One Cop’s Christmas Tale of Almost Shooting the Wrong Guy

Lawyers and supporters for the California Innocence Project are walking 660 miles from San Diego to Sacramento, California, to personally deliver clemency petitions to Governor Jerry Brown for the release of the California 12, a dozen inmates who have strong cases of factual innocence. Follow their progress on TakePart.

The mere fact that I was in a phone booth on this drenched Christmas Eve should have alerted him… or at least raised suspicion. But some rules are tried and true: Desperation knows no logic. He should have asked himself: Who uses a phone booth anymore? Who in their right mind comes out on Christmas Eve at 2 in the morning? The answer to both is desperate people. Driven people, anyone striving toward something they need. Maniacal people, determined people, relentless foolhardy and half crazy people.

And there I was.

I press checked my.45 and tucked it back under my shirt. Behind a mixture of disgust, anger and adrenaline, with a healthy dose of fear, I was an extremely dangerous person that night. Waiting for my prey against my better instincts, but according to duty and plan, this had to be done. Here’s what I knew:

A man who I’ll call “Carlos” didn’t like the terms of his last business deal. Carlos deals in “elbows” [a street term for a pound (lb.) of meth] and when a compromise couldn’t be reached, Carlos shot the seller in the face. He bought the elbow for the price of a bullet and went about his business. But Carlos wasn’t done yet. 

Before going home to his wife, Carlos stopped by his girlfriend’s place (I’ll call her “Sheila”) to give her a few thousand for Christmas. She didn’t appreciate the midnight visit that woke the kids and they started to argue. Still inflamed from his first killing, according to Sheila’s kids, he stabbed their mother to death.

Carlos sensed it was time to run to Mexico; so he called everyone he could to unload this elbow at fire sale prices.  He needed money now more than ever. His buddies called friends, who called other friends, who called chicks, who called girls, and then even more friends. Word of the cheap “elbow” soon got back to my friends. My friends (being friends) soon got back to me.

At the time, I was the senior undercover detective in Narcotics and Covert Investigations. Through a chain link of friends who have other friends, I offered Carlos a fair price of $11,000 for his elbow and he jumped at it. I knew Carlos had murdered his girlfriend in front of their kids, murdered the last person he was selling dope to, and now he was coming for me and the considerable cash I held.

My mind went numb. I stood in the phone booth like a fool. I nearly shot a man for working a late shift at the China Buffet without a working car or cell phone.

Whenever doing a dangerous mission, every operator knows you practice scenarios in your head. This mentally prepares you, shortens your reaction time, and gets you ready for the unexpected.

I knew Carlos was left-handed and likes to carry his gun in his front pocket. In nearly all the scenarios I played in my head, the ending was the same: Carlos puts his left hand in his pocket starts to pull something out. That’s when I shoot him in the face. The nearby SWAT team cuts down what’s left. If Carlos did anything but throw himself in the dirt to surrender, he was a dead man. 

I’d have no problem blowing Carlos away. In my mind he was a monster, and a .45 round in the head was better than he deserved. I wasn’t looking to kill, but if he posed a hint of threat, I was ready. I would drop him and go about my business without a shred of remorse.

Just then I get a text: “HMA [Hispanic Male Adult] approaching from south, hoodie, black jeans—50 yards & closing.” This was it. My palms began to sweat. 

I tried to see his face as he marched through rain, but it was way too dark. I slipped my hand under my shirt, grabbed my gun. I watched his hands. They dart into his pockets. 

This was it. He picked up the pace, getting closer. I was ready. I was going to kill this man. It’s still too dark to see his face, but I can’t bet my life on it. “Kill him” my mind shouted.  “Kill him now!” closer and closer. “Now! Damn it now!” Another text: “Him?” As the light from the phone booth finally strikes his chin, again my mind screamed “Now!  Shoot him now!”

