April 20, 1997 in Nation/World

Facing Death The Hardest Part Of Killing Someone Comes Later, Officers Say

Winda Benedetti And Adam Lynn S Staff writer
 

The gunman with the hollow, drunken eyes crept through icy darkness.

Rifle raised to his shoulder, he hunted for the sheriff’s deputy watching from the shadows.

Deputy Mike O’Brien froze as the gunman found his target. “Death - that’s all I could see in his face and eyes,” O’Brien recalled. “A total vacancy of all humanity.”

O’Brien pulled the trigger of his own gun and joined the ranks of officers who live with the ultimate burden - taking a human life.

They have killed to protect the public, to protect other officers and to protect themselves. While they’re trained to carry out this duty with detached precision, little prepares them for the aftermath.

“People think we are without feelings and emotions,” said Jeff Thomas, a Kootenai County sheriff’s lieutenant who has shot and killed two people in the line of duty.

Instead, he said, these officers often suffer a private and profound grief.

Struggling to reconcile their duty as protector with that of killer, they ride a rollercoaster of anger, tears, confusion, adrenaline and fear.

Some turn to booze for comfort. Others withdraw from friends and family. Some are plagued by nightmares and doubt. Some find a new appreciation for their own lives.

In Spokane and Kootenai counties, 20 officers have taken a life during the past 10 years.

O’Brien, who killed a distraught and violent Twin Lakes man in December, had been the most recent - until last Tuesday.

Spokane police officer Rick Dobrow, 37, shot an irate, knife-wielding man after responding to a family fight.

“At first you’re almost giddy with adrenaline. Then, within the space of a second, you realize what you’ve done and you’re standing there going, ‘Oh my God,”’ said Deputy Kevin Mumford, who killed a man during his second month of training.

“We are the only people on earth who have to be a judge, a jury and an executioner all at once,” said Lt. Nile Shirley. “And we have to do it in a split second.”

In 1977, Larry House shot and killed a man and then watched his own life unravel.

Cursing and shouting, David M. Gunter charged out of his Athol, Idaho, home, revolver in hand.

“I told him to put the gun down three times but he started to raise it,” House said. “There was this voice screaming in my head, ‘He’s gonna shoot you, he’s gonna shoot you!”’

As Gunter charged at the deputy, House fired his gun. “I could see the life go out of his eyes.”

Twenty years later, House, now 53 and retired, still remembers how the wife of the dead man wailed at him.

“I started bawling,” he said. “I cried for two days.”

It was the beginning of years of depression.

Back then little was known about the psychological damage sown by violence.

“It was kind of like you still had the Wild West syndrome,” House said. “The marshal was supposed to shoot the bad guy and live happily every after.”

Cops weren’t encouraged to admit they had feelings, much less discuss them. The chief deputy at the time told House, “Aw, you’ll get used to it to where it won’t bother you a bit.”

He couldn’t have been more wrong.

Although House believed he’d done the right thing, “I just felt dirty,” he said. He suffered severe mood swings. “I drank enough beer to fill Hayden Lake.”

In his sleep, he would see the dead man rushing at him. He would wake up sweating and screaming.

Years later, when more was learned about post traumatic stress disorder, House read book after book on the topic.

At the sheriff’s department, he helped put together a stress response team to help officers cope with job-related trauma - from fatal car accidents to shootings.

In 1993, House again had to shoot someone. This time, a suicidal woman armed with a handgun stepped outside of her home and took aim at a deputy.

Again that voice boomed through House’s head. “She’s gonna shoot! She’s gonna shoot!”

Both House and Lt. Jeff Thomas fired their weapons. For House, the aftermath was difficult but different.

All involved - officers, 911 dispatchers, emergency workers - were taken to a hotel. Their husbands and wives were brought to them. Counseling was offered.

Most importantly, they were given support and encouraged to talk.

“People understand now that you’re going to need some help,” House said.

At first, life went on like nothing had happened. Sure, there was the administrative leave, the mandatory counseling.

But after a few weeks, Spokane County Sheriff’s Deputy Dan Spivey, who shot and killed a man in the line of duty on Dec. 13, 1995, was back on the street.

There were more life-and-death incidents to deal with. More stress. More blood. Don Stowell was just another name on a list.

