After the Echo

It’s her left hand, and there’s a gun in it. I quarter her head with my reticle. Then I see her gun hand come up fully in line with the entry team members. She straightens her arm as if taking aim, and I squeeze the trigger.

The following is excerpted from "After the Echo: A Survival Guide for Police & Military Snipers," published by Varro Press.

On April 9, 2000, at about 2:30 or so in the morning, my pager went off. I called dispatch, and they told me the team was being called out to respond to a suicidal person who was barricaded in her car.

This would be the fourth armed standoff our team had had with the same person. Two took place at her home. The third at a local restaurant.

After each incident, she would be taken for a mental evaluation and then released. Another month or so later, we would do it all over again. We all realized she was suicidal and sooner or later she would either kill herself or make us do it.

This incident started with a call to the suicide hotline. She was then located by patrol and pursued until she stopped in a business parking lot. During the stop she displayed a handgun from the driver’s window. The patrol supervisor called for SWAT.

I was the last team member to arrive on the scene. The incident commander gave me a brief. And my sniper partner and I made ready and began deploying into position.

The first thing I did was turn up the power ring on my scope all the way and take a good look at her. The focus wasn’t good in the dark, but I was able to clearly see that she had a revolver, and it was cocked.

That was bad. Normally she had a gun, but tonight it was cocked. Normally she would wave the gun around, but tonight she held it up to her throat. She was definitely escalating toward something.

Negotiations continued but they were becoming pointless. The incident commander called me and told me to cover the entry team. They were going to move up and try to introduce some pepper spray through her car’s back window using a 37mm launcher.

The first 37mm shot bounces off the top of the car. The second hits the chrome strip at the top of the window and shatters the glass. But it stays in place, and now the officers can’t see through it.

She sees the officers and begins to move. She puts the gun in her left hand, moves forward toward the steering wheel, and begins to turn around, away from me.

After she switches the gun from her right hand to her left hand, she lowers both of her hands from my line of sight. The officers behind her car are just a few feet away, using her car as cover.

My partner is watching through his binos, and I hear him say, "Uh oh," just as I see her hand start to come up into view. It’s her left hand, and there’s a gun in it. I say out loud, "See the gun?" as I quarter her head with my reticle.

My partner says, "Yep!" Then I see her gun hand come up fully in line with the entry team members. She straightens her arm as if taking aim, and I squeeze the trigger.

The rifle fires. But I don’t hear it. That’s not quite true; I hear it but it sounds very far away. There is no recoil. The sight picture is not lost. I see a small, white hole form in the glass and her head explodes. I cycle the bolt for a second shot if necessary, but I already know it won’t be.

Her arm comes down. She turns around slightly in her seat and slumps over toward the driver’s door. Then I notice something odd. The sight picture has turned murky. Then I realize why. Her skull and brain have been blown all over the inside of the car and are now dripping from the headliner and sliding down all the windows.

My partner tries to radio the team and tell them that we fired the shot, but he can’t because everybody else is yapping. Someone deploys a flashbang in front of the car, and the team rushes the vehicle. The entry team leader breaks out the driver’s side window with his rifle butt, and another officer reaches inside to unlock and open the door. They both recoil in shock at the gore.

My partner and I pack up our stuff and start walking back to the staging area. I meet the incident commander halfway. His face is white. Really white. Mine probably is too. He asks me what happened. I tell him she pointed a gun at Jim and I had to shoot her. "OK, secure your weapon," he says.

After the Shot

I thought about going up to the car and taking a look. I wanted to see how the round made out after going through the passenger window. But I didn’t do it, and I’m glad.

The boss tells us to go back to the office and start writing statements. And without my knowledge, the negotiator calls the Texas Municipal Police Association (TMPA) and informs them of our shooting. They dispatch an excellent attorney.

Back at the department, the team gathers around computers so we can type our statements. And I meet my attorney.

We talk about the incident and he says everything is good to go. A deadly threat is a deadly threat, and must be dealt with. He outlines the legal process, and I feel pretty good about what is to come.

But when the chief hears there is an attorney here he gets mad. He gets mad at me. He says I don’t need a lawyer.

As politely as I can, I tell him anyone who stands a chance of being charged with murder better get a lawyer, and a good one. (Ask OJ.) After all, even when the criminal investigation is over, the civil stuff begins. And the city will not help me with that, and we all know it. So the attorney is here to stay, thank you very much.

Feeling Dirty

The interviews take all day. Everyone gets interviewed, and I am almost last.

