively blocking their own escape. The father put the van in reverse and started to accelerate.
The men never knew what hit them.
At the sound of gunfire, the police car in front of Neal stopped to take up a position to fire. Neal drove around the patrol car and hit the accelerator. He stomped on the pedal with such force that his Chevy 1500 truck was already at 50 mph by the time it impacted against the left rear portion of the van, bringing it to an abrupt halt.
The van rocked to a stop. The driver and the game warden stared at one another through the left rear passenger window.
Neal held his M4 Bushmaster rifle at the ready in his right hand. Kane immediately spun around and engaged Neal with a Taurus Judge, a combination .45 Long Colt and .410 caliber handgun. Neal opened up with his department-issue rifle.
The Bushmaster did its job. The elder Kane was hit in the face. But no sooner did Neal recognize that he'd eliminated one threat than shards of glass cascaded about his face and upper torso as bullets from Joseph Kane's AK-47 riddled his patrol unit.
With his front windshield, hood, and dash being ripped apart all around him, Neal could only catch glances of amber flashes from Joseph Kane's assault rifle. Neal couldn't get a bead on his assailant, so he aimed for the flashes themselves. He found himself playing a high-speed, high stakes game of cat and mouse, ducking and resurfacing above the visual plane of the dash and firing as fast as circumstances would allow. The only saving grace was the belief that his assailant was spraying blindly, raking the front of his patrol vehicle with as many rounds as possible in the agitated hopes that he'd put the officer down.
Neal was just as determined. He squeezed off round after round until 30 bullets had exited his windshield and into the van mere feet way. Ammo depleted, Neal attempted to reload without success. He was lying atop his service weapon, his shotgun was still in the rack, so he was effectively disarmed. Worse, he had no idea how many suspects might be in the van. He knew that he had to put some distance between the threat and himself.
Why are you still shooting at me? Neal wondered.
Neal put the truck in reverse, blindly steering away from the van.
His truck canted against a concrete easement. Neal reloaded his rifle as several other officers continued to fire on the van. Darting for the back of his truck, Neal felt burning and stinging in his back and side. He'd been shot. A suspect's round had fragmented and struck him in his side, his leg, and right behind his arm.
Another officer approached Neal and checked him out. Satisfied that he'd be none the worse for wear, Neal joined the other officers in approaching the Kanes' van.
Both father and son were dead.[PAGEBREAK]
Although communications following the initial shooting were not clear, Neal was able to quickly size up the situation that unfolded in front of him in the parking lot.
"The only information we had was incorrect information," reflects Neal. "It was a white church van that we were looking for. We didn't know how many suspects there were. One report said it was possibly the MS-13 gang. We didn't have a whole lot of good information to go on. When I pulled into the parking lot, there was a white van and it was engaging police officers. I could see officers on the ground, so in my mind they had just killed two officers in front of me. So at that point in time, I thought there were four officers dead. That was the reason I engaged them the way I did."
Still, that aggressive approach was not lightly considered; Neal had made some consciously split-second tactical choices prior to impact.
"In our county, we're trained to shoot through the windshield of our vehicles if needed to eliminate a threat," says Neal. "So I knew at that point that I was going to engage the suspects through the front windshield of my vehicle. I proceeded as quickly as possible toward the suspects. They heard me coming and started backing up. They made a slight turn in an attempt to turn their car around. I made the decision to ram the van to stop it from getting out of the parking lot. I hit the left rear end of the van and a gunfight ensued."
In addition to the training he received as a law enforcement officer, Neal cites a variety of life experience that helped him react decisively that day.
"There are three factors in my life that enabled me to handle what I did. First, I became a deputy sheriff at the age of 21. Second, I was a firefighter for more than 10 years. There's no greater pressure than being in a burning house fighting a fire. You learn to adapt and overcome, and think quickly under pressure. Third, I was born and raised in the funeral business, so my perception of death and dying are different than the average person. It helped more in the aftermath than anything.
"Normal people will experience on average three deaths in their lifetime that they have to deal with, no more than four or five. I dealt with it every day. I grew up in a small town, so people that I knew and grew up around, died. I knew these people. I had to learn how to deal with that, be professional, and help these people through their times of grief."
Neal has never doubted that the Kanes placed him and the other officers in a kill-or-be-killed situation.
"The reason I had to take their lives was because of their own actions. I hope I never have to do that again, or to an innocent person. When you take the oath as an officer, you know that it can happen. It's not something you want to happen. You hope it never happens that you have to take someone else's life. I had to take two people's lives."
Neal credits mental preparation for his ability to act so quickly that day. He advises other officers to always be prepared for what a call might bring.
"That day, I was prepared. I've been on a lot of calls. You show up, you work the call, nothing happens, you go home. But be prepared when you show up for that call. Be aware and be prepared," he says.
And he cautions fellow officers to never think that their assignment means they won't face a deadly threat. "I'm a game warden. Look what I got into. If it were you, would you be prepared? Would you be able to handle this situation?"
Neal has received multiple medals of valor, lifesaving awards, government citations, and distinguished service honors for his actions, including the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund Officer of the Month and the NRA's Officer of the Year awards. He continues to serve the State of Arkansas as a Game and Fish Officer, and travels around the country speaking about his experience.
What Would You Do?
- Put yourself in the shoes of Arkansas Game and Fish Warden Mike Neal and ask yourself the following questions:
- Neal's split-second decision to ram the suspects' van gave him an element of surprise that ultimately proved decisive. What unconventional tactics might you use when confronting suspects armed with assault rifles?
- What do you think of Neal's actions in bypassing another unit to ram the van? What possible complications do you see coming of it?
- Neal made a conscious choice to engage the suspects through the windshield of his unit and had the firepower and mental discipline to make good on it. Would you feel as optimistic, given the firepower available to you in your patrol vehicle?
- His life experience allowed Neal to deal with the shooting very well. Have you any particular life experience that would help you better cope in the aftermath of a shooting? Or has there been something in your past that might actually make dealing with a shooting more difficult?