Det. Scott Wisner of the Connecticut State Police listened to the bursts of radio traffic. Old Saybrook police were in hot pursuit of a car carrying armed robbery suspects, and the chase was coming right through him or right past him.
Wisner was driving home on a wooded stretch of Route 153 to reclaim what was left of a beautiful early spring day off that had instead turned into a work day because a bank robbery suspect had chosen that particular morning to turn herself in. And now there was a hot pursuit rolling up behind him.
And more work to be done.
Wisner activated the lights and siren of his unmarked Chevrolet Impala and prepared to run some interference to help the Old Saybrook PD. He had two primary concerns: School was about to let out and the road was about to get much more crowded up ahead, and he knew his service Impala was not an Interceptor so he would only have one chance to take any decisive action.
His plan was to use the Impala to block the progress of the suspects' car up the two-lane highway. He thought that would box the suspects' car in and force them to pull to a stop. And he believed this incident would then end with the bad guys running from their car and him running after them.
Wisner made preparations to bail out of his car. A lefty, he didn't like having his service weapon wedged against his car door when he was about to need it. So he pulled his paddle-holstered SIG .45 off his belt and placed the holster and gun between his legs.
Mere seconds had elapsed since the radio had alerted him to the pursuit. Now Wisner could see the suspects' car, a blue Mercury Milan sedan, accelerating toward him from the rear. He maneuvered the Impala to cut them off.
The suspects had no intention of being cut off. The driver of the suspects' vehicle tried to go around Wisner's Impala, or through it, or knock it out of the way.
And he failed.
There was a crunch of metal as the Mercury smacked into the left side of Wisner's Impala. Then it seemed as if the two cars guided each other off of the road.
The Mercury was on the inside, so it was the first to hit the guardrail. It plowed through the barrier, snapping off the wooden posts, and crashed down a steep wooded embankment. Wisner's Impala followed.
Somehow both cars managed to avoid cracking head-on into trees. But the crash was violent. The Mercury had flipped on its passenger side with its open sunroof pointing directly at the Impala, which wasn’t even a yard away. The Impala was right side up but it had landed broadside on the slope of the embankment at a steep angle, with the passenger side much higher than the driver side and the front end wedged into a tree.
Wisner was a bit dazed and bruised from the impact, but realized very quickly that the paddle holster holding his SIG was no longer between his legs on the driver seat. It had flown onto the floorboard during the crash. Still thinking the suspects would try to escape on foot, Wisner bent over, searched for his duty pistol, and mentally prepared to run after them.
Then there was incoming fire.
The Impala's driver side window shattered. Bullets slammed into the car's cockpit. And Wisner felt a searing pain in his left shoulder.
There would be no foot pursuit.
The Extortion Plot
Det. Scott Wisner had no way of knowing it—nor did even the Old Saybrook officers involved in the pursuit—but the two men they were dealing with were facing much more time than just an armed robbery jackpot. And they were desperate because of it.
Court records show that Sebastian P. Award, 26, and Jonathan Alvarado, 24, had perpetrated more of a kidnapping than an armed robbery.
Alvarado and Award, with the help of an accomplice, had held a man and woman they knew at gunpoint inside one of the rooms of an Old Saybrook Days Inn motel. Their goal was to extort money from the couple, as the man had recently received a cash settlement from an accident claim.
The couple was held overnight and repeatedly threatened with death. Alvarado and Award even reportedly showed them the garbage bags and bleach they planned to use to clean up the couple's blood and bodies should they choose not to comply.
But at some point during the ordeal, one of the victims managed to get word to another motel guest to call 911, and that's when the kidnapping plot unraveled. The hotel manager called the police around 2:40 that afternoon.
Knowing their plot was foiled, the suspects packed themselves and their female victim into a stolen Mercury Milan and were trying to run when Old Saybrook Sgt. Donald Hull stopped them. The female victim was behind the wheel. Hull ordered her to stop and get out of the car, and she did so.
Award and Alvarado, however, decided not to go quietly. Award slipped behind the wheel and restarted the engine. Hull reached in and turned off the ignition and ordered both men to get out of the car. They continued to resist his orders, so Hull sprayed both with OC.
Despite the OC dose, Award still managed to drive away. Hull and Patrolman Thanousinh Souriyamaith pursued in their Old Saybrook squads, and the chase was on.
Now the chase had ended and the gunfight had begun.
Alvarado was firing out of the Mercury's sunroof at near point blank range into Wisner's Impala and Wisner was hit, still in his seat belt, and bent over searching the floorboard for his paddle holster and his gun.
Ignoring the pain in his shoulder, Wisner grabbed the holster, drew his SIG, and prepared to come up firing. He knew his only chance for survival was to act and act fast.
Wisner sat up and swung his SIG toward the gunman all in one motion. All he could see was the massive muzzle of Alvarado's .45 caliber Ruger Blackhawk revolver and the gunman's face. Everything else was a dark, fuzzy blur like black velvet.
