With almost any job, the day-to-day events start to become predictable: A plus B is going to equal C. The same holds true in police work, except—and this could be a fatal exception—A plus B does not always equal C. A plus B can equal the Twilight Zone—a place where nothing occurs as expected.
I work a 12-hour shift, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. or 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. Either way, 12 hours is a long day. I am a road cop for the city of Rehoboth Beach. A road cop, as opposed to an investigator, is a cop who takes whatever call comes through the 911 call board. So calls can run from the benign, such as a parking complaint, to a man shooting his ex-wife’s lover in the chest on the west end of town.
Rehoboth Beach is one of six small summer resort towns that run down the Atlantic Coast of Southern Delaware. Each town has a distinct character and many visitors choose their destination based on this unique character.
Rehoboth has the boardwalk and tree-lined residential streets. Dewey, with its noise and carnival atmosphere, appeals to the young, single crowd.
Also during the off-season, these towns have their special character. By mid-December, Rehoboth Beach is decorated with Christmas lights, bows and wreaths, and the town bustles with commerce. The stores are having their last sales booms of the year, and the bars and restaurants are busy with company Christmas parties. The town feels warm, and life seems like it couldn’t get better.
This was the kind of feeling I had the afternoon I got the call:
“7314 (my badge number) to Van Dyke Street in Dewey Beach to assist a Dewey officer with a suicidal subject.”
I’ve been to a few suicides. When I arrive at the scene where the deed has been done, I always have the feeling that the deceased’s soul is still hovering about in a manic state. I feel like I can almost hear a desperate plea for help before the soul finally disappears into eternity. Sadness fills the scene. I can’t shake it. But the victim is dead and only cleanup is left to do.
“10-4 Rehoboth, in route,” I say over the radio.
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I know that responding to any complaint where a subject is contemplating suicide moves up the danger scale a couple steps. And with all potentially violent encounters that I respond to, I try to take the time to get into the right frame of mind. I’ll take some deep breaths and try to slow my breathing. I clear my thoughts of the mundane stresses from work or family. I try to arrive at the scene with as clear a mind and as calm a demeanor as I can muster. I started this ritual as I headed down Bayard Avenue onto the Silver Lake Bridge to Dewey Beach.
Dewey has a distinctly different look from Rehoboth. Just past Silver Lake the town begins with a residential area filled mostly with upgraded ’60s-style beach shacks. This area is heavily wooded and shaded. By mid-December most of the homes are vacant. There are no pedestrians and only an occasional living room light or parked car.
This day was overcast, so the late afternoon light felt gray and chilly. To the right and left of me a blur of shadowy properties raced by as I gathered my thoughts and concentrated on driving.
Bayard Avenue intersects Coastal Highway at a traffic light—the start of the Dewey Beach commercial district. In the summer pedestrians are packed tight on either side of this part of the highway, spilling over onto the road and causing endless traffic interruptions. There is a New Orleans French Quarter type of madness during the summer. Youthful excesses are on display with drunkenness, noise and sexual tension, so much so that as we drive through Dewey Beach in the summer, my children and I play a game called “Count the Drunk Chicks” with a whole set of rules and a scoring system that allots points for levels of intoxication.
Today this strip is barren and cold. If we had tumbleweeds, they would be blowing down the highway. Unlike Rehoboth, Dewey Beach is almost a ghost town in the winter. Rarely do you see people walking around and the stores are dark—closed for the season. From Bayard Avenue to the end of its town limits, Dewey has water on both its east and west sides, with just two blocks between the ocean and the bay. So Dewey always feels colder than Rehoboth in the winter.
Van Dyke Street is almost at the southernmost end of Dewey Beach. The street has a block east off the highway that ends at the ocean, and a block west that ends at Rehoboth Bay. It was to the west-side block that I responded.
“7314 Rehoboth. I’m going 10-2 Van Dyke Street.”
As I pulled onto the block I noticed a row of empty-looking condos that ran down most of one side of the street. Across from these was the parking lot of the Rudder Complex—a group of buildings with a convention center, restaurants and stores. At the end of the street, the bay looked cold and gray with a little chop from a light wind. The street was empty of parked vehicles except for the Dewey Beach police vehicle which was about halfway down the street, facing the bay. At the westernmost end of the street a small, dark, older-model pickup truck was parked in the middle of the road, facing the highway. I didn’t pay much attention to it. The Dewey police car didn’t have the emergency lights on, and there didn’t appear to be any urgency to this complaint.
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I stopped my car about 30 feet behind the Dewey police vehicle. At this point in my career, I had been to a number of suicidal situations which went one of two ways: either the subject was dead/near dead (the deed done) or the subject was verbalizing or acting out (doing things like laying out a will, quoting the Bible and writing suicide notes) and making non-life-threatening attempts (superficial cuts to the wrists, overtaking medication).
Most of the time I have found that the latter was a call for attention, or a hope for additional meds. Once I encountered both situations at the same time: A man had been verbalizing and as I arrived, he stuck the barrel of a high-powered rifle in the roof of his mouth and blew the top of his head off. I thought of this briefly that afternoon in Dewey—it was one of the mental files I had to draw from. In a critical incident when it’s difficult to consciously process information, an officer draws from these unconscious files. They come from training or experience.
I didn’t have any information on this complaint other than to assist Dewey with a suicidal subject. With the condos to my left and the Dewey cruiser parked just ahead of me, I began to think that this might be a run-of-the-mill thing, maybe a drunk subject who called his ex-girlfriend and told her he was going to off himself. Or a druggie who figures he’ll get meds at a psychiatric facility after claiming he wants to kill himself. You know: A plus B equals C.