Time literally froze. This was in my head:

In 1973, my father was the villain in the James Bond thriller “Live and Let Die.”  I was a little kid back then and, in addition to scaring the crap out of me, I didn’t know what the title meant.  I asked my mom to explain it. After learning it I thought, “That’s cold, that’s really cold”.  I could never let someone die, while I happily go about my business.  I could never do that.  It was a pivotal moment in a series of events that eventually lead to my becoming a cop in the first place.

Anyway, back to the phone booth:

Remembering this pivotal moment caused a deadly delay. I still hadn’t shot this guy. “Let die” my mind again shouted in a desperate attempt to live. I pulled my gun low, but it was too late. He’d gotten too close. Now it was a quick-draw contest either one of us could lose.

As he pulled the hoodie back, I raised the gun. It wasn’t Carlos. My mind shouted “No! Wrong man!!”

I had to quickly reverse the automatic reflex of shooting him. 

He asked, “Does that phone work?”

I stuttered as my mind disrupted the kill-response. He asked again, and I told him to “beat it,” staying in character and getting him to leave. This hesitation could have cost my life... because of a James Bond Movie? What was I thinking?

Another hour passed at the phone booth. I beat myself up and waited for Carlos’s arrival. I’d been too quick to judge, and too slow to react with the guy in the hoodie. I was both disappointed and thankful at the same time. Soon, my cell rang again: Homicide detectives had uncovered new information.  Carlos was no longer the suspect. His nearly identical brother, whom I’ll call “John,” actually did both killings.  Carlos was only trying to broker a deal unaware of either homicide.

When they told me, my mind went numb. I stood in the phone booth like a fool, on the border of killing both Carlos and a complete stranger. I nearly shot a man for working a late shift at the China Buffet without a working car or cell phone. I might have killed Carlos if he had flinched wrong for trying to sell his brother’s drugs. Neither target was a killer. Thankfully, this didn’t turn out as horribly as it could have. The mission then changed, and I headed back to my car.

Firing the engine, the first thing I thought of was the Innocence Project. Earlier that week, I’d read about John Grisham’s book An Innocent Man:  Murder and Injustice in a Small Town, the true story of Ronald Williamson and his wrongful conviction in Oklahoma.

The events of that drenched Christmas Eve were a rapid portrait of how quickly the wrong person can be swept into the powerful and imperfect system of justice—sometimes with irreversible consequences. A horror I escaped because of my dad’s movie.

In the past, many police officers thought the Innocence Project was a “bunch of liberal tree huggers trying to free cop killers.”

Yes, that’s an actual quote from one of my training officers 18 years ago.

What that officer failed to see in the mid 1990s is how vitally important the Innocence Project is to law enforcement. Failing to protect the innocent is inexcusable. Our mutual goal is to protect the innocent. For all the officers who worked under my command since that day, this guiding principle has been embedded in everything we do.

“John” was captured a few days later with a sloppy blonde dye job, trying to sneak into Mexico. That Christmas Eve by the phone booth however made an indelible impression on me and forged a private alliance with the Innocence Project. 

Today I am the supervising Sergeant of the Internal Affairs Unit. I am tasked with maintaining the integrity of the department and building trust with the community. I work closely with an Independent Police Auditor, Judge Ladoris Cordell. She’s an incredible former Stanford Law School Dean and Superior Court Judge. Between my team of investigators, and her team of attorneys that monitor our investigations, we are in a relentless pursuit of the truth and the justice it brings.

My hope is that one day, not a single person will be wrongfully arrested, and never convicted. With advances in science and improved procedures, I believe we are getting closer. We are doing a better job now than ever.

I applaud the important work of the Innocence Project. I see their role not as in opposition to law enforcement, but in many ways as an extension of it. Only by working together can we arrive at the truth so we all may “live and let live” in a world free of injustice.

Are you willing to presume someone charged with a crime is innocent until that person is proven guilty? Let your feelings out in COMMENTS.