“What bothered me the most at first was that it didn’t bother me that much,” said Spivey, 45, who shot the suicidal Stowell after he began waving a gun at a busy intersection.

“I thought, ‘Man, am I that hard core?”’

The vindication of doing the right thing was the overriding force that checked his emotions, Spivey said.

Spivey knew the man inside the car was armed and agitated. Innocent people teemed around the intersection, and Stowell already had fired at least one shot.

When Spivey went to the car and yelled at Stowell to drop the gun, the man refused.

“I hesitated again, long enough to give him a chance to surrender, then I wound up firing through the passenger-side window,” Spivey said. “I was convinced in my own mind that there was nothing else I could do. I’ve never second-guessed my decision. Never once.”

Still, a slight nagging kept creeping into his mind.

It wasn’t until several months later, when Spivey experienced a series of other harrowing on-the-job incidents, that he reached his catharsis.

In a debriefing session following the 1996 baseball bat murders of two Valley women, Spivey admitted something to himself.

“I was wishing it had never happened,” he said of the Stowell incident. “That’s the feeling I was waiting for, I guess, wishing that it had never happened. I was happy when I got to that point. I started to feel like a human being again.”

Charlotte Weaver is thankful for the officer who took her husband’s life.

She believes that she, and many more people, would have died that day in 1992 if Deputy Brad Maskell hadn’t shot and killed her husband.

“Brad was an angel that God sent to me that day. He gave me my life.”

In 1980, after five years as a military policeman, Brad Maskell decided to give up his life as a cop.

He’d been through some rough stuff. During a shootout, he’d stood next to an officer who was shot. Another time, a fellow officer and good friend was shot through the eye during an armed robbery.

But after five years as a civilian, Maskell returned to police work as an officer in North Idaho.

“If you don’t follow your fate, it drags you with it,” the 41-year-old Kootenai County deputy muses these days.

Maskell was on his way home on Sept. 25, 1992, when he answered a domestic violence call in Hayden. When he arrived, Weaver had just jumped from a second-story apartment balcony to escape her abusive husband holding her and a friend at gunpoint.

Maskell watched as Robert Weaver dragged Tom Foutz from the building, a cocked revolver jammed to the hostage’s head.

“He was yelling that this guy was going to die,” Maskell said. “I knew I was going to have to do something.

“I was scared to death.”

In a moment of supreme precision, the deputy fired a bullet from his rifle past the hostage and into Robert Weaver’s head. The gunman dropped dead.

Although he had saved Foutz’s life, questions began circling in Maskell’s mind like sharks. “Did I see things correctly? Did I do the right thing?”

The deputy read newspaper articles about the two children he’d left fatherless. He saw photographs of the dead man’s son and thought of his own young boy.

“I was actually grieving for his family,” Maskell said.

When he heard that the dead man’s family was on its way from Pennsylvania to Idaho to take revenge, he became hyperprotective of his family. “I’d find myself sitting in my shrubs, in dark clothes with a gun in my hand.”

Then, the dead man’s widow began asking to meet Maskell.

“I was really concerned about him,” Charlotte Weaver said. “I knew he had to be suffering and there was enough suffering already.”

She had endured years of abuse and had no doubt her husband intended to kill her, Foutz and as many officers he could that day.

“That day affected both Brad and me, but I think it was easier for me to come to terms with because I knew Bob,” Weaver said. “Brad didn’t have that benefit.”

Two years later, Maskell met with the widow.

“I walked through the door, the next thing I know this woman clutches me in a hug,” Maskell said. “I was kind of shocked. She’s crying. I’m trying to hold back my own tears. It just blew me away.”

Weaver told Maskell she didn’t blame him. She told him he’d done the right thing.

Maskell assured Weaver that her husband had not suffered. And he shared pictures of his own son.

“It added a real measure of closure for me,” Maskell said.

Both Weaver and Maskell still have nightmares and think about the shooting nearly every day.

Weaver watches newspapers for mention of Maskell. She shows the stories and photographs to her children.

“I don’t want them to hate Brad,” she said. “I don’t want them to go around with the attitude that police officers kill just for killing.”

For Deputy Mike O’Brien, life since the shooting has “become a lot more real.”

“I think it’s made him realize what he has,” said his wife, Kelly O’Brien.

