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A Hero’s Prayer Is Answered

A veteran law enforcement officer asks for God’s intervention when he is faced with the most difficult 13 seconds of his career.

Veteran cop Mike Jones whose faith saw him through a dangerous hostage situation
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Twenty-six years in law enforcement and I never had to use my gun. That’s the way it should be. That’s the way I always hoped it would be.

Like I tell graduating cadets at the police academy: “The most important people in your career are the ones who love you, the ones who helped you get here today. Your job is to go home to them every evening. Don’t get yourself into anything you can’t get out of and stay safe for the ones you love.”

Well, it doesn’t always work out that way, as I learned one chilly afternoon last December at the school district headquarters in Bay County, where I’m head of the school police department.

December 14 was supposed to be a vacation day for me. I’d taken off the last week and a half before Christmas to get ready for a toy giveaway program I help run in town. The day before, weather reports had showed a big cold front moving in.

The superintendent had asked me to work one more day to make sure that all of the district’s buildings were prepped for the freeze (we don’t get a lot of cold weather down here on the panhandle).

I spent the morning driving around to schools checking on pipes. That afternoon I was at the district office. Four floors below me the school board was meeting in the ground floor boardroom. My cell phone rang.

“Mike,” said a female voice I didn’t immediately recognize, “there’s someone with a gun in the boardroom and we can’t tell if it’s real or fake. Please get down here!” She hung up.

Training overrode my shock. I raced down the stairs. It can’t have taken more than a minute to get down to the ground floor but suddenly I felt like time had stopped and I was running through a tunnel.

My heart beat fast, my muscles tensed. I saw in a flash all my years as a police officer.

My dad had been an auxiliary policeman and my uncle had worked for highway patrol. Straight out of high school I’d worked odd jobs till I could afford the academy. I’d joined the Panama City department the day I graduated.

I’d seen it all and worked every beat from patrolman to sergeant to homicide detective. I’d retired, then come back for more with the school district after a stint on the school board.

I’d fired my gun plenty of times in my career—at the shooting range. Mostly I’d learned how to stay true to that advice I gave to new recruits. I kept safe. I talked shooters into putting down their guns. I never did anything rash, never tried to be a foolish hero.

For over 20 years I’d come home every night to my wife Colleen. I’d never had to ask God whether I’d done the right thing shooting someone. I’d never felt the dread I was feeling now. Please, Lord, keep us safe.

The boardroom was behind a pair of double doors just down the hall from the building’s main entrance. I wasn’t wearing a police uniform—as an administrator