As a follow-up to Special Agent Mike Roche’s article about PTSD and police officers, I thought it would be a good time to re-tell this real-life story.
A Recipe For PTSD: Killing Someone
by Lee Lofland
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 restless spirit scrabbling around inside my head ever since.
I never thought about this sort of thing until it happened to me. But 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 ye 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 what life would be like today had I not taken a human life by squeezing 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 reading the 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 handgun at one of the tellers. He grabbed all the money he could carry in a white, wrinkled, plastic grocery bag. He’d scared the poor teller to tears. She was 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 drainage ditch beside his car—three patrol officers, one special agent of 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.
Four officers took cover on the the top of a highway exit ramp, just out of the robber’s line of sight. I’d taken a different position and was much closer to the gunman—to his left, twenty-five yards away. My only cover was a small maple tree. A very small maple tree. At the time it seemed like a toothpick with a few leaves.
The robber crouched down near the rear bumper of his car. I called to him, practically begging him to drop the gun and come to us with his hands up. He ignored my orders and fired a couple of shots toward my fellow officers on the hilltop.
The sound of the gunshot activated my brain’s slow-motion function. Time crawled to a near standstill.
Somehow, and I still can’t explain it, I had time to look around before reacting to the gunshot. I saw officers yelling, their mouths slowly opening and closing. Lazy puffs of blue-black smoke drifted upward from their gun barrels. I saw a dog barking off to my right—his head rising and falling with each silent yap, moving at the speed of ancient 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 on his right side. I thought it was all over. After all, I’d just shot him in the head. Certainly a wound of that nature was enough to stop any man. Instead, the guy popped back up, smiling like a crazed zombie-like psycho.
He fired more rounds, a few seconds apart. This time I had a better view of him, and answered each of his volleys with rounds of my own, all directly into his chest. He fell each time a shot hit him, but each time he only stayed down for a second. And when he came up he came up shooting.
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 my fifth bullet hit him, he stayed down.
A pin-drop would’ve been heard for miles.
My heart pounded against the inside of my chest.
Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, I called to everyone on my portable radio, letting them know it was over.
I started a slow, cautious walk toward the robber, keeping my pistol aimed in his direction.
Suddenly, the guy jumped up and ran toward the officers on the hill. I ran after and tackled him (another sport coat and pair of dress pants that wouldn’t be salvageable). With the assistance of a sheriff’s captain who’d arrived on scene at the end of the exchange of gunfire, I rolled the robber over to one side trying to gain control of his hands so we could apply restraints. That’s when we saw the revolver in his right hand, and he was squeezing the trigger repeatedly. Thankfully, the gun was empty.
Click, click, click, click, click…
The sound of the hammer falling against empty brass casings is one I haven’t forgotten, and probably never will.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wondered…”what if” there’d been one more round in that gun.
Just one more live round in the bad guy’s revolver and I might not have survived to tell the story.
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, my department didn’t offer counseling and/or de-briefing. No post-shooting administrative leave. The chief didn’t believe in something that was “for the weak of heart and mind”. I was left to fend for myself.
Tough cops were supposed to handle whatever came their way. My boss actually told me that a real cop would just suck it up. In fact, he sent me to the morgue to photograph the robber’s body and to remove my handcuffs from the dead man’s 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. And troubled he was. He’d recently been charged with sexual abuse of a minor, and I suspect he was wrestling with the demons associated what he’d done. Perhaps he’d decided to commit suicide and I’d been there to help him achieve his goal. I’ll never know the entire story.
When the robber’s soul left his body, unfortunately, a part of my emotions were tethered to it. It would be several years before I was able to reel them back in.
A few days after the shooting, my partner and I met with the medical examiner who conducted the autopsy on the bank robber. This, by the way, was the same medical examiner’s office where Patricia Cornwell based her Kay Scarpetta series.
Even though I’d watched each of my bullets travel through the air until they hit the robber’s flesh (It’s not unusual for those who shoot a lot have this ability), it still hit like a ton of bricks when the M.E. told me that all five bullet wounds in the man’s body were caused by my rounds. The famous pathologist spared no details when describing the damage caused by each bullet.
