Split Seconds from Death

Officer FrazierI woke up, feeling exhausted, every muscle in my body contracted and sore, as if I’d just come out of some epic physical struggle.

For a moment I was confused, then the nightmare I’d awakened from flooded back into my memory.

It was one of those dreams that didn’t depend on my imagination or some random firing of neurons that create fantasies and fiction while we sleep. It was a dream of real memories, a reliving of a few moments in time that were so intense I can recall them even in my waking hours and feel a hint of the panic and drive to survive that absorbed my entire being the night I caught Victor Laray Heath beating his girlfriend in an apartment parking lot.

I was on patrol doing my typical night shift search for burglars and drug dealers when the call came in. Dispatch said the “actor” (the politically correct word law enforcement had begun using to refer to suspects in those days) was in an apartment engaged in a family violence assault.

Normal protocol on family violence assaults was for a back-up to be sent immediately…officers were advised not to enter family violence environments alone if possible. Whoever called the incident in to 911 identified the “actor” as Victor Laray Heath.

No sooner had the dispatcher released the mic key than my sergeant’s voice came over the radio: “Fourteen [my badge number and radio ID], 10-0 on that subject…don’t know if you’ve dealt with him before, but I repeat, 10-0. Greenville [to dispatch], get another unit en route code three.”

It was one of hundreds of 10-0 (use extreme caution) radio signals I’d received over the years. I knew Victor Heath. He was about my age and had already done time.

He also was built like Mike Tyson.

Victor Heath mug shot

I wasn’t too concerned, though. The ruckus was reportedly occurring in a unit somewhere on the second floor and I figured by the time I parked my squad and located the right apartment my backup would be in the parking lot or right on my heels.

Unfortunately, as I pulled into the apartment complex the family violence incident had migrated from the apartment interior, down the stairs, and into the rows of parked cars. Victor had his girlfriend by the hair and was punching her about the face and upper body.

It wasn’t like I could circle the parking lot and wait for backup to arrive. With the strength and rage that was evident in Victor’s attack, it was apparent to me that his victim might sustain fatal injuries if he wasn’t stopped.

I threw the gear shift into park almost before the car stopped rolling. Grabbing my long police Streamlight flashlight I bolted out of the vehicle and ran toward Victor, hooking one arm through his as he drew his fist back for another punch at his screaming girlfriend.

He had been so focused on her he evidently had no idea I had arrived, and he spun around in surprise and jerked his arm free after I pulled him away from her.

For a moment he just stared wild-eyed at me, then he charged. He struck me directly in the chest with a balled up fist and I fell backward, heaving to regain the breath that had been knocked out of me. I scrambled to my feet as Victor hesitated for a second, then charged at me again.

I managed to sidestep the majority of his body-blow and shoved him toward the hood of my nearby squad car, wrapping my arms around him from behind to try to pin his hands down to his side. It was a stupid tactical move. Bigger, stronger, and faster than me, he easily wrenched his right arm free. He reached down and grabbed the grips of the .357 magnum in my side holster. He tried to pull the revolver free, breaking all my belt keepers loose and forcing my duty rig all the way up to my armpit.

Thank God for the Safariland security retention holster I’d bought only weeks before. It held and Victor couldn’t get my gun out of it. Desperately I clamped my right hand firmly over his on top of the gun and shoved downward with all my might. At the same time I lifted the Streamlight in my left hand and brought it crashing down over Victor’s skull. The thought flashed through my mind that I might have just killed him as he crumpled into a lifeless heap over the hood of my squad car.

About that time I heard tires squealing as Sgt. Bench came sliding Tokyo-drift style in to the parking lot. The back-up unit was right behind him and in moments they had the dazed perpetrator handcuffed and stuffed into the back of a patrol car.

I finished my shift that night. The next day I started experiencing chest pains and went to my doctor. Subsequent x-rays revealed that my sternum was cracked from the force of Victor’s punch the night before. I’d been wearing a Kevlar vest with a shock plate in it at the time; there’s no telling what additional damage might have been done otherwise.

Victor went back to prison for assault on a peace officer along with the recently enacted statute for “attempting to take a peace officer’s weapon”.

Several years later I had the pleasure of pulling him over and arresting him again on a parole violation warrant. That time he was the most polite, cooperative parolee I’d ever dealt with. The first words from his mouth as he exited the vehicle were, “Please don’t shoot me, Officer Frazier, I ain’t gonna do nothin’ this time,” then he went to the back of the car with hands in the air and assumed the frisk position without being asked.

The memory of that night comes back to me once in a while as I sleep, and I wake up thankful to be alive and well. I think that particular event returns in my sleep so often to remind me that no matter what else is going on in the business world, or the economy, or on the job, what ultimately matters is life and death and whether you’re prepared for each.

Most of the time the things we worry so much about have little or nothing to do with that.

avatar Bloviating Zeppelin

I’ve been in law enforcement for 41 years now. I am a Sergeant in Patrol, and I also work in the jails for OT.

My troops are a different generation. But I’m still there to make sure they do the right thing and go home safely every night. I tell them again and again: WAIT for your backup. Do NOT commit to a dangerous call by yourself. Be SAFE in your DRIVING whilst enroute the call. If you crash enroute, or you’re injured or killed by youself on a call where you should have had backup — you do NO ONE any good, including the original victim at your call for service.

You were lucky that your backup was so close. In many counties and agencies backup can be many miles or many minutes away.

Your job as a cop is to do your job; not to get killed or injured in a one-time situation. Think of all the people to whom you do a disservice to or could have helped, had you not been injured or disabled or even killed at a one-time event.

Tim, bottom line, I’m glad you’re safe and could walk away.


avatar Greybeard

Tryin’ one last time-
This story illustrates the reason I knew I could never be a patrol officer.
Three years flying the County’s helicopter as a Deputy Sheriff, I listened to this sort of story unfold all too often and realized I could never do the job without losing my cool, (or maybe getting my butt thoroughly whupped.)
There is simply NO WAY we can pay our L.E. personnel enough to deal with oxygen consumers like this guy.
Thanks for sharing, Tim.

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