First let me say it would make a lot more sense to me if I was writing this story about one of the many cities I have been to with a reputation for violence: Pittsburg, where I saw the "Stop Shooting, We Love You" sign; Baltimore; Oakland; Miami; Chicago; Stockton, CA - listed as one of the "Most Dangerous Cities in the US"; Los Angeles or even Dallas, where I came here from. But that isn't the case. This shooting happened right down the road in Missoula. And I gotta say, I never expected in a million years for this to happen there.
So it is the day before Thanksgiving. I work from home when I am not on the road so I am sitting in my home office, alone, watching a file I am working on chug away on my computer, bored out of my mind. This is going to take a while. It is a BIG file. I make the ill-fated decision to leave and go to Missoula, thinking (incorrectly it turns out), that I can run this one errand and that by the time I get back, the file will be done and I can move on.
Here is the layout of the crime scene:
Remember, this isn't a photo of that day, this is a fixed satellite image taken at some point. You can partly tell because in November in Missoula there is likely to be some white stuff where that grass is and the grass would definitely not be green either way.
I am parked between Gold's Gym and the Credit Union. Even though these are *not the actual vehicles, they are in exactly the right places and are even parked in the right direction. The "Bad Guys" Car was facing towards the top of the photo and I am facing them.
I come out of the building where Gold's Gym is (they aren't the only business in that building) and walk directly to my car. I sit in the driver's seat and look down to check my work email on my cell phone when...
BANG, BANG. Two shots, in rapid succession. And let me just say right now there was never a time when I thought the bangs were anything other than gunfire. I didn't think it was fireworks or a car backfiring or a tire popping. Definite gunshots.
As I look up, a man bails out of the passenger side of the car - which is the side facing me - dropping a pistol on the ground as he goes.
He follows this red line which is taking him behind the grocery store. As he runs the man in the driver's seat of that car gets out and begins shooting over the top of his car trying to hit the guy running away (he does, we will come back to that).
Referring to the map you can see that if the guy is shooting at the man running away, he is pointing his weapon in my direction. So I make the decision TO GET OUT OF MY CAR. I know, I know. Everyone I have told this story to says WHAT WERE YOU THINKING! I wasn't but I hope I was thinking subconsciously that I wanted something more between me and him than the windshield. I go behind my car which has as a spare tire mounted to the back. But as I do that, the guy from the driver's side has moved to the back of his car and he is laying on the ground.
"I'm shot in the leg, I'm shot in the leg", he is yelling.
I go around my car and am going towards him trying to call 9-1-1 as I go. I am almost to him and am telling him I am calling for help when another car drives up, grabs the guy who is shot off the ground and they speed away. I am sure if anyone had taken my picture right then I would have been standing there with my mouth open. I couldn't believe it. AND I realized I could not have told you a single thing about that car other than it wasn't a truck. Not the color, make, model, etc. (it was a green minivan I learned later).
While I am still in shock over that development another man runs up carrying a rifle in the crook of his elbow and he says, "Which way did he go?" Some other bystanders point behind the grocery store and that guy takes off. My only thought is "This is about to get a lot worse." Thankfully, it doesn't.
I still haven't managed to dial 9-1-1 and I realize it is because I keep dialing it on the password screen of my iPhone. But as I look up a policeman is coming with his lights and sirens running. Then a LOT more show up very quickly, some in uniform and some not. And that's when I learn what has really happened. The guy that got shot in the leg was an undercover cop. So were the people that grabbed him and rushed him to the hospital. So was the guy with the rifle. He comes back leading the drug dealer who was the first shooter - the cop hit him in the leg. I am never clear if that happened in the car or when the guy was running away. They handcuff him and load him in an ambulance. By this time, cops are everywhere and they are setting up a crime scene, complete with me and my car on the inside of the tape.
A young girl who worked at the grocery store was outside smoking and she saw all of this go down from the side. She comes over to me and says, "I was thinking oh my god they are going to shoot that woman sitting in her car!" I told her I had the same thought. She asked if she could hug me and though I am not a hugger, both she and I are shaking really bad and I let her. She is the only other person who really saw the whole thing go down. She is also the only other one the cops are interested in talking to. But that didn't stop lots of other bystanders from coming over and wanting to tell what they saw (mostly nothing).
I had to call David and he had to leave work and come get me (after waiting to give my statement, probably over an hour and half later). I cannot take my car. They are setting up a tent and "command center" and they tell me it will be the next day before I can get my car. This will be true for people in the gym and they don't even know it yet.
I learned a couple of lessons from all of this I want to share with you:
- Don't sneak out of work to run errands. If you do, don't assume it will go as planned.
- I am a terrible eyewitness. When they took my statement they asked me how many people I saw and to describe them. I only saw the shooter and the cop. I never saw the other man in the parking lot who was with the drug dealer but not in the car. I couldn't describe the shooter other than to say he was "white" which, in Montana, is about as helpful as saying he was human. I had no idea what he was wearing, his size, hair color, etc.
- You do not know what you will do in a situation until you are in it. I have already had some lessons in this one but it was a big reminder. Some people panic (my daughter for example), some people don't. I am not panicky. That doesn't mean I think about what I am doing first, I am just reacting but I don't run away or cry or freak out. I got out of the car without really thinking about it or planning to. I went towards the cop before I knew he was a cop and I would have gone all the way to him and tried to help if he hadn't been grabbed up.
- You can't always know who the good guys are or if there are any good guys at all. Several people later said it was too bad I wasn't "carrying". I am so grateful I wasn't. In this scenario, the likeliest thing for me to have done was to point my gun at the cop. I didn't know he was a cop and he never identified himself as such. He was in plain clothes in a regular car. He was the only one pointing a gun in my direction, the other guy dropped his (in fact, I had to point it out when the cavalry arrived because it was still laying on the ground, possibly still loaded). The cop has no idea who I am. I could be involved with the drug dealers for all he knows. He could have shot me or I could have shot him or someone else on accident. All bad outcomes.
- During a crisis, time slows WAY down. This all took maybe 3-4 minutes from the first bang to the cops showing up with lights and sirens blaring. It felt like a lot longer.
- Don't assume you will be in danger when called to testify against the drug dealers. After my initial statement given at the scene, I never heard from anyone again. Not the police, not the district attorney, not the defense lawyers, no one.
I tried to find out what happened to those involved but that has proved difficult. I had already heard that this was a Meth buy and that there were 4 people, 2 men and 2 women, that conspired to rob the cop (of course they didn't know he was a cop...yet). One of the women plead guilt and received a 10 year sentence, 5 of that suspended. I couldn't find anything on the others but I did hear that one of the 3 was given just probation.
My next door neighbor is a sheriff's deputy and since this was a joint task force, I asked him one day if he knew what happened to the cop that got shot. He said the guy had some nerve damage and that he has had a very difficult recovery, even to the point of putting his marriage in jeopardy. When I asked for another update this week, my neighbor said that he is suddenly doing a lot better and for that I am definitely thankful.
This year I am also thankful for many other things - my husband, my family, my friends, that I live in a beautiful place like Montana (no place is immune to drugs), my job that allows me some flexibility in my schedule. But I can make one guarantee right now: on the day before Thanksgiving this year, if you need me, I will be in my home office, right where I belong.