The sliding glass window on the upstairs balcony was unsecured. The intruder had counted on that when he'd bought his one-way ticket from New York to Chicago. Shortly before midnight, he arrived by taxi from the airport and availed himself of the window, climbing inside the house he'd once lived in.
"What are you doing here?"
It was the voice of the woman he'd lived with for just shy of a year. Bleary-eyed, the woman who'd stayed in the house with her two young children after she'd sent the man packing seemed to overcome her state of befuddlement at seeing him again in her home. But if there was any doubt as to the reason for his nocturnal visitation, he cleared it up for her.
"I want you back," he said, the scent of alcohol trailing on his breath. "And if I can't have you, no one will."
Man With a Knife
"Barebones" can be a charitable characterization of the information an officer receives in his dispatched calls. Often, he or she may be lucky to find that the codified shorthand assigned to the call in any way approximates the situation at the location. When that information comes from an inhibited 911 caller, the likelihood of things not getting lost in translation becomes an even iffier prospect.
All the same, what was put out over the Bloomingdale (Ill.) Police Department dispatch was enough to catch the ear of Officer Bruce Beck: There wasn't much ambiguity to the "man threatening a woman with a knife" call. Deciding to head toward the problem location, Beck found himself formally assigned to the call by his dispatch seconds thereafter. Things were escalating.
Beck pulled up across the street from the house, where he found the handling officer, Mark Kreciak, waiting for him. The two men exited their patrol units and approached the location together.
The two-story house was a nice middle-class abode. Its blacked-out facade and stillness suggested nothing out of the ordinary given the late hour. That none of the department's officers had ever been to the dwelling previously only made the two officers wonder all the more if they had the right location. Approaching its front door, Beck stopped and canted an ear toward it. There he heard an undefined sound followed by a scream.
Any doubts about their having reached the correct location effectively erased, Beck tried the door. It was locked.
Beck stepped back and gave the door a full frontal kick on its hinged side. Bouncing away from the unforgiving portal and cursing his haste, Beck watched as Kreciak stepped up and deposited his boot against the doorknob side of the portal.
This time the door caved inward. Kreciak's momentum caused him to stumble. Beck darted through the doorway.
Drawing his sidearm as he crossed the threshold, Beck swept his flashlight before him. Illuminated at the base of a stairwell was a kneeling woman. A few steps up from her on the stairs stood a knife-wielding man. At the sight of the officers, the man spun around and began sprinting up the stairs.
"He's going to kill my babies!" cried the woman.
Beck rapidly ascended the stairs. Kreciak was right behind him.
Screams Down the Hall
Emerging at the top of the stairs and on the second floor, the officers realized that the man had disappeared somewhere down the darkened hallway to their left. Advancing as quickly and as cautiously as possible down the unfamiliar corridor, Beck scanned both sides in a bid to get a bearing on the man. He also wanted to know where the children might be.
Just as he neared the far end of the corridor, Beck heard the screams of a young girl coming from beyond a closed bedroom door.
The door gave easily under Beck's hand and his flashlight beam followed the inward arc of its swing.
Darkness retreated under the flashlight's glow and Beck saw the man once again standing toward him, a 14-inch butcher knife still in his hand and pointing at the throat of a terrified 6-year-old girl.
I can't believe what I'm seeing.
And then it occurred to Beck: I've seen this before.
As a Firearms Training Simulator (FATS) trainer and participant, Beck had seen such a scenario play out in one of the FATS scenarios. In it, a man had held a woman hostage with a knife to her throat. Beck's instructions to the projected image that he held at gunpoint had been, "Stop, drop the knife!" And in the training scenario the man dropped the knife.
Now, as he had in training, Beck commanded the man to drop the knife. But this time the man wasn't complying.
With his left arm draped around the little girl, the assailant raised the blade.
Beck squeezed off two 9mm rounds in rapid-fire succession from his SIG Sauer P226.
The knife-wielding man's body recoiled and hit the wall behind him. His arms fell away from the girl and the butcher knife dropped from his hands as he slumped to the floor.
