(Warning: Several images of gunshot wounds are depicted in this article)
With the world going crazy and everyone forced into solitude, it’s a good time to pause, be present, and reflect on the things that matter. There isn’t a day that goes by I don’t think about how lucky I am to be alive and feel gratitude for my health. I haven’t always been kind to my body over the years and I’m a little banged up, but who isn’t? The aches and pains of my past surgeries and broken bones are always present, but I do my best to embrace them as reminders of lessons learned. I think that’s what pain ultimately is, a reminder. A souvenir of life’s teaching so we don’t repeat mistakes, to help us remember what we’ve learned, and ultimately to feel gratitude for the times we feel amazing. Life is about contrast, without pain, there would be no pleasure. However, tuning into the pain and dwelling in it rather than gratitude leads us away from pausing to consider how lucky we are to be here. It’s been several years since I was shot, and now that the court case is over, I decided it’s time to write about my experience and how it’s impacted the way I live.
Some background on me and how I was living at the time of the incident back in 2017. I had been in law enforcement for about thirteen years and was a full time member of our S.W.A.T. team. I loved my job and the women and men I worked with. I enjoyed helping people in their hour of need, saving lives, and representing a profession in a positive manner that’s often ridiculed and demonized by the media. I enjoyed being tested by the criminal element and was confident the good guys would always prevail. Hostage situations, barricaded murder suspects, high risk warrants, you name it and I loved it. I trained constantly for bad situations and when they arose and I had an opportunity to help people and test my skill set, I felt on top of the world. I loved my job so much in fact that it was a priority in my life rivaling that of my relationship with my family. I’m not proud to admit that looking back, but if I’m being honest, that’s how I felt. I was ready to die a warrior’s death every single day I went to work, and in a sadistic sort of way, almost looked forward to it. What greater deed is there after all, than giving your life to save someone else’s?
It was August 6th 2017; my parents bought my brothers (Josh and Steve) and I tickets to see Metallica at Petco Park. This was a bucket list concert for me, they have been one of my favorite bands my entire life and at thirty-five years old, I was finally going to see them live. Normally, I carried a concealed firearm on me at all times while off-duty. As a cop for thirteen years, I’ve seen the evil in mankind’s heart frequently. I’ve seen the wicked prey on the weak, usurpers take advantage of the honest, and the violent harm the innocent. I always carried my weapon because I knew there may come a day I would need to help someone while off duty. A sheepdog always tends to his flock, there are no days off, and hyper vigilance is a part of everyday life. I watched for the wolves, and I was mentally and physically prepared to stop their evil kind, even off duty if need be.
This night however, I was not carrying my firearm. Petco Park does not allow off-duty law enforcement to carry their weapons concealed inside. I also planned on having some libations while rocking out to James Hetfield’s soul shattering vocals and Kirk Hammett melting my face off with guitar solos.
The three of us kicked off the night at my little brother’s house with a drink. My mom came over to take some photos of us. My parents don’t have a lot of money, and buying us all tickets to this show was a big deal. They did it not only because they knew we’d love the show, but more importantly, it got all three of us in one place, spending time together bonding in an atmosphere we all enjoy. It warmed my mom’s heart to see us all together, laughing and excited for the evening.
We arrived at the show and had an amazing time. We moshed, head banged, and air drummed our fists in the air to Lars Ulrich’s famous double bass in “One”. We each bought a round of “tall boys” during the show and bonded in a way we hadn’t in years, I knew mom would be happy.
After the show let out, we decided to meet some of my law enforcement friends in downtown San Diego. The show had just let out so of course the streets were packed. We hopped around a few bars, still feeling the excitement of the event and enjoying our brotherhood. I was in a great head space and feeling really happy. Our good times were only momentarily interrupted at one bar when several patrons took issue with Josh in a verbal exchange. After a brief argument with them, he was physically assaulted by a stumbling drunken female. When the bouncers saw her shove him, they assumed he was the problem and summarily escorted him out. We didn’t stick around to explain the situation; we were ready to leave anyway, so we hit the streets once more and forgot about the ridiculousness of the situation in the bar.
It’s not often I’d allow myself to completely relax my guard, to not seek out the “wolf” but rather enjoy living in a moment where I wasn’t preparing for bad things to happen. I certainly never thought this would be the night I’d get shot.
