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COP TALES: Dealing with tragedy and grief

Cop Tales are true stories as told by law enforcement officers from all over the country. The stories are told in the first person. The actual officer’s initials follow each story.

A horrific scene

I was a technical investigator for the sheriff’s office. I was similar to a CSI, but my position didn’t question witnesses. We gathered crime scene evidence, such as dusting for fingerprints, photographing scenes and gathering evidence. One day the dispatcher radioed and instructed me to go to a residence. She notified me it was urgent, but I didn’t have to use the red lights and siren. When I drove up to the house, I noticed several sheriff patrol cars and an ambulance parked in front. The EMTs were in the process of taking a body covered with a sheet on a gurney to the ambulance. They were not in any particular hurry.

As I approached the front door, I heard several people crying. The deputy met me at the open door and told me that it was a suicide and that I would only need my camera. We often didn’t process suicide scenes, but the deputy thought it necessary in case there were legal questions. The deputy informed me that the victim, an elderly man, was being treated for cancer, but he was terminal. Unfortunately, he decided to pick a family gathering to end his life. He was the only one in the living room while the rest of the family members were in the kitchen and outside barbecuing. Everyone was crying and trying to console each other.

His widow, a frail elderly woman, was running around trying to gather up his bottles of pills from the coffee and end tables and said, “He’ll need these pills at the hospital,” obviously in a state of shock. I had never felt so sorry for someone. I was told later that they had been married for more than 60 years. The deputy and I just looked at each other. I took a few photos of the living room and left. It was one of the saddest calls I ever had. It sticks in my mind to this day.

- MH

Hey, you dropped something

One late evening, I was patrolling for the sheriff’s department down a side street with my headlights off. You would be surprised by what you could see at night driving with your lights off. I was extremely careful and drove slowly as I approached a large dirt lot filled with large weeds. On a lighted night helped by the moon, I noticed some movement coming from the corner of the lot near the fence line. I waited for a few seconds to confirm the movement. I drove to the edge of the lot, turned on my spotlight and immediately spotted seven people, dressed in black, huddled together in the corner. That area was spoiled with gang shootings. I left my lights on, exited my vehicle and called for a backup.

I asked the guys to walk toward me as I entered the lot. I removed my service gun and held it in my right hand, by my side, where they could see it. When they got close to me, I worked my way around them and used my flashlight to escort them to my vehicle. As we were walking, I was shining my light in front of me. The last guy in front of me was about three feet away. While walking, I noticed the guy in front of me reach in his pocket, pull out a handgun and drop it on the ground. I kept walking, spotted the gun while bending down and scooped it up. I placed it in my pocket while continuing our walk and never broke stride. None of the guys, including the suspect who dropped the gun, saw me bend over and pick it up.

I had the guys place their hands on my unit and spread their legs. They did not give me a bad time, nor did they speak. I had the suspect who dropped the gun in front of me the whole time. I told the guys that I was just going to pat search them for my protection. I started with the suspect, but instead of a pat search, I instantly grabbed and handcuffed him. I placed him in the back of the patrol car, identified the others and released them. As we were returning to the sheriff’s office for booking, the suspect in the back seat said to me, “I should have shot you.” I said, “Why didn’t you?” He said, “Because you had your gun out and I was afraid that if I tried to shoot you, and missed, you would have shot me.” I replied, “Yeah, I would have.” He then laughed and bragged about beating this case in court.

Months later, we went to trial for him carrying a concealed, loaded firearm. The DA presented the case and I testified according to the facts stated above. At the end of the trial, the judge ruled in the suspect's favor. The judge didn’t believe I could have seen the person who actually dropped the gun. The suspect walked out of the courthouse laughing with his friends. I was shocked that the judge threw the case out, but at least I knew that I stopped a gang hit that night. Saving someone’s life was more important than a court case.

- DL

10-4, good buddy

One morning while working for the highway patrol, I received a radio call of a man slumped over the wheel of his car. I had just left the office and the location was 45 to 50 miles away on an interstate off-ramp. I responded code three. While on the way, I spoke on my CB radio with truck drivers. They were curious as to where I was going in such a hurry. At the scene, I realized that the driver had failed to make the curve of the off-ramp. It had been raining and the car was about 20 yards off the roadway. There was mud all over the bottom edge of the doors. I noted that there were no footprints to or from the car in the mud. The mud was ankle deep as I approached the driver’s door.

I opened the door and saw an empty whiskey bottle on the driver’s floor. I ruled out a heart attack and shook the driver several times. Each time I did, the driver would mumble something. Each time it became a little more clear. I finally understood it was him swearing at me. I grasped his upper left arm and put my other hand on his back to assist him from the car. As he came out, he suddenly grabbed me around my throat. I jerked back and he yanked on my break away tie. He looked at the tie as I shoved him face down in the mud. I jumped on him and pinned him down. He fought furiously, but I finally was able to cuff him. At that point, a truck driver that I had spoken with earlier approached to help. I was winded and appreciated his help getting the suspect to my car.

- JH

Brian Smith served four years in the U.S. Marine Corps, and retired as an assistant chief with the California Highway Patrol. He resides in Bakersfield. If you have a personal “Cop Tale” to share, please contact Smith at bmsmith778@gmail.com.