By the time the detectives interview me, I feel dirty and clammy. Crawling around in the dark in the dirt and the wet grass with a rifle will do that to you. But that’s not why I feel dirty. I feel very exposed. When I pressed the trigger and killed her in front of God and everybody, I felt like I had just crossed a line.

And I had. At that moment I felt more exposed than if I had walked into a crowded room and dropped my pants. So here I am trying to make some sense out of all these different emotions. At least I have the knowledge that I shot to save another officer’s life, and that makes it OK. In the days to come I will have second thoughts about that.

So now I’m in the interview, and something happens for the first time ever. The detectives I work with all the time are reading me my Miranda Warning. I’ve read all kinds of people their rights over the years, but I had no idea it felt this way.

My own agency is basically working a murder case on me, with extra detectives from another agency to help. No one is allowed to talk to me, and now I see the offense report. It says, "Murder" at the top.

What I did was certainly not murder. I ask why it doesn’t say "Officer-Involved Shooting" instead. They tell me the Grand Jury only hears offenses, and "Officer-Involved Shooting" is not an offense.

Great. That makes me feel just right. Anybody want to handcuff me so I can get the full treatment?

Finally, the interviews are over. I leave for home.

I pull into the driveway, but leave the garage door down. I need a few minutes to sort myself out. But the door opens, so my wife must have heard me pull up. I say a quick prayer and ask the Lord to take care of this. I don’t know what lies in store for me, or how it will work out, so I ask Him to handle it.

My wife walks into the garage carrying our little girl, just four months old. It’s then that I get the greatest gift I have ever received. As soon as my baby sees me, she smiles. Not just a regular smile. It was one of those smiles that says, "I love you with all my heart, just because you’re my daddy." At that moment I knew everything was OK.

The Mark of Cain

I have been off for three days, and today should have been my first day back on patrol, but obviously that didn’t work out.

So I’m home and I go in the bathroom to clean up. First I’m going to shave, but I stop cold when I try to look in the mirror. I realize I can’t look myself in the eye. Nothing like this has ever happened to me before, and I don’t like it. I shake it off and try again.[PAGEBREAK]

No way. Won’t happen. Four million wild horses cannot make me look myself in the eye in the mirror. I barely shave, then get a shower. I decide not to think about it, it’s such a stupid thing, not being able to look yourself in the eye in a mirror.

The department sends me to a shrink. I don’t really have any good things to say about shrinks. But this guy’s OK. His name is Al. He’s a normal-looking guy, and he’s not looking at me like some type of interesting specimen. So we talk.

And he tells me lots of things. He never tells me what to feel, or how I should feel, or any of the things I have come to expect from a shrink. He simply asks how I feel, and what happened, then tries to tell me why I might feel that way.

Then he asks me what I saw in the scope. I thought that was kind of odd. I tell him I saw her head explode. He sort of looks to some faraway place and says, "I know what you mean." He sees the look on my face and then he says, "About 50 pounds and 30 years ago I was a sniper in the Army."

Our talk is almost over when Al asks if there was anything else that happened, or that I wanted to talk about. I think about it for a minute, and I tell him about the mirror thing. Al looks very satisfied to hear that and shakes his head up and down and says, "I was hoping you would say something like that."

Here I am thinking I’m going insane, and he’s happy to hear that I can’t look at myself in the mirror. Al tells me it’s called the “Mark of Cain,” and it tells him I’m a good man. He says normal people with strong values frequently experience it. Taking the life of another person is not easy, and it shouldn’t be.

He tells me I’m not going insane, it’s entirely normal and he was waiting to see if I would mention it. It will go away, he says. And he’s right, it does.

Back On the Job

So the next week I’m back on patrol and already my outlook on some things is starting to change. Things that used to make me crazy just don’t seem to matter anymore. Other things that I took for granted are suddenly much more important.

One of my officers calls me and says a citizen wants to speak with the supervisor because he is not happy. So I drive over to take the complaint and here’s this guy who’s mad because the police are not going to do anything about his neighbor’s dog that comes over in his yard. I listen to him whine for about one minute, then I drive away while he is still boo-hooing.

If this guy had any idea what I thought at that minute, he would never call the police again in his life, no matter what.

The Grand Jury

In some states the prosecutor or the District Attorney reviews the shooting and makes a ruling. If you live in a state like that, go ahead and count your lucky stars.

Everyone else reading this probably knows that if they are involved in a shooting, their case will be presented to the Grand Jury, and they might be called to testify. After all, it’s a homicide, and the Grand Jury has to decide if it was justified or if you need to be charged with murder.

My shooting was April 9, 2000. My Grand Jury appearance was June 1, 2000. I thought that was a long time, but in the real world, it’s not. It is a long time to wait, though, when you’re the one going in there.