As the night began to wind down, we were standing near the intersection of Island Avenue and 6th. We said our good-byes to friends and decided to call it a night. My memory is foggy regarding everyone’s physical location at that very moment. I believe I was standing on the sidewalk near a parking lot entrance chatting with someone. And that’s when everything went sideways.
My brother Josh, who was thirty at the time, came out of nowhere and forcefully grabbed my right arm and tugged on it hard to get my attention. Jerked out of my conversation, my eyes met his and I’ll never forget the look on his face. It was pure terror. He frantically yelled, “Help! He’s going to kill me!” I had no idea what Josh was talking about and no reason to believe he was in any danger. Confused, but also immediately concerned, I asked him what was going on. I could tell by the look on his face this wasn’t a joke, my brother was in trouble. Again he yelled, “Jason, please help, he’s going to shoot me”. It was at that point I allowed my vision to scan my surroundings. Standing approximately ten feet in front of us was a stocky man with long braids down the side of his head. He had on a baggy shirt, loose fitting pants and black leather gloves. More notably, he had a .38 caliber Smith and Wesson “Air weight” hammer-less revolver in his right hand. I knew the gun immediately, I have the same one.
I’ll take a pause here to reflect on my mindset at the time. As a member of law enforcement, I was hyper aware and alert to public violence and active shooter situations. In fact, one of my duties on the Sheriff’s Department was to teach other deputies how to respond to an active shooter. As a defensive tactics instructor and Krav Maga practitioner, I had also spent countless hours preparing myself in hand to hand combat and weapon disarms. I prided myself in those abilities and always knew that if I were ever in a situation where someone started firing on the public, I would go after the monster harming people and stop it. I accepted that I would likely die in that situation and came to terms with that fact. I’m not trying to pat myself on the back, this is a feeling most women and men in law enforcement share. Regardless of what side of the fence you stand on, rest assured, as someone that’s had firsthand experience working with and training literally thousands of people in law enforcement from all over the country, the vast majority would lay down their lives to save another, I was no different. There are those that will run to the sound of gunfire and those that will run away. Again, I’m not seeking praise here, merely informing those that may not understand the depth those in law enforcement go in their mindset and training to prepare for these situations, so that when they occur, we react swiftly, decisively, and when need be, violently.
As my gaze fell upon the gun in the man’s hand, I had a sobering moment, I knew this was the real thing. That was actually a man, standing in the crowded streets of downtown San Diego, brandishing a firearm and the look on his face told me he meant to use it. This all happened in a split second but time seemed to slow, and my vision narrowed on the weapon. He began to raise the gun and point it at my little brother who was standing to my right and I remember hearing him say, “I’m gonna fucking kill you” with the business end of the barrel pointed straight at us. I felt an overwhelming surge of love for my brother wash over me. In an instant he wasn’t the thirty year old man standing before me. He was “Joshy”, the little boy I used to play G.I. Joes and Nintendo with. He was little boy that loved and looked up to his big brother.
I had never seen this man before in my life. We never had any sort of exchange and I had no reason to believe I had offended him. But I certainly wasn’t going to stand idle and watch my brother be gunned down as he stood beside me. My blood boiled and in my mind I became indestructible. I don’t remember saying it, but was later told I said, “No you’re fucking not” as I began running towards the gunman.
I felt incredibly vulnerable in this moment and remember thinking, I’m definitely going to get shot. I remember telling myself that regardless of where I’m struck, to keep moving and not stop. There was more distance between us than I was comfortable with. Anyone that knows a thing or two about weapon disarms would agree that space is not your friend when you don’t have a weapon of your own. I’ve been around gunshot victims most of my career, and although I know what a traumatic and scary experience it is for those that have been shot, I also know that unless I took a round to the head or had my central nervous system shut down, I would still be functional regardless of how many holes I had in my body.
As I drew near the man, my eyes were still focused on the gun. In law enforcement we call this tunnel vision. When your body is flooded with cortisol and faced with a fight or flight situation, fine motor skills become challenging. Your body is preparing itself of the fight of its life, vision focuses on what’s important, pulse increases, time slows, muscles constrict and a thousand thoughts flood your mind in one large dump of emotions.