I figured the subject was probably in one of the condos, and the Dewey officer was waiting for me to help take the sad soul into custody.
I exited my vehicle and casually walked up to the driver’s side window of the Dewey police cruiser. As I approached, I yelled, “So what’s going on?” The officer, a female, said nothing. She looked pale and made no eye contact with me, her stare fixed straight ahead on the late-model truck that I’d noticed when I arrived. She raised her arm with her finger pointing in the direction of the truck. She said nothing, just moved her arm back and forth, emphasizing the direction of her point. I still didn’t have any information, but I was getting the feeling that my A plus B equals C assessment was probably wrong.
That’s when I looked toward the truck and noticed a man in the driver’s seat. He had disheveled dark hair and a mustache that was long and unkempt. His complexion was gray and pale, his face gaunt and his cheeks hollow. His intense gaze felt like it could burn right into me.
Just then the Rehoboth 911 Center contacted me over the radio: “Rehoboth to 7314.”
“10-3 Rehoboth,” I said.
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“State police just contacted us and stated that your suicidal subject is armed with a handgun. They also stated that he is a marksman.”
So now I get some information. I guess then was better than later, but I sure wished I wasn’t standing in the middle of the road without cover while the armed and intense-looking man was glaring at me. I started thinking, All right, we’ll work this out. He must be talking to the state police crisis people and maybe they can talk him down. We’ll just keep him from killing himself. I still sort of had a file in my head on that type of situation.
“7314 Rehoboth,” I said into the radio.
“Confirming that the subject is positively armed?”
“That is correct, 7314. Also be advised that the subject has been in contact with a state police negotiator, and the subject has indicated that he plans to force a deadly force response from the police.”
I felt the hair on the back of my neck stand straight up. SUICIDE-BY-COP—son of a bitch!
Now I understood why the Dewey officer appeared dazed. It was because she—like me—had no files on hand for this situation. She already had the information before I arrived and was processing it. And I guess because I was the one standing without cover in the middle of the road, I appeared calm and collected. Is this why she looked to me to take charge? All I know is that there were a few painfully long seconds where I had absolutely no idea what to do. My heart had started to race and I could feel a knot starting in my stomach. What to do? What to do?
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As my head started to clear, and I began to focus on the situation, I realized that I could not have picked a more favorable place if there was to be gun play. None of the residences or businesses on the street appeared to be occupied. It would be unlikely that an innocent civilian would be hit by a stray bullet. And although the subject was facing the highway, there was sparse traffic. Behind him was a wide expanse of Rehoboth Bay that was free of boats. Behind me, except for the highway, there were dunes. This was the place to handle this job. I needed to box this guy in so I could make sure that if something happened, it happened there.
I didn’t notice anything else, not the sounds of the water or the hum of highway traffic. But I did notice Cpl. Ray Edwards arrive on the scene. He didn’t have his lights on, so I suspected that he was unaware he was coming into a suicide-by-cop situation. Ray’s arrival gave me comfort. I could always rely on him to be calm and clear-headed.
I started back to my vehicle, but I never took my eyes off of the guy, and I never took my hand off of my still-holstered pistol. I was far enough from him that I felt he would have a difficult time making an accurate shot, and I wanted to use my vehicle as cover. I quickly brought Ray up to speed over the radio as I moved to my car. I also told both officers that I wanted to barricade the subject in with our vehicles. All this time, the subject’s gaze never left me.
I started to move my car across the roadway, but as I got it into position—before Ray or the Dewey officer could move theirs—the subject started driving toward me. My chest got tight. My mouth went dry. I could see him clearly through his windshield. There was no glare. The sky was overcast. There was no change in his expression. I got out of my vehicle and drew my weapon. I had cover on the side of my vehicle behind the engine block. But I quickly understood that if he continued toward me, I would no longer be protected. He continued. He had the same stare, the same blank expression.
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He kept driving slowly toward me. I kept cover alongside my vehicle as long as I could. As he grew closer, I prepared for the worst. I knew he was armed. I knew that he had told the negotiator he was going to force the police into a deadly force confrontation, and, most importantly, I knew that I had no cover. But all I kept saying to myself was, I don’t see his gun yet. I don’t see his gun yet. I was more worried about whether I was justified in shooting than I was for my own safety. That was an absolute mistake—a thought that has probably killed more officers than any one thing. The bottom line was that he could’ve shot me through the door, and even if he had raised his gun so that I could see it, he could act much faster than I could react.
He continued toward me. As he came alongside of me—he was maybe three feet away—we looked into each other’s eyes.
For reasons unknown, he decided that he was not going to make his stand with me, and he drove by. Immediately, all my tenseness—all the muting of my senses—disappeared. All the sounds, smells and motion around me came screaming back. I knew we had another problem: This guy needed to be stopped fast so he couldn’t play this out again in a place bustling with innocent people.
I quickly returned to my vehicle so Ray and I could pursue him. We were immediately joined by several other police cruisers from the surrounding police agencies. This wasn’t a high-speed pursuit, but rather a slow-moving snake with our subject at the head, leading the chain of flashing police lights first north and then south on Coastal Highway.
Once we got past Dewey Beach, Ray and I left the parade and blocked traffic from driving south on the highway. By now the sun was setting over the bay. Our subject pulled off near the Indian River Inlet Bridge and got himself boxed in by the police. It was there that he made his stand. He was shot and wounded by a police sniper.
It was over—this time anyway.
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