A recipe for PTSD

Ever wonder what it’s like to kill someone? Well, I don’t have that worry. You know the saying…been there, done that. And I’ve lived with the dead guy’s soul scrabbling around inside my head ever since.

I never thought about this sort of thing until it happened to me. And it didn’t take long to realize that once I’d pulled the trigger, sending bullets on their way, that was it. I couldn’t call them back. Nope, no “all e all ye in come free’s.” Not that I would’ve called them back, mind you. Not even one of them. It’s just that I sometimes wonder how life would be today if I’d never squeezed the trigger on my SIG P228.

Okay, enough what-if’s. Let’s get right to it. Here’s how I came about killing a guy on a blistering hot August day back in 1995.

The morning started off with me sitting in my office thumbing through a stack of offense reports from the previous night. Nothing special, a few drunks, some minor drug activity, a couple of break-ins, and the usual domestic he said-she saids.

Then it happened. The 911 call and silent alarm, both coming in at the same time. A young man—22-years-old—walked into a bank and pointed a long-barrel revolver at one of the tellers. He grabbed all the money he could carry in a white, wrinkled, plastic grocery bag, and then turned and calmly walked out the front door. The entire robbery took place in less than ten minutes.  The teller was left a trembling and tearful mess. An extremely traumatic experience for her. Victim number one.

The robber fled the scene and, unfortunately for him, he wrecked his car trying to escape. Five of us cornered the guy in a culvert beside his car—three patrol officers, one special agent from one of those “three-letter-agencies,” and me. I was dressed for court, wearing a coat and tie, which is not exactly the perfect outfit for exchanging gunfire with a bad guy on one of the hottest days of the year.

The robber had no intention of surrendering, and decided to shoot it out with us. Big mistake for him.

Four officers took cover at the top of a highway exit ramp, just above and out of the robber’s line of sight. I was closest to the gunman—twenty-five yards away to his left. My only cover was a small maple tree—a very, very small maple tree. At the time it seemed like a toothpick with only a few leaves.

The robber crouched down near the rear bumper of his car, where I watched him load his weapon—an old revolver. I yelled, begging him to drop the gun and come to us with his hands up. He ignored my orders and fired a shot toward my fellow officers on the hilltop.

The sound of his gunshot activated my brain’s slow-motion function. Time was crawling to a stop.

Somehow, and I still can’t explain it, I actually had time to look around before reacting to the gunshot. I saw my partners yelling, their mouths slowly opening and closing. Lazy puffs of blue-black smoke drifted upward from their gun barrels. I saw a dog barking to my right—its head rose and fell with each silent yap, moving slower than dial-up internet. Droplets of spittle hung in the air around its face.

I turned back to the robber, thinking “center mass,” and took aim, firing a single shot through the rear, side glass of the car and into the side of his head (that’s the only part of the body I could see at the time). He fell over onto his right side. I thought it was all over. Instead, the robber popped back up, smiling like a crazed zombie-like psycho. He fired four more times, pausing a few seconds between shots. This time I had a better view of him and answered each of his shots with one of my own, all directly into his chest. He fell each time a round hit, but only stayed down for a second.

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Bullet hole in the rear glass from my shot. The large hole in the side of the car is from a slug fired from an officer’s shotgun.

After the fifth bullet hit him, he hit the ground and didn’t move.

Silence.

I called to everyone on my portable radio, letting them know it was over.

Suddenly, the robber jumped up and ran toward the officers on the hill. I ran after him. He stumbled, and I and a sheriff’s captain who’d just arrived on the scene, tackled him. We rolled the struggling robber over trying to gain control of his hands so we could apply handcuffs to his wrists. That’s when we saw that he still clutched the revolver in his right hand. He was squeezing the trigger repeatedly, but the gun was empty.

To this day, I can still hear the click, click, click of the hammer each time it fell.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wondered…suppose there had been one more round in that gun? Just one more round. What if…?

Yep, one more round in that revolver and I probably wouldn’t be here typing these words.

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Paramedics with wounded bank robber.