It wasn’t until I was about two feet in front of him that he redirected the gun at the center of my chest. Normally on-duty I’d be wearing a ballistic vest, this wasn’t on-duty though, and the only thing separating my naked flesh from the bullet that would soon exit the muzzle of his firearm was my Metallica t-shirt. I reached out with my left hand and slapped the outside of his hand, forcing his arm to sweep across his body and point the gun in a safe direction.
As my body collided with his, I wrapped my arms around his in a bear hug with the intention of keeping his arms pinned to his sides as I took him down to the ground. In hindsight, there are a million things I could have done. I could have struck him in the face, gauged his eyes, attacked his vulnerable areas, etc. Any of those options may have worked out better for me in the long run, or maybe they wouldn’t have, I’ll never know. The first step to fighting someone with a gun when you don’t have one is to not be in front of it and I accomplished that for a moment.
As I squeezed his arms to his sides and began performing a leg sweep to take him to the ground, the hand holding the gun slid up and out of my arms. He pushed it forward, pressing the barrel of the gun firmly against the upper area of my right pec. The next thing I remember was a bright flash in my face, a loud “BANG”, and a feeling against my chest and shoulder like I had been kicked by a horse. I knew I was shot, but my mind screamed to keep fighting. Then again, another loud “BANG”, followed once more by a bright flash of light, loud concussive force, and searing hot pain in my right arm.
I knew his gun could hold five rounds and I would need to swiftly end this fight before he could fire the other three into my body. I pushed the thoughts of being shot out of my mind, and continued my take-down. I was successful in taking him to the ground where he landed on his back. I believe I punched him or possibly the ground once we went down because later the knuckles on my right hand were swollen and sore as if I’d hit something.
I remember the man looking dazed, our eyes met as we were on the ground and I could tell he was scared. This made me feel strong; I knew that if he was afraid of me, I had the upper hand. I tried to post my arm against the ground to help me quickly get to my feet to continue the fight, but my arm, now bleeding from several new holes gave out and I fell back down. The man got to his feet about the same time I got to mine, turned, and began running away from me.
Remember, in my mind, this was someone that pointed a gun and threatened the life of my brother. I knew my brother would never have done something to justifiably illicit that behavior, so I believed this was another crazed lunatic out to shoot innocent people in public. I couldn’t let him run off and continue firing on other unsuspecting victims, so I gave chase.
I remember reaching up to my chest and feeling the hole as I ran. This triggered a memory to flash in my mind from my days in patrol. I remembered a time I responded to a gunshot victim. Upon arrival, he was sitting with his back against a wall and his breathing was labored. I told the gunshot victim he would be ok and help was on the way, and I truly believed it. As I assessed his injury, it appeared the round entered just below his collar bone. The man looked up at me, let out one last breath, and passed away. What I didn’t know, was the round had actually struck a bone and deflected inside his body, piercing both his lungs. Watching the life fade from that man’s eyes has stuck with me all these years, I was the last person he looked at before he left this world. And now I thought I’d share a similar fate.
I remember doubt entering my mind for a moment. A voice in my head was telling me to stop chasing and tend to my wounds, that they might not be fatal. Then another voice told me I was already dead, the damage was done, and to make my last few minutes count. My body was still functional and I could still do damage. I pushed the pain and fear from my mind and I chose to listen to that voice. I was angry, in fact I was furious and I was determined to spend the last few moments of my time on this earth, ending his.
As I was pursuing him down the middle of the street on foot, I remember hearing people all around screaming. My adrenaline was pumping and with my mind made up to stop this predator, my legs began running fast as I gained on him. The man looked back at me several times. In fact, he pointed the gun backwards at me as he continued running forwards and I believed I’d be shot again. Still, I continued, “the damage was already done” and in my mind, my spirit would soon be parting ways with my flesh, I had nothing to lose and everything to gain.
At one point, as he swung his arm back to aim at me, he accidentally dropped the gun to the ground. I remember a feeling of elation wash over me. This is it; this is why the good guys will always win; now it’s my turn to throw some lead his way. The gun skittered across the pavement but in a forward direction. It was moving away from me and alongside him. Like the beginning of any good dodgeball match, we sprinted for the prize. But alas, he was closer and right as my fingers made contact with the gun, he already had a firm grasp on it.