The last four rounds I fired were each fatal wounds. The first shot, however,—the round that entered the side of the robber’s head and exited near the jawline—was not a life-ending wound. Sure, it made two nice little holes and knocked out a few teeth and ripped through tongue and other meaty tissue, but he’d have lived if only he hadn’t continued to shoot at us.
All he had to do was surrender. Toss the gun away. Give up. Just STOP SHOOTING and he would’ve lived.
Yes, I recall firing each round. 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. That simple motion of an index finger, like scratching a small itch five times, was all it took to send pieces of hot metal to rip and tear through human flesh and organs. The same finger-bending action used to indicate you want someone to “come here.” Five gentle squeezes of a trigger took a man’s life and nearly destroyed mine.
I. Do. Not. Understand. How. People. Can. Kill. Without. Remorse.
In the beginning, the dead guy only visited me during my sleep. Soon, though, he grew restless and figured if he couldn’t sleep then neither would I. He soon began stopping by to see me while I was at work, or during my off time. He walked with me while I mowed the grass, and he accompanied me to the grocery store. His voice taunted me. He 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 free-fall straight to hell. Fortunately, just before I hit bottom, I sought help on my own.
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…physically, that is. However, soon after that day, one officer suffered a fatal heart attack. He was 44. One of the other officers later resigned and three retired. Two of the retired officers have died since that day—one at 54, and the other at 63. I’m nearly halfway between 54 and 63.
None of us had received any de-briefing or counseling.
Five more victims.
Police car destroyed by gunfire. That’s me with the cop/porn-star mustache. I believe I was reloading my magazine at the time this picture was taken. I remember thinking that I was not thinking—my mind was blank, if that makes any sense at all.
Pictured to my left, two special agents from a three-letter-agency—were in a discussion near the robber’s wrecked car. Notice the Kevlar vests on the outside of their clothing. One of the two agents pulled up and got out of his vehicle and quickly discovered he was caught in a crossfire situation. He grabbed his vest from the backseat and rolled beneath his SUV to put it on. Adrenaline, tunnel vision, and/or fear often cause people to do strange things. Why he didn’t move his vehicle to a safer location we’ll never know, because he, too, died just a few years later. The survival/longevity rate following this incident has not been promising.
*A newspaper photographer caught the above image just minutes after the robber had succumbed to his wounds.
The Restoration of First Responders Suffering from PTSD
Thomas Bean was a police officer enjoying his day off on December 14, 2012, when a call went out that would change his life and that of the nation forever. A shooting occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Officer Bean responded to the call for assistance and was one of the first to arrive at the horrific scene. The images of the lifeless bodies of twenty small children haunted Bean as they would for any healthy individual.
Bean went home that evening and found comfort in the bottom of a bottle of alcohol. His battle with the demons continued, as his one night of drinking continued to many more nights. While standing in a store shortly after the attack, Bean became hyper-vigilant and paranoid that every person in the store was potentially targeting him. He realized he was in trouble. In an emotional fog, he considered cutting himself, so that he could feel pain. Bean told CNN, “I had no feeling, no sensation, no nothing.”
Officer Bean was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and unable to return to his job, as he is haunted with the reminders of that horrific day. Further exacerbating his condition is that the City of Newtown sent him a letter of termination. That has since been rescinded. The State of Connecticut does not cover mental health under workers compensation. If he were shot, he would be covered for physical injuries. Connecticut will apply for a federal grant and if approved, $6.1 million would be allocated for mental health counseling and wellness programs.
PTSD is a condition that can be managed and overcome with appropriate counseling, treatment and medication. PTSD is commonly characterized by flashbacks to the trauma-induced events, avoidance, detached personality, sleep disturbances and irritability. The stress often spills over on their home life and performance at work.
Those who are suffering from the illness are more likely to harm themselves than others. Police suicides outnumber the line of duty deaths by a two to one margin. Many more suicides are ruled an accident blamed on a firearm mishap while cleaning the gun or the single car fatality accident.
Those who suffer from PTSD can feel a sense of isolation and betrayal depending on the support provided by their respective departments. This wallowing in self-doubt, while considering the adverse impact on their future careers, could have negative consequences. Many times, officers who have been diagnosed with PTSD will have difficulty returning to the street because of liability concerns if they involved in a shooting situation. As a result, officers are often reassigned to assignments that reduce their exposure to perilous situations.