The terrified child rushed into the outstretched arms of her mother, who was behind Beck. The man lay before him, bleeding profusely but still a presumed threat and as such he remained the focus of Beck's attentions. As he retrieved the butcher knife, Beck situated the man in a recovery position pending the arrival of paramedics.
Paramedics arrived and transported the 29-year-old assailant to GlenOaks Medical Center in Glendale Heights where he was pronounced dead within a half-hour of the incident.
The cause of death was two gunshot wounds to the lower left neck and upper right chest, as both bullets caused perforating injuries to the upper and lower lobes of the right lung before lodging in the right side of the back. The wound to the upper chest also severed major blood vessels that resulted in massive internal bleeding. It was considered the more immediately fatal of the two gunshot wounds. Toxicology evidence of alcohol was a predictable finding given the man's history.
Beck later learned the man had been in the house for 90 minutes before he arrived. The woman quickly realized her estranged husband's lack of stability and coaxed him out of the bedroom and into the kitchen to talk about what was going on.
The man's erratic behavior dictated subterfuge on her part from early on, when her pretense of calling him a taxi provided a pretext for her to contact a nearby uncle to ask for help. But when the man's actions became more erratic and threatening to her and her children from a previous marriage, she realized she needed the police.
"She had the presence of mind to wonder how she would let the police in because the front door was locked," Beck says he was told. "She went to the foyer to unlock one of the doors without him knowing about it and pretended to call him a taxi, but instead called 911. He asked why, and she said because he needed to leave. He said that if he couldn't have her, nobody could. That was when he threatened to kill her and slaughter the kids."
Beck had confronted the man at the penultimate moment of his making good on that threat.
"I was hoping—expecting—that he was going to drop the knife," recalls Beck. "But instead he started to raise it, and I'm thinking, No that's the wrong direction, you can't be doing that. He looked at me, and as the knife came to within an inch of her ear, it was clear he was going to do it. I remember thinking, I can't believe that he's making me do this. And that's when I fired. It wasn't like a hostage situation where I could plan something out and take a different course of action and look at something a little bit differently. It unfolded unbelievably rapidly."
Beck says he is comfortable with having taken the shot, noting that the difference in height between the child hostage and her assailant worked in his favor. That his observations were corroborated by his partner and the woman despite their staggered perspectives only strengthens his convictions that he did the right thing.
"I aimed for high center mass, while being aware of the girl's presence," Beck says. "I had my flashlight in one hand and the gun paralleling it in the other. The only ambient lighting otherwise was from a television set in the room."
Beck's lack of sensory perception at firing the two rounds found him momentarily wondering if he'd fired.
"I couldn't hear the shots—couldn't see any amber flash from the barrel of my sidearm. But I knew I'd fired because I could smell the gunpowder. I had tunnel vision. I focused on what I needed to do at that particular point in time. I focused in on the weapon and the individual and my shot placement. I didn't hear the shots go off."
Beck cites his firearm and Simunitions training as instrumental in his ability to save the girl's life. He is appreciative of that training, as well as the assistance extended to him by his co-workers and supervisors.
"I'm very thankful that my department was extremely supportive of me," Beck says. "I was in the loop on everything that happened. But you always think, 'Could I have wrestled something out of his hands?' But this guy was a butcher by trade, and it would be pretty darn hard to do something like that."
As far as Beck is concerned, however, the man with the knife was responsible for his own fate. "I was very mad at this individual for forcing me to do what I had to do. I guess that's normal," he says.
Beck says the department's policy of providing counseling has helped him deal with the emotional aftermath of the shooting.
"We had a debriefing with the department psychologist. He talked to all of the officers involved in the incident. We got debriefed as individuals, and we did a group one. The support of my department has been instrumental. When your livelihood is on the line and you're asked to do something like this, you want to be involved in the process."
Beck believes his faith has also played a part in how he has responded to the shooting and its aftermath.
"I'm not a super religious man, but I'm pretty grounded in my faith. I knew what I did was the appropriate thing and the right thing. If I had to do it again, I would do the exact same thing. I would not have hesitated."
For his decisive actions on that October night, Beck was named the 1999 recipient of the Award of Valor by The Hundred Club of DuPage County. He continues to serve the citizens of Bloomingdale.