As an oil rig driller in Freer, Texas, Dennis Gurney had just disconnected an oil pipe when a heater used to warm workers ignited the diesel-laced mud that was being used in the drilling process. He was enveloped in flames a split-second later.
On fire, Gurney started down the stairs of the platform. But his presence of mind had not abandoned him, nor had the implications of the disengaged pipe for his co-workers. He doubled back and closed off the spewing pipe. His fellow workers then smothered the flames on his body and Gurney was transported to a hospital.
It was Feb. 27, 1980. Gurney was 23 years old, and the U.S. men’s Olympic hockey team had just defeated the Soviet Union in a game that would become known as the "Miracle on Ice." Burned over 75% of his body, Gurney would pull off an even greater miracle on this night. The young hero would die multiple times in the emergency room—and be revived each time.
Many painful surgeries and skin grafts later, Gurney set up a new life for himself in Montrose, Colo. What the town's dry climate did for him physically, its locals did for him emotionally as they welcomed the big-hearted and likeable Gurney into their fold. For a time, life in Montrose seemingly agreed with Gurney.
But the one-time hero remained acutely aware of the deep scars that traversed the most visible part of his body. Even if he didn't formally acknowledge the slights of ignorant strangers or fixate on every reflective surface that cruelly reminded him of what he’d lost, introspection sometimes got the better of him.
To balm the pain, he took to drinking. His capacity to lash out while under its influence soon took a toll on his marriage and resulted in repeated call-outs by the Montrose Police Department.
Officer Rodney Ragsdale was among those officers who responded to the Gurney residence. During one arrest, Gurney was as cooperative as any officer could ask for. He even joked with Ragsdale, both at the time and later when he was booked by another officer for yet another charge.
But Gurney's life spiraled downward. And it would all come to a head on one final call-out to the man's home.
On July 25, 2009, Gurney's wife, Pamela, called Montrose PD to report that he had assaulted her. Anticipating the response from law enforcement, Gurney retreated into his garage.
Among the responding officers were Sgt. Dave Kinterknecht, Sgt. Bernie Chism, and Ragsdale.
The trio arrived simultaneously. Walking around the house to the front of the offset garage, they found fellow Montrose PD officers and Montrose County Sheriff's deputies holding down the scene. One officer suggested that they kick the door in.
"No," said Sgt. Kinterknecht. "Let's first see what is going on."
Ragsdale accompanied Kinterknecht around the back of the garage to see what they were up against.
One side of the garage was solid wall; the opposite side had a bathroom window. Tinted windows ran the length of its rear, obscuring anything inside while backlighting any cumbersome entry attempt. This left a closed overhead door and a locked walk-in door adjacent to it the only options for entry. Sgt. Chism had already tried to gain access through each of these two doors. The family provided a variety of means—a key...access code…door opener. None worked. Each portal had been sabotaged by Gurney.
Meanwhile, officers milled about outside the house and beckoned for Gurney to come outside and talk. Finally, they received a response from inside.
That articulated refusal to leave fostered some initial optimism: Where communication was established, a dialogue might grow.[PAGEBREAK]Unfortunately, that dialogue was established with a cell phone-wielding daughter who arrived on scene visibly agitated. Over the phone, she let loose with a litany of profanity-laced demands, each word reflective of an attitude less interested in assisting officers than in getting this latest parental embarrassment over with. It was an attitude mirrored by her brother.
"I don't have time for this!" Gurney’s son yelled as he bowled his way past the assembled officers. Officers grabbed him as he attempted to kick in the front door. With the son pulled away and relegated to the sidelines, officers resumed efforts to establish a conversation with Gurney. Unfortunately, it was a no go.
Again, the same adamant request was made by the same officer: Let's kick in the door.
This time, Sgt. Kinterknecht gave the go ahead.
A Nasty Surprise
The presence of a gun safe in the Gurney garage had been made known to the officers. But the family assured officers that Gurney did not have access to the firearms. And in a conventional sense, he did not—he didn't have a key. However, he did have the tools to open the safe and disgorge its contents.
And so he'd barricaded himself in the back of the garage with a Benelli 12-gauge shotgun and a variety of other firearms.
The door splintered under the boot of Officer Robbie Satterly. The officers rolled into the doorway. And Gurney let loose with multiple blasts from the Benelli. Within the span of two seconds, 36 pellets peppered the doorway. Sixteen pellets struck Officer Larry Witte in his lower extremities; four more hit Ragsdale. Witte returned fire. Both officers collapsed.
As other officers dragged Witte from the fatal funnel, Ragsdale drew his .40 caliber Glock where he lay and covered the door. A long gun in tow, Gurney was approaching the entryway from the rear of the garage when Ragsdale spotted him. The man had closed the gap by half when Ragsdale fired a round at him, missing high and wide of Gurney's right shoulder but forcing Gurney to disengage and back off toward a bathroom in an office area of the garage.
Dead Man's Drag
Ragsdale realized that it would be in his best interests to back off, too, and get the hell out of the fatal funnel.
Some help toward that end would have been appreciated, but his fellow officers were dealing with Witte who, as far as he knew, had gotten the worst of it. Kinterknecht apparently had been hit, too. For the moment, it was up to Ragsdale to fend for himself.