It was Dec. 8 when Robert K. Mills Jr., a drunken and depressed former car salesman, decided to open fire in his Twin Lakes condominium complex.

Bullets came within inches of hitting deputies before O’Brien - who had spent hours trying to calm Mills down - fired his own rifle and ended it.

For O’Brien, that last bullet of the night signaled not only the end of one life but a new outlook on another.

His own.

“It’s been a real eye-opener for me,” he said. “My own mortality is right in my face.”

Aware of the difficulties many officers and their families have suffered, O’Brien tried to take a healthier path.

During a debriefing after the shooting, he watched as fellow officers seemed to almost hold their breath, trying to maintain their tough exterior.

“I was afraid we were going down the wrong road,” he said. “Everybody was just kind of looking at each other. Is it OK to be angry? Is it OK to cry? Is it OK to feel numb?”

So he spoke up. He talked about how upset he was, about how angry he was that Mills had done this to their lives. He opened up in the hopes that others would follow.

They did.

Then, he went to a counselor - not only for himself, but also so the other officers would feel comfortable doing the same.

O’Brien forced himself to return to the scene of the shooting.

“I walked down the same sidewalk, my gut was wrenching, my heart was pounding. I just forced myself to stand there.”

He cried when he heard the dead man’s family did not blame him.

Like the other officers, O’Brien still has rough days, when the tears well up unexpectedly. But he has a new outlook on his job, his family and his life.

“I don’t look for every opportunity to put in overtime,” he said. “Spending time with Kelly and the kids, that’s what matters now.”

One day he and his wife gathered their children - ages 8 and 10.

“I told them I’d done everything I could to get him to stop shooting but that he wouldn’t. I told them he did die and I was the one who had to shoot him. I told them we had to protect ourselves and other people.”

“Good job, dad,” his son replied.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 3 Photos (1 Color); Graphic: Officers killed in the line of duty

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: LEAVE, COUNSELING, INVESTIGATIONS FOLLOW SHOOTINGS Inland Northwest law enforcement officers who fire their guns at someone can expect some time off and a lot of questions. Paid administrative leave and counseling are mandatory for officers who shoot people in Spokane and Kootenai counties. So are investigations, which are launched almost immediately after the police officer or deputy pulls the trigger. There are almost always two types of investigations into officer-involved shootings: an internal review and a criminal probe. The internal investigation, usually conducted by members of the officer’s department, determines whether the shooter conformed to the agency’s rules and regulations. The facts gathered during the internal review usually are forwarded to the head of the department - the police chief or sheriff - for review. If the officer violated any rules, punishment can range from verbal reprimand to termination, depending on the severity. The criminal investigation determines whether the officer broke any laws. In Spokane County, the criminal inquiry usually is conducted by a team made up of both city police and county deputies. The team interviews witnesses and collects evidence, which it forwards to the county prosecutor for review. In Idaho, agents from the state Department of Law Enforcement conduct all criminal probes into officer-involved shootings. They prepare a report that is turned over to the county prosecutor, who decides if charges should be filed. Adam Lynn and Winda Benedetti

This sidebar appeared with the story: LEAVE, COUNSELING, INVESTIGATIONS FOLLOW SHOOTINGS Inland Northwest law enforcement officers who fire their guns at someone can expect some time off and a lot of questions. Paid administrative leave and counseling are mandatory for officers who shoot people in Spokane and Kootenai counties. So are investigations, which are launched almost immediately after the police officer or deputy pulls the trigger. There are almost always two types of investigations into officer-involved shootings: an internal review and a criminal probe. The internal investigation, usually conducted by members of the officer’s department, determines whether the shooter conformed to the agency’s rules and regulations. The facts gathered during the internal review usually are forwarded to the head of the department - the police chief or sheriff - for review. If the officer violated any rules, punishment can range from verbal reprimand to termination, depending on the severity. The criminal investigation determines whether the officer broke any laws. In Spokane County, the criminal inquiry usually is conducted by a team made up of both city police and county deputies. The team interviews witnesses and collects evidence, which it forwards to the county prosecutor for review. In Idaho, agents from the state Department of Law Enforcement conduct all criminal probes into officer-involved shootings. They prepare a report that is turned over to the county prosecutor, who decides if charges should be filed. Adam Lynn and Winda Benedetti


Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email