NATIONAL SUICIDE PREVENTION LIFELINE: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
February 7th 1998 started out like many other days for me as a Texas State Trooper. I was assigned to the Department of Public Safety Highway Patrol in Killeen, Bell County, Texas. It was a great day to be out there among the citizens and visitors of the state, doing a little public relations work and meeting a few new people. I had gone to work at 7a.m. that day and would end my day at 3p.m. I began my day at the Hallmark Restaurant for breakfast and coffee with a few friends, and then hit the road to do a little traffic enforcement. The morning was quite busy, with the issuance of traffic citations and a minor accident, which resulted in the exchange of information between the two drivers.
Shortly after 11:00a.m., I began to hear radio traffic from DPS Waco Communications advising of an extremely intoxicated driver operating a blue Toyota Corolla, traveling southbound on I.H. 35. The vehicle was leaving the Waco area, being operated by a Hispanic male. This was approximately 40 miles from where I was working. I.H.35 intersects U.S. 190, which leads to Killeen, my assigned area. I continued to monitor the radio traffic, and like any other officer, wished like hell that I was closer so I could get this driver off the road. As the radio traffic continued, I heard dispatch advise that the driver had pulled into a roadside service station, called Love’s Truck Stop. Dispatch continued to update on his status, and at one point advised that while he was pumping gas, callers advised that he had placed his beer can on top of his vehicle and was urinating outside by the gas pump. After pumping his gas, the driver returned to his vehicle, and continued to travel south on I.H. 35. The idea crossed my mind several times to shoot up U.S. 190 and intercept him on I.H. 35. I decided to stay in my area due to the fact that the driver would still have to travel through Temple, which is a relatively large city, and then to Belton, a smaller city, which joins Temple on the south side. Both of these cities have several patrol officers and there is also a local Highway Patrol office. I knew for sure that he would get stopped in that area. Waco DPS continued to advise everyone of the driver’s erratic driving, location, and the lack of their ability to find any officer to respond. Due to the time of day, most officers were either at lunch or handling other calls. My usual routine was to sometimes work through the regular lunch rush and eat after other officers had returned to the street. It took everything I had not to kick my patrol unit in overdrive and head east to intercept the vehicle on I.H. 35. As I monitored dispatch and listened to them advise on how there were no officers available in Temple or Belton to conduct a stop on the vehicle, I felt frustrated that I had not gone with my first thoughts to head east. Dispatch then advised that the vehicle had taken the Ft. Hood exit, and was now heading west on U.S. 190 directly towards my location. I felt that my wishes had come true and I began to formulate a plan on where to stop the vehicle. Instead of traveling out highway 190, I decided to set up in a specific location to intercept the vehicle. I parked in the center median and continued to monitor the radio traffic. As the vehicle approached my location, there was no doubt in my mind that I had the correct vehicle. There was a wall of vehicles following it and the driver traveled from shoulder to shoulder of the two westbound lanes of traffic. I remember confirming the speed of the vehicle at 82mph on radar. I also remember that as the vehicle passed my location, it appeared that the driver and I had made eye contact, but his was that kind of look that would go right through you. I initiated the emergency lights on my patrol unit, entered traffic, and began to attempt to overtake the vehicle. I noticed that the vehicle increased in speed, at times reaching speeds of over 100mph. The vehicle continued to travel from shoulder to shoulder of the roadway in a very erratic manner. In an unexpected move, I observed the vehicle dart across the center median into oncoming traffic. Several vehicles were traveling east and managed to avoid colliding with the Corolla. The Corolla then darted back to the westbound lane of travel, still at a high rate of speed. As we approached Loop 3470, which goes around Killeen, Texas, the Corolla once again darted across the center median in what appeared to be an attempt to shoot down the onramp for the eastbound traffic.
As the vehicle entered the eastbound traffic lane in the wrong direction, all I could see was the huge collision of two vehicles, at what appeared to be in very slow motion (frame by frame). I crossed behind the collision in an attempt to block oncoming traffic and render assistance. I first approached the vehicle that had been struck. The male driver and female passenger appeared to be conscious. I also observed a small child in a safety seat in the passenger side rear of this vehicle. As I ran around the vehicle that I was pursuing, I noticed that the driver of the Corolla, which was now upside down, had been partially ejected and it was obvious that he was deceased. As I approached the passenger side of the vehicle that was struck, I could hear the infant crying, and that was a great relief. I then observed a young child about 6-7years of age, seated behind the driver in the back seat. I called for him several times and did not receive any response. I can remember his eyes being open, which appeared to be looking at me. I quickly ran around the vehicle and reached in behind the driver to check for breathing and a pulse, both with negative results. Due to the amount of damage on the vehicle, it was not possible to get to the child for treatment. A good friend of mine, Wesley Kingesly, who is a Paramedic, had been behind me when the accident occurred. Wes climbed over the female passenger and into the back seat of the vehicle. I ran to my patrol unit and retrieved a window punch tool and blanket. I placed the blanket over Wes and the two children and I removed the back window. I got into the rear seat of the vehicle and assisted in administering CPR to the child until life flight and Killeen EMS arrived on scene and took over. It seemed to take hours for medical assistance and other law enforcement to arrive. After local EMS arrived on scene, they took control of all medical attention and MEDIVAC air ambulance arrived to transport patients to local hospitals. My body and mindset was still on full tilt and operating in Police mode. I began to gather witness information and statements and do what I could to stay busy.