Two weeks before, Ragsdale had been trained in the "shrimping technique," a means of moving the body along the ground by extending your extremities and briskly folding yourself like a knife. Ragsdale put the technique to work, inching himself far enough away from the doorway to get out of the kill zone. He retargeted the garage with his Glock.
Off to his side he could see officers tending to Witte. He heard the CPR efforts of other officers working on Kinterknecht behind him.
Stay with us, Dave. Come on, Dave. Look at me, Dave. Breathe.
The pellets that shattered Ragsdale's left femur made him unable to move. He resigned himself to keeping a vigil on the door across the driveway, waiting for Gurney to pop out one more time to finish them off.
Finally, Montrose County Sheriff's deputy Ben Halsey grabbed Ragsdale in a dead man's drag and pulled him further away from the hot zone before disappearing. But as third in line for triage, Ragsdale knew he would remain in a world of hurt.
Minutes ticked by before Chism arrived and dragged Ragsdale further out of eye line of the threat. Seeing the swath of blood that trailed across the driveway behind his body, Ragsdale knew that he’d been seriously injured and suspected that he might lose the leg. But the mere promise of help proved medicinal in its own right. Chism grabbed him by the jaw and said, "Stay with us," then went back to attend to Kinterknecht.[PAGEBREAK]Peace in the Storm
At one point, the suspect's son ran past Ragsdale to peer through the bathroom window into the garage. Ragsdale heard the report of a gun.
"Oh my God, he killed himself."
The son's words provided a bittersweet moment for Ragsdale. He realized that none of them were going to get shot at again, but at the same time he felt some measure of pity for the gunman and his family.
Ragsdale prayed aloud for Larry, Dave, and himself and gently sang the words of the old hymn, "He Gives Me Peace in the Midst of the Storm."
Additional comfort came from the words of a Calibre Press card that he'd kept in his locker for years:
I will survive any high risk call...I have succeeded in dangerous calls before...I know the tactics that I need. Even if I get shot, I can stay in the fight...defeat any threat...use deadly force if I have to...take control of my stress by deep breathing.
The words became a meditation mantra for Ragsdale, reinforcing his determination to survive. They had kept him company every day for years. And now they were keeping him alive.
Periodically someone would double-back to check on him, but none appeared more stressed than Chism, whom fate had tasked with ensuring that everyone and everything was being taken care of in the best manner possible.
As he lay there, Ragsdale began to feel tingling in his fingers and realized he was getting overheated. He unzipped his uniform shirt, pulled the front panel off his vest, then undid his gun belt and the top button of his pants. His measures provided some relief, but the tingling sensation continued and he was sure that he'd be seeing the Lord in a few minutes. And he was fine with it. He didn't want to die, but if he did he knew that God would take care of him.
Finally, a paramedic showed up and knelt down beside Ragsdale. Looking over his body, he asked questions to be sure the injured officer was lucid. Then he said, "I'm not going to leave you. I'm going to stay with you until we can get you situated." And he did.
Ragsdale was loaded into the ambulance next to the 23-year-old Witte. Seeing the pain and fear in Witte's eyes, Ragsdale grabbed the young man's hand and said, "You know, Larry, I think they're going to have to find somebody else to finish our shift for us tonight." For a second, the men shared a desperately needed chuckle.
At the hospital in Montrose, Ragsdale continued to try to remain upbeat and joking. But he began to notice that his every inquiry into Kinterknecht's condition was met by demurred responses. Finally, he pressed his comrades to be candid with him. With tears in his eyes, Commander Gene Lillard broke the news:
"Dave didn’t survive."
Recovery and Retirement
Ragsdale was transferred to a hospital in Grand Junction to repair the damage to his leg. His femur was repaired, but nerve damage to his leg left his foot permanently disabled.
Within a week, the Montrose Fire Department transported Ragsdale home to a hero's welcome. The support that family, friends, coworkers, and members of the community provided that day and in the months following let him know that the actions and sacrifices he and others made that day were appreciated.
Ragsdale particularly acknowledges his wife, Susie, for her efforts to console officers in the wake of Dave Kinterknecht's death, and his brother Terry for providing much needed help after his return home.
Ragsdale says only one person has responsibility for what happened that day.
"Ultimately, it was Dennis Gurney who pulled the trigger and killed one officer that day and wounded two others."
But Ragsdale wants to do all he can to minimize the likelihood that others might die, or bear the physical and emotional scars that others have in the aftermath of that day in 2009.
"Tactically, in retrospect, there's always a better way to look at things. I felt we had containment and we had time on our hands, and we could have used it more wisely. I don’t think that we were quite ready. We didn't communicate very clearly before the door was kicked."
He also notes that an officer who was in a position to shoot Gurney early in the engagement failed to do so. The man's philosophical beliefs made it too difficult for him to act in the reality of the moment.
"There are questions that each officer has to work out for himself long before they become an actuality," notes Ragsdale. "That includes the willingness to take a human life when the need exists. If you don't honestly believe you can do it, then perhaps this is not the job for you. Life sometimes has a way of forcing your hand."
Officer Larry Witte and Officer Rodney Ragsdale were each presented with their department's Purple Heart and Medal of Honor. Sgt. Dave Kinterknecht was decorated posthumously.
Kinterknecht was the only Colorado officer killed in 2009. His name was added to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in 2010.
Witte recovered and returned to duty. Ragsdale has since retired.