Approximately 13% of police officers will suffer from PTSD. This can be caused by a single traumatic event such as Newtown, Aurora, September 11, a line of duty death, shooting or from cumulative stress suffered during the course of a career. Police officers after leaving the scene of a traumatic incident often drive away alone in their car and are left to contemplate and relive the critical incident. The death of children is the most haunting images that officers try to suppress. They will often project a facade of normalcy, but inside they are ravaged by demons destroying their soul.
I serve as a peer support counselor at a program focused on healing and restoring police officers who suffer from the effects post traumatic stress. Comments from some of the attendees were, “You saved my life!” and “This experience altered my life!” The goal of The Franciscan Center Post Trauma Education Retreat in Tampa, Florida is to return stability and balance to the lives of first responders suffering post trauma stress and to deepen their relationships at home.
The five-day resident program located on a six-acre serene campus is perched along the Hillsborough River. The program is peer based and clinically guided by the warm embrace of trust from those that have walked in the shoes of the responders and share many of the same experiences. Confidentiality is essential to develop trust and a shared bond to mend the exhaustive darkness that consumes so many who have experienced trauma.
The program is intense and requires the commitment of long days. Education is at the core of the program to provide a foundation of skills to cope with and manage stress in the future. The educational component includes a number of classes. PTSD Resiliency explores the effects of the stress illness and that the illness is curable. Greif and bereavement is taught by two wonderful retired VA Hospice nurses. These angels have listened to many veterans’ deathbed confessions and a release of their inner turmoil that has gripped them and impacted their lives. Forgiveness explores the shackles that bind us with hate, betrayal and revenge.
Wellness addresses the basic needs of our body. Proper diet and exercise can help to alleviate the harmful effects of stress on the body. In the throes of anxiety from trauma, officers often fail to address the most basic needs for the body. They pass the salad bar for a more expedient fast food meal and postpone a beneficial workout in favor of sitting at a bar or watching TV.
Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR) has had amazing results on the participants. The procedure is difficult to describe, but the practitioner explores a traumatic event with the participant through the recall of visual images. The process commands the right and left-brain to sync up and is often described as the process used by computers to defrag the hard drive. The EMDR process results in a restoration of recall of the trauma to a more acceptable mindset. Participants who have been besieged by sleep disturbances report their first restful night of complete sleep in years. Imagine the gift of a full night of sleep.
Group discussions and socialization provide a normalization of the experience. Often feeling alone, these brave men and women learn that others share similar experiences and mutual feelings. The group process provides a therapeutic sharing of inner turmoil in a confidential and serene environment and allows for the exploration of possible remedies to help cope and confront the stress.
The transformation I have witnessed by the participants has been astounding. On the first day, as the responders checked into their own private rooms, I observed their guarded approach and hesitation. Slowly the veneers of apprehension begin to dissipate as the week progresses. After graduation, I notice an apprehension of the guests to leave their comrades. The veil of reluctance has been replaced with a positive hope for the future. They have become close knit and the bond is unmistakable. I witnessed a renewed passion and embracing of life. The energy is invigorating for not only for the participants but for the peer support and staff, as we have witnessed a restoration of the human soul and watch these warriors return to serve the community.
The Franciscan Center Post Trauma Education Retreat is open to first responders from anywhere. Many departments with tight budgets will not cover the costs. They will replace the tires on a patrol car while ignoring the human capital. The center is dependent upon the financial support of generous donors to help fund and defray the cost of the training.
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Mike Roche has spent over three decades in law enforcement. He started his career with the Little Rock Police Department, retired from the U.S. Secret Service as a special agent after twenty-two years, and is an adjunct instructor at Saint Leo University. Mike is the author of three novels and two nonfiction works, Face 2 Face: Observation, Interviewing and Rapport Building Skills: an ex-Secret Service Agents Guide and his most recent on Mass Killers: How You Can Identify Workplace, School and Public Killers Before they Strike.
*We’re extremely pleased that Special Agent Roche is once again joining us as a presenter at the 2014 Writers’ Police Academy. He’ll be teaching two workshops—Romance Behind the Badge and Real Cops for Real Writers: The Psychology of Cops.