While gathering witness statements, a female arrived on the scene that I know very well. Jennifer Dantzer came up to my location by my patrol unit. I questioned her as to what she was doing on scene. Jennifer advised me that it was her family in the vehicle, pointing at the vehicle that had been struck. It was then that I realized that the young child, on whom I had been doing CPR several minutes earlier, was her 5year old son Brady. A week earlier, this child had been sitting on my lap in the restaurant where Jennifer works, and was a child that I had met on numerous occasions. Jennifer questioned as to the condition of everyone, and I only advised that they had been transported to local hospitals.
It was at that exact moment that emotions hit me like a ton of lead. I felt that I had failed to gain control of the pursuit, and had allowed the driver to cause the accident. It was shortly after the accident that I was advised that Brady had not survived the accident. I broke down in tears. I was put off work for a few days and mandated to visit the department psychologist. Like any other law enforcement officer, I told him exactly what he wanted to hear in order to return to work. Meanwhile I was torn to shreds on the inside and had turned to alcohol to kill my pain.
As I look back on the aftermath of the event, I realize that I had shut everyone out of my life. I would sit home alone drinking large amounts of alcohol every night and honestly crying myself to sleep. I was afraid to let anyone in and to tell them how the accident had affected me, knowing that they would not understand and there was no way they could understand the pain I felt. Just imagining what would happen if I consulted my supervisor, telling him was not an option. I was always that Cop, the one many looked up to and called when they needed help. The one they said would give his own mother a ticket. I was great at listening to others and dealing with their problems, and now I was the one that couldn’t handle his own problems. That typical “COP” mentality had gotten the best of me. I was slowly dying on the inside and had no idea what to do.
Not realizing over the next month or so how my job performance had dropped, one day in March or April, I was called into the office by my Patrol Sergeant. He began to question me about my job performance, the change in my attitude, and lack of interaction with other Troopers. As I tried to justify my reason, I broke down crying in his office, and he asked about the accident. I was informed that I would be removed from patrol duties until I was cleared by the department psychologist to return. I had already seen the psychologist immediately after the incident. Like most other officers would do, as I said previously, I told him exactly what he wanted to hear so I could return to duty (mistake #1). I went home that day, parked the patrol unit, and jumped in my truck and headed straight to the liquor store. Feeling that the only thing I had left had been taken away from me, I was hurting even more. I think at this point I had made up my mind that I was going to stop the pain. I started drinking at about 2p.m. and continued into the night. My phone rang several times that evening, but I did not answer any calls.
At some point in the evening, I went back into the bedroom, got my duty weapon, and began to clean it, with my mind made up that I was going to end it all. I knew that I could no longer deal with the pain and the hurt that I felt, and knew in my mind what the only solution was. I made a couple drinks as time progressed. After I finished cleaning my weapon, I can remember downing a straight shot of Jack Daniels and sitting down on the sofa. I picked up my weapon from the table and made sure it was empty. I pulled the hammer of the gun back and placed the barrel in my mouth. I was in tears as I pulled the trigger on the empty pistol. I guess I needed to reassure myself that I could do it. I then placed the magazine in the pistol, chambered a round, and prepared to do what I had previously called the unthinkable. The thing that I had always told my friends was that even if they found me dead with gun in my hand, I didn’t do it, and they needed to start an investigation. I placed the weapon on the table and said a prayer asking for forgiveness and for God to give my family strength and understanding. As practiced earlier, I pulled the hammer back on the pistol. As I began to place the barrel in my mouth someone knocked on my front door. I placed the pistol on the table and decided to wait for them to leave. They knocked a second and third time, and I noticed the voice on the other side of the door to be that of Lynn Brown, my patrol Captain when I was a city officer. Coming to the conclusion that he was not going to leave, I placed the weapon under the table and opened the door.
Due to my drunken state at the time, I can’t say that I actually remember all that we talked about, but whatever it was seemed to work. Lynn had gone through a similar situation involving a pursuit and said he knew where I was going. Lynn and I to this day still have not talked about that night, except through his wife, who is a very close friend. Ann also wrote a poem for me entitled Dear Mr. Policeman which helped me out greatly during all of this. Lynn did tell me that it was the thin blue line that made him come to the house that night, and that being one who had traveled down the road that I was on my way down, and that it is not a fun place.
Shortly after that night, I wrote the poem entitled “My Guardian Angel” in memory of Brady Dantzer. A copy of the poem was also given to Jennifer Dantzer. I owe my life to Lynn for being my Angel that night. Most of all, I thank God for allowing me to live to tell my story, and I hope that I can help others. Know that with the right set of conditions and circumstances it was not that difficult to get where I was. My goal is to keep others from going where I have been.
I also thank the National Police Suicide Foundation, for giving me the knowledge and courage to come forward and tell my story.
Thomas A. Peoples
Founder: Shadows of the Badge
B.A. Christian Counseling
Never in my life could I have imagined how this day would go. It is truly a day that changed my life forever.