The bank robber died a few moments later. I’d killed him. And that’s when my troubles started. You see, our chief didn’t believe in counseling and de-briefing. No post-shooting administrative leave. So I was left to fend for myself. Tough cops were supposed to handle whatever came their way. My chief actually told me that a real cop would just suck it up. In fact, his way to help me avoid “mental issues” as he called it, was to send me to the morgue to photograph the robber’s body and to remove the handcuffs from his wrists. I wasn’t even given the rest of the day off.

The robber died that August morning, and his soul left for wherever it is that troubled souls go. But a part of my emotions were tethered to him, and it was several years before they returned.

A couple of weeks after the shooting, my partner and I met with the medical examiner (this was the same medical examiner’s office where Patricia Cornwell based her Kay Scarpetta series). Even though I watched each of my bullets travel through the air until they hit the robber’s flesh (those who shoot a lot sometimes have this ability), it still hit like a ton of bricks when she told me that all five of the rounds that hit the man’s body were indeed fired by me.

The famous pathologist spared no details when she described the damage caused by each bullet, telling me which rounds inflicted the life-stopping wounds. Actually, either of the last four rounds I’d fired would have killed him. The first…the round that entered the side of the robber’s head and exited near the jawline, well, surprisingly, that one wasn’t fatal. Sure, it made two nice little holes and knocked out a few teeth and ripped through tongue and other meat and tissue, but he’d have lived if only he hadn’t continued to shoot at us.

All he had to do was stay down. Toss the gun away. Give up. Just STOP SHOOTING and he would’ve lived. I would not have been forced to squeeze my trigger those last four times.

Yes, I recall firing each of the five rounds. Still can, just like it was yesterday. I smell the smells. Hear the sounds. Feel the heat. It’s with me every day of my life.

In the beginning, the dead guy only visited me during my sleep. Soon, he grew restless and figured if he couldn’t sleep, then neither would I. He visited me while I was at work. And he showed up during my off time. He walked with me while I mowed the grass, and he accompanied me to the store. His voice taunted me. His spirit tickled the hairs on the back of my neck just to let me know he was in the backseat as I drove my unmarked police car.

This was no downward spiral. No time for something that easy. This was a freefall straight to hell. Fortunately, just before I hit bottom I sought help on my own. And it took a few years to climb and crawl out of that dark pit, but I made it back and I actually think I’m a stronger person because of the experience. If nothing else, I have a real-life horror story to share.

Sixty-eight rounds of ammunition were fired during this shootout. The robber was hit five times, all five rounds were fired by me.  One police car was destroyed by gunfire. No police officers were injured by gunfire. However, soon after that day, one officer suffered a heart attack and died. He was 44. Two officers quit. Another died before he turned 55. An officer that showed up during the firefight died a few years later. None of us had received any de-briefing or counseling. None of us are in police work today.

Five more victims. Three dead. Three to go…

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Police car destroyed by gunfire. That’s me with the cop/porn-star mustache. This photo was taken by a newspaper photographer just minutes after the robber succumbed to his wounds.

*This is a repeat post, but I’m currently traveling with no time spare time to write. I will, however, be checking in throughout the day. I’ll be back on Wednesday.

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Writers’ Police Academy

  1. Shaun 'Hunchbak' D'souza
    Shaun 'Hunchbak' D'souza says:

    Lee Lofland,
    yes. i have always, always wondered what would it be like to kill somebody, as a cop ofcourse. i should compliment your effort on this post. it aint easy to write about stuff that mean so much simply because they’re horrifying. and true, it isn’t easy to get over such things in life. nobody become a cop because they want to kill. what you felt and perhaps still do, is justified. you took it down well. although it doesnt make sense on the whole, someday it will.
    inspired and awed!
    cheers.

  2. Daniel Smith
    Daniel Smith says:

    Love your thoughtful and often gritty posts.

    I’d like to offer an interpretation of your experience if you’ll indulge me for a moment. That wasn’t the dead guy visiting you. He’s dead and gone, probably in hell. What you experienced was a familiar spirit, familiar because it knew the dead guy. It knew his personality, his physical appearance, and it impersonated him to confuse and torment you. Why? Because that’s what demons do. You should talk to God about your experience. Counseling is good, but human counselors alone cannot help with spiritual matters.

    God bless.

  3. Dave Swords
    Dave Swords says:

    Lee,

    I hope that department offers (and encourages) counseling today. Many departments do, but many probably still utilize the “suck it up” attitude of yesteryear.