Sometime during the night, a block of cement forced its way inside my brain and settled behind my eyes. At least that’s what it felt like. My head throbbed and I dreaded getting out of bed. I prized one eye open and glimpsed at what looked like bars of a jail cell, but it was only the morning light on the bedroom wall entering through the louvered slats of the plantation shades.
What a night!
My blanket was rolled into a ball at the foot of my bed and my sweat-soaked pillow was lying on the floor. Seven hours used to be enough sleep for me, but ever since the incident, it never felt sufficient.
Even before moving, I knew my back and knee would be sore. I carefully peeled away my sweatshirt and pants, reached down to get my black-oak cane off the floor, and finally pushed myself up off the bed. In the process of standing up, it felt like a knife had been stuck into my spine, and a piece of coarse sandpaper was dragging across my knee joint. The knee itself, looked as if a one-inch notch had been chiseled out of the bone and a foot-long zipper had been tattooed down the side.
I grabbed the brace off the nightstand, and secured it tightly behind my knee. As I limped toward the bathroom, a scratching noise outside the bedroom door caught my attention. Max, my four-year-old ginger wire fox terrier stood, with his head cocked, holding his leash in his mouth. I let him in and patted the top of his head.
“Sorry buddy.” It took my breath away just to bend over. “I’ll let you outside as soon as I’m done in the bathroom.”
With my hands braced against the sink, my reflection in the medicine cabinet mirror stared back at me. My hair was thin and scraggly, the skin around my eyes had a greenish tint and the whites of my eyes were bloodshot red. Who was that stranger in the mirror? He looked like a monster straight out of a bad movie. The Night of the Zombies, starring Anthony Howard Crow!
Seven months had passed since my surgery, and my life brought to mind the old John Lennon song: Whatever Gets You Through the Night. Painkillers were not only a necessity, but a way of life. I had spent four years in the United States Army, nine years as a police officer at the 5th Precinct in Minneapolis, and I’d gone through an excruciating divorce, but I’d never experienced anything as difficult as this pain and addiction.
I was both mentally and physically dependent on the pills. A normal day revolved around each opportunity to take another one, or an alcoholic drink, and sometimes both. Like all addicts, I believed I could stop at any time, never realizing how serious my addiction had become until I tried to quit several times. Finally, through some deep reserve of strength, or maybe desperation, I resolved to ‘take a break’ from the painkillers and tough it out like the soldier and cop I had been. For twenty-two days I stayed drug free (although occasionally I still enjoyed a drink) and that got me over the worst part of rehab. I’m still in a lot of pain, but slowly beginning to feel better.
It was seven months earlier, on a cold, snowy, late December evening, when my partner, Officer Jeff Lee and I answered a call for a domestic dispute on Edmund Boulevard in south Minneapolis. A complaint had been phoned in about a disturbance and fighting between the caller’s neighbors, Rene and Manny Garza. He told the dispatcher it sounded as if an argument had turned violent.
The neighborhood was filled with high-end houses that looked out over the Mississippi River, but the shabby condition of the house was not the norm for the neighborhood. The yards in front of the houses were on a steep incline, so I drove down the alley and parked our squad car at the back of the house, near the garage. An old cedar privacy fence enclosed the terrace and was severely rotted and about to fall over. A relentless north wind was blowing and the snow from the daylong storm was already knee high, but it couldn’t hide the rusted automobile parts and old appliances scattered across the lawn.
As we navigated our way through the banks of snow to the back of the house, Jeff shook his head with repulsion. “It’s the middle of winter,” he said. “Everything’s frozen, but this place still smells! How’s that possible?”
I removed my gloves and earmuffs, placed my ear to the door and listened. Dead silence, but my instincts knew better. I knocked loudly on the door.
“Who’s there?” A man yelled from inside the house. I inched toward the right side of the doorframe, Jeff moved to the left.
“Police. Open the door!” I rested my hand on my pistol.
“Go away, everything is fine in here.”
“I’m afraid we can’t do that, sir.”
“Did that asshole Jim Starkey call you again?”
“I couldn’t tell you, even if I knew. Now please let us in.”
With domestic disputes you never knew what might happen. An argument could escalate and become too loud; but if alcohol or drugs were involved, the outcome was unpredictable. I was about to knock again when I heard the sound of the door being unlocked.
A middle-aged man, who looked like he needed a bath, opened the door but blocked the entryway. He wore a sleeveless grungy T-shirt, worn out blue jeans and neither shoes nor socks. On his right bicep he had a tattoo of a devil perched on a tombstone. The man’s upper lip was wet with perspiration and he ran his hand through his thin black hair. From where I stood I could smell alcohol. I kept my hand on my pistol.
“Are you Manny Garza?” I asked. I moved in front of the partially open door. Jeff moved behind me.
He put his hands up. “Don’t shoot me, bro,” he smiled, but he appeared to be nervous.
“You need to let us in, Mr. Garza.”
“Come back later, my wife is sleeping and she ain’t feeling too good.”
He tried to shut the door, but I managed to get my foot in the opening.
“We need to make sure everything is fine. If the call turns out to be a mistake, we’ll be on our way shortly.”
He opened the door, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and stepped back.