Dread filled my mind. Utter horror pervaded my thoughts that this is how things were transpiring; this is how I would die. “No!” I screamed inside my head, “This isn’t right, I’m supposed to get the gun, kill this idiot, and pass away knowing I avenged myself and protected my brother”. As he picked it up, I threw a wild punch aimed at his face but it was deflected by his shoulder. I ran behind the nearest car thinking he was going to pursue me and finish what he started. When I looked over my shoulder, I noticed he had continued to run down the street, now with a heavy lead on me. I knew it was over, I wouldn’t catch him.
Once I realized the fight was over, I knew I needed to triage my wounds and change my mindset. The brain is a powerful tool and I am aware that holding onto the thought that I was certainly going to die would be detrimental to the things that were about to take place. Instead, I began walking back to my friends and telling myself I would be ok. I remember intentionally thinking about my heart rate and attempting to slow it down. I knew that if I had a massive hemorrhage, slowing the bleed would be imperative.
As I approached the place where the incident took place, I saw my brother there along with several of my friends and mass hysteria surrounding the scene. I lay down on the ground and looked up at the sky. I remember feeling weak, tired, cold, and my movements were becoming lethargic. I noticed blood exiting my chest, shoulder and tricep. It began to pool on the ground beneath me and it was warm against my skin.
The image of my good friend Tom appeared before my eyes. Tom was a former Marine Force Recon operator, a highly regarded S.W.A.T. officer, gunshot survivor himself, and most importantly, my good friend. As Tom leaned over me I could see him entering “cop mode”. He began shouting orders at the people standing around. He was eliciting help from the others to make sure the threat was gone. He began to triage my wounds by removing my shirt and looking for entry and exit wounds. At this point, I didn’t even know the extent of the damage. I didn’t believe my lungs were pierced and wasn’t concerned about tension pneumothorax (a condition that occurs when a lung is punctured and the chest cavity fills with pressure, essentially suffocating you from the inside).
Apparently I lost consciousness for a moment, I was unaware that happened but was told later. I remember looking at Tom’s face, seeing the concern but also knowing I was in the best possible hands. I told Tom I was feeling really tired, and I asked him to keep me awake because people always die when they let themselves fall asleep in these situations. That’s no medical fact, just my experience with death, which I had plenty of.
I distinctly remember Tom saying, “Ya sure buddy, you got it, I’ll keep you awake.” Without skipping a beat, I saw Tom lift his index finger before my eyes, as if to show it to me. I remember wondering what he was going to do with that. Then he placed it against the hole in my chest and pushed downward until his finger entered the cavity. Now, I’m no medic, but I’ve learned a thing or two about gunshot wounds, and stuffing a dirty finger inside them wasn’t on the list of suggested options!
I remember thinking, “Tom, what the hell are you doing?” But before I could ask the question, Tom gave a sly smirk with tear filled eyes and said, “I’m totally inside you bro”… I couldn’t make this stuff up! My good friend thought the best way to wake me up was to shove his finger inside my chest, and make a joke of it. He was absolutely correct! We both let out a laugh and I felt alive again. It had been at least five minutes from the time I was shot and my training and experience told me I wasn’t bleeding from an artery or I’d already be dead. Armed with that knowledge, my body began feeling warm again. I told myself I would be ok and to put death out of my mind, I had a wife and daughter I’d need to get home to.
As I was transported via the ambulance to the hospital, my emotions were all over the place. A rollercoaster of sadness, gratitude, anger, disbelief, and love for the people in my life flooded my mind. I knew I wasn’t out of the wood pile yet, gunshot wounds are tricky and I could still expire. I worked to keep my thoughts positive and release the notion that I wouldn’t pull through this.
I was transported to the hospital and treated really well by the staff. I received an outpouring of support from my friends and law enforcement family that arrived to visit me. I was tired, I had been up for over twenty four hours, but I was so touched that people continued to come visit me I couldn’t allow myself to sleep and potentially miss any of them.
It was here I had the opportunity to observe my injuries. The first round that penetrated my upper right torso, went inside my chest, exited my right armpit, re-entered the front of my right shoulder and exited the back of my shoulder. The second round penetrated the inside of my right tricep and exited out the back. I also discovered I re-tore the ACL in my left knew (I was only eight months out of reconstructive surgery).
The man was later arrested after cutting his hair and fleeing to Mexico for a month. I’ll spare all the details of the long drawn out legal battle. To synopsize, it was tried three separate times and resulted in a guilty verdict by a jury of his peers. He was sentenced to seventy-seven years in prison without parole. He was thirty eight years old at the time of the incident, so it’s safe to say he won’t be able to harm the public ever again.