Wisner put the front sight of his SIG on the gunman and opened up. The gunman dropped from view. The attack ceased. Wisner heard screams of pain.
A Lot of Help
As Wisner was returning fire, help began to arrive. CSP units had rolled from the Westbrook barracks to support Old Saybrook PD in the pursuit. And now they were the first officers down the embankment to help their fellow trooper.
Wisner heard CSP Sgt. Keith Graham ordering the two suspects to surrender. And knowing that he was covered, he decided it was time to try and exit the vehicle before he took any additional fire.
But getting out of the Impala was not going to be easy. Wisner was wounded; the car was at a severe angle—requiring him to climb the seat to the passenger door—and the automatic transmission was still in drive even though the crash had stalled the engine, so the doors were autolocked because the car was in gear.
Master Sgt. (now lieutenant) Patrick Torneo and Sgt. Rob Derry of the CSP arrived at the passenger door to assist Wisner out. They couldn't get in because of the engaged electric locks and Derry prepared to bash in the passenger window. But Wisner managed to unlock the door.
Torneo and Derry pulled Wisner from the Impala. Then Torneo hustled Wisner to his patrol car and drove him to the nearest medical facility.
Recovery and Honors
Wisner's injuries were not life threatening. One of Alvarado's bullets entered the detective's left arm in the triceps area and exited near his left shoulder about halfway between his arm and the back of his head. A second round nicked his left ear.
Although Wisner says he still feels pain from the severed nerves in his arm, he knows the outcome from this incident could have been much worse. One of Alvarado's bullets hit almost dead center in the Impala's headrest. If Wisner hadn't bent over to get his own pistol, he might not have survived the encounter.
Alvarado was shot multiple times. At least once by Wisner and later by Sgt. Keith Graham. Graham was forced to shoot Alvarado when the badly wounded man reached for his gun despite Graham's instructions to surrender. He died later that day at a local medical center.
Sebastian Award did not fire on the police, including Wisner. But he was trapped in his seat belt on the driver's side of the Mercury during the gunfight and was severely wounded—losing a kidney— in the exchange of fire between Alvarado and Wisner. Award pleaded no contest to charges of first-degree assault, conspiracy to commit first-degree robbery, and engaging police in pursuit in exchange for a prison sentence of 13 years. The judge actually gave him 12 years. An accomplice, who was not involved in the chase or the gunfight, got 27 months.
Wisner returned to duty after six months. He says that during his recovery he received support from family, from the Connecticut State Police, from other law enforcement agencies, and from local citizens.
In addition to the well wishes, Wisner also received several citations for valor, including the Connecticut State Police Medal of Honor. He was also named the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund (NLEOMF) Officer of the Month for December 2013.
Wisner really isn't comfortable with all the accolades and believes they should also be bestowed upon the officers who came to his aid that afternoon nearly two years ago.
"Many officers—and Sgt. Graham, Master Sgt. Torneo, and Sgt. Derry in particular—put themselves in harm's way for the sake of getting me out of that car," Wisner says. "The immediate exchange of gunfire had just stopped when they arrived, and those guys braved the fact that somebody could have popped up firing at any second to help me."
Wisner believes ultimately he was fortunate in many ways that not only helped him survive the attack and prevail in the gunfight but also cope with the aftermath.
"When you sit down and add up all the things that went right, it's pretty amazing," Wisner says. "If I hadn't put that gun and holster between my legs and hadn't had to bend down to get my gun, then that bullet that punched a hole in my headrest would have hit me." Wisner adds he is not advocating that other officers put their firearms between their legs during a vehicle pursuit. He just sees this action as part of the chain of events that led to his survival.
Wisner is also thankful that his shooting was a clear case of self-defense with no doubts, and he believes that is one of the reasons he has had no trouble coping with what happened. "I was very relieved to not have to make that split-second shoot or don't shoot moment," he says. "This was a shoot or die situation, not a shoot or don't shoot."
Det. Scott Wisner of the Connecticut State Police says there are several things he hopes officers take away from his "Shots Fired" story:
- Luck does sometimes play a role in gunfights. Wisner doesn't really know how to express it, but he believes fortune or providence is one of the reasons why he is still alive.
- Wear your seat belt. If Wisner had not been wearing his seat belt during the chase, he would have likely been seriously injured in the crash and at the mercy of his attacker.
- With numerous officers responding to a shooting scene, it's very important to avoid crossfire. Wisner says one of his primary concerns as he prepared to shoot back was fear that other officers might be in the line of fire.
- It's strange how trivial bureaucratic matters can remain important to you even under times of great stress. When his fellow troopers were trying to get Wisner out of his state-supplied Impala, he was worried they were going to break the passenger window, and it would take forever for him to get a new car. He laughs now about this because the car was not only severely damaged in the crash, it became evidence the minute Alvarado opened fire.
- You will fight how you train. Wisner says the reason he was able to instinctively put the front sight on his attacker under great stress and despite experiencing tunnelvision was all of the drills in which he was trained to do exactly that in close combat.