“You’re letting all the heat out, so you might as well come in.” He prattled on, “that nosy neighbor of ours needs to mind his own business. We aren’t bothering him at all. How can he possibly know anything that we do in our own home? We had our TV on really loud, so how could he hear anything above that?”
I looked behind the door then followed him inside. Officer Lee stayed behind me in the entryway.
The house stunk of dirt, cooking grease and sweat. Clothes were strewn across the hardwood floors; empty beer bottles and half-eaten containers of food were everywhere. The living room was dimly lit. The only shades on the windows were blankets hanging from an improvised rope. In spite of the chill inside the house, the ceiling fan was spinning, but three of the four bulbs were burnt out. There seemed to be no other lighting in the house.
“Are you Manny Garza?” I interrupted his nervous tirade.
“Yes, I am.” While he spoke he briefly glanced back over his left shoulder.
“Is there someone besides your wife in this house, sir?”
Jeff stepped in the direction where Garza had looked.
“Just my wife,” he said and swallowed. “Man, I need to ask a favor.”
“What’s that, Mr. Garza?” I said. He moved backwards as he spoke. “Rene, that’s my wife, see, well we had a fight earlier, but everything is cool now, so could you come back later? She had too much to drink and I think she just needs to sleep it off.”
Officer Lee moved to the far end of the living room and looked down the hallway.
“Is your wife in one of the rooms back there?” He pointed.
Garza didn’t answer.
“We’ll need to see her before we can leave,” I said.
“Rene! Come out here! They want to talk to you.”
“Please go, I’m okay,” an unseen woman yelled back. Her voice was muffled.
“That’s good to hear ma’am,” I called out. “But we’re still going to need to speak with you in person.”
Manny Garza slowly inched toward the front door and Jeff Lee followed.
“Sir, I’m going to have to ask you to stand over there.” He pointed next to the buffet.
I heard the bedroom door open and Rene Garza walked out. She was wearing a red robe, her head was down and she was shielding her face with her right hand.
“Ma’am, please look at me,” I said.
She did so slowly, lifting her head. Her right eye was swollen shut and her nose was bent to the side. There was dried blood on her mouth and chin.
“Watch out, he has a gun!” She pointed at her husband and screamed.
What happened during the next 60 seconds has continued to haunt my dreams since this day.
Garza pulled out a .38 special that had been tucked inside the back of his pants. He first aimed the pistol at his wife and shot her in the stomach, then turned and shot two rounds into Jeff Lee’s face.
Both as an officer and a soldier I had been trained to shoot at targets, but I had never shot a live round at another person. I hesitated, and I paid for it.
Before I was able to draw my pistol from its holster, Garza fired a round into my right side, directly below my rib cage. The force of the bullet was tremendous, and I fell backwards in slow motion, landing hard on the floor.
I’ve heard it said that when you’re dying and about to cross over, an old friend or relative will visit you and welcome you to the other side. If that’s true, then I should have known I wasn’t going anywhere. I lay on my back, suddenly aware of the rotating fan and the flaking paint on the ceiling.
As it turned out, getting knocked down probably saved my life. Garza fired another bullet that narrowly missed my prostrate body. I kicked my legs up for protection and took his last round in my right knee.
My memory of what took place after that is not clear. I heard later from a fellow police officer that I had returned fire six times, four of the bullets striking Manny Garza’s torso. He took his last breath at the scene. Jeff Lee died on the way to the hospital, but Rene Garza survived.
I was barely able to call for an ambulance and was prepped for surgery as soon as I arrived in the emergency room at the Hennepin Medical center in downtown Minneapolis. Three specialists operated on me for a total of seven hours, and I was in the intensive care ward for an additional thirty-six hours after that. All said and done, I believe I have a lot to be thankful for. Mostly, that I avoided being permanently paralyzed by a bullet that missed my spine by a quarter of an inch.
One of my biggest regrets was that I wasn’t able to pay my respects to Jeff Lee at his funeral. He had been a good friend and partner for the last nine years.
So began my long road to recovery. The doctor responsible for my rehabilitation warned that I might not walk normally again. But after another surgery and four months of physical therapy, I could walk first with a walker, and then with a cane. For a while I couldn’t drive a car because I was worried about stepping on the brake and the pain it would cause my knee. During rehab my health insurance paid for transportation to the grocery store and to physical therapy.
Six months after the shooting, I still hadn’t heard any news about a timetable for returning to the 5th Precinct. All the free time was making me antsy and I needed to know where I stood with the police department. I phoned my commanding officer and asked about the possibility of returning to work. He avoided the question and instead referred me to the City of Minneapolis Human Relations department. I called the man assigned to my case and he offered me a choice: take a pension and severance package or a desk job. It was about what I had expected, but it was still difficult for me to hear. I couldn’t see myself sitting behind a desk for the rest of my career, so I accepted the payoff. Like many people I had often wondered what I wanted to do after I retired, but I never thought it would take place until I was at least fifty, the earliest age an officer can retire and collect benefits.
After thinking long and hard about my choices, and debating with colleagues, family and friends, I decided it was an opportunity to become a private detective. It would keep me close to the work I loved, but out of the physically taxing situations that a cop needs to be prepared for daily.
I also needed to prove to myself that I was the same man I was before the shooting.