I learned a lot about the legal system and how it favors people in his position. The man was a gang member who had already served eighteen years in prison for a handful of violent crimes. He wasn’t even allowed to possess a firearm. None of that could be discussed in front of the jury because that could influence their decision. In fact, he had only been out of prison for a few weeks before perpetuating this violent act. I also wasn’t allowed to discuss my mindset at the time. The fact I believed he was an active shooter at the time of the incident had to be left out of my testimony because that could skew the jury’s perception.
The defense did a marvelous job using smoke and mirrors in an effort to paint a picture of me that was completely inaccurate. They tried every trick in the book, even as ridiculous as to say I shot myself and that he didn’t possess the gun that night, someone put it in his hand… again, I can’t make this stuff up. In the end, my counsel played by the rules, maintained integrity, didn’t alter facts the way the defense did and achieved victory. I saw that it wasn’t really a game of who was telling the truth. It was a game of my truth, and the defense trying to create doubt in the jury’s mind. They weren’t interested in telling what happened, only attempting to invalidate my words. They tried to make me look like a liar so that regardless of how truthful I was speaking, the defense had a chance of winning as long as they could create doubt.
I’m sure you’re wondering, “OK but how the hell did this all start?” Some of the events leading up to this incident were on camera. You can see my group of friends walk past the man who was sitting on a railing. Josh was a little distance behind our group. The man was holding black leather gloves and slapping them against his leg. Josh was engaged in his phone as he passed and didn’t notice the man until he said something to Josh. Josh says the man said, “What’s up then blood?” Not understanding what the man was talking about, he responded, “Blood? What are you talking about?” My brother isn’t in a street gang or a “blood”. At this point, my group of friends and I were at least ten feet from Josh and not paying attention to what was unfolding. The man hopped off the fence, put on his black leather gloves, said “You heard me mother fucker” and lifted his shirt to display the firearm in his waistband. Josh says he yelled, “This guy has a gun!” and began walking backwards towards my location. At this point the man removed the gun from his waistband and continued advancing on my brother with the gun held down to his side. It was at this moment Josh ran over and grabbed my arm. The predator was moving in on his prey.
So why tell this story? Because I have a message to share now that the dust has settled. People have come to me and told me how much they hate the guy that shot me; how they wish we could do worse than sentence him to a life in prison for his actions. I’d have to disagree. I’m glad I got shot. In fact, being shot was one of the best things to ever happen to me and though he doesn’t know it, I’ve already forgiven the man that shot me.
I’m no longer angry at what happened. This incident forced me to take a look inward at the way I was living my life. To ask myself, “Am I living each day to my potential?” and “Do I like the person I am?” The answer was no. I didn’t like who I was and I wasn’t living life to the fullest. It gave me pause to consider the relationships in my life. Was I being the best father and husband to the most important people in my life? Again, I wasn’t. As a result of this epiphany, I began changing the way I thought. Life is a gift, I don’t deserve it and I’m not entitled to it, it was given to me and I love it. I realized I didn’t want to die a warrior’s death; I wanted to live a life full of love and spend as much time as I could with the people that matter most. Armed with that revelation, it’s difficult to harbor resentment for this incident. In fact, if I knew the gunman would never harm another soul, I’d be fine with him being released from prison. That may sound crazy, and it isn’t realistic because I could never guarantee that, but I truly feel bad for him. He has a child, and he threw his life away and almost ended mine for nothing. I was medically retired as a result of my injuries, and though I miss my friends and the fast paced environment of that career, I’m in a much better place mentally than I’ve ever been.
So what’s the message? Simple, look for opportunity to grow in all that you do. Pain is an excellent teacher, whether that be physical, emotional, or both. I grew tremendously as a result of this incident and I now like the person I’ve become. Harboring negative energy is taxing; it will take a toll on your mind and body. Find growth from it and release that negative energy, focus instead on positivity and what really matters. Turn to gratitude and I promise you will begin seeing changes in your life. This is especially applicable in the times we face right now. Life will continue to throw curve balls at us. Pleasure countered by pain, one ceases to exist without the other to contrast it. Embrace them both as the teachers they are and you can overcome anything. Thanks for reading.