It’s hard to explain the emotions involved in waiting to talk to this small group of people that you don’t know, who are going to decide whether or not to try you for murder. Of course you know your shooting was absolutely justified, ethically, morally, and according to law. But that doesn’t mean they’ll agree with you.

While I’m in limbo, waiting to know when the Grand Jury is going to hear my case, I get mail from the District Attorney’s office. At the top it says, "Criminal District Attorney," and goes on to inform me that his office will be presenting my case to the Grand Jury for the listed offense: "MURDER" "FELONY 1" "INTENDS SERIOUS BODILY INJURY/DEATH."

This is a form letter and they’ve already told me it’s only a formality, but no matter what they say, you can’t fully understand how bad it sucks to see your name on something like that…until you read it there.

I walk into the Grand Jury room and stand at the podium. The Grand Jurors are looking at me like I’m something they’ve never seen before.

I figured this is my one chance to tell them what happened and why it was necessary, so I better make it good. I thought I would also give them a little class on SWAT, and the information would help them make a better decision.

The prosecutor asks me to introduce myself, and I do. Then he tells me I am not obligated to be here today, but the Grand Jury wanted to hear from me. Then he reads me my rights and asks if I want to answer questions. I tell him I will be happy to answer any questions they might have.

I begin by telling them a little about SWAT and how it works. Then I tell the story. I’m careful to stress those parts that clearly illustrate the kind of danger my teammates faced and how there was no other option to save a life.

I feel like I’m doing a pretty good job so far. I even use a chair to demonstrate what the suspect did, and what all the angles looked like. I cover it all, man. So when I finish, I think even Ray Charles could see that I did what had to be done.

Imagine my surprise when one of the jurors asks me, "You mean y’all are out there with rifles aimed at people?"

The urge to soil my pants is almost overwhelming. In a few minutes this guy is going to decide whether or not I go to trial for murder, and it looks like he missed the whole point.

Let me digress here and say something else about snipers going to Grand Jury. You see, if an officer stops somebody on traffic and they have a shootout, that officer is a hero. He drew down on somebody who was going to shoot him, and he shot it out with them "fair and square," and won. Just like John Wayne.

People love that guy. The Grand Jury will shake his hand, tell him how glad they are he is out there, and they’ll make him feel good about this crappy part of the job he has to do.

But we snipers are different. We hide. Unless we shoot, no one should ever know we were there. When we do have to fire, the killing stroke comes from afar, unseen, and totally without notice.

Let’s face it, the very idea of someone who is highly trained in precision shooting with a very accurate high-powered rifle, lying concealed in a hidden position, ready to take a life with no hesitation, simply scares most people.

The jurors have an opportunity to ask any last-minute questions, but there are none. I am allowed to leave, and I go home.

Near Tragic Mistake

The Grand Jury was supposed to vote that day, but they didn’t; instead, they passed. That really scared me. Now I’m really stressed. What’s going on? Nobody has any answers.

In July, almost 40 days after my appearance, I get word the Grand Jury finally no billed me. It wasn’t until May of 2001, a whole year after the shooting, that I found out one reason why the Grand Jury took so long to vote and no bill me.

The lead detective on my case made a mistake. She told the jurors the suspect had the gun in her right hand, and had turned around to the right. I told them it was in her left hand, and she had turned around to the left.

If the gun had been in her right hand, I think it would be almost impossible for it to end up where it did after the shooting. No one can dispute where it ended up; we have a picture of that. So if the lead detective, the one responsible for the murder investigation, tells you the gun was in the suspect’s right hand, and the shooter says it was in her left hand, who do you believe?

The Grand jurors just might ask, "Are the police hiding something or are they incompetent?"

No wonder. I would have taken all the time in the world with that decision, too. Meanwhile I’m sitting out there wondering what the problem is. One simple mistake, and there you are. She did have the gun in her right hand, until she put it in her left hand as she turned around.

In all the videotaped interviews, in all the reports and statements, everybody who knew, said the gun was in her left hand when I shot her.

So that’s how close I came to being indicted, fired by my agency, and tried for murder. The media would have beaten me up. I might have lost my house, because without a job it’s hard to make a house payment. I would have been arrested, jailed, and made to post bond, if I could, just like a regular criminal.

And, of course, the trial would have lasted all of one day after they discovered this stupid mistake.

Let me sum up by saying that surviving as a police sniper involves two problems. Problem number one is properly making the shot so an innocent life is saved. Problem number two is surviving everything that comes after that shot. Please trust me when I tell you that problem number two is much tougher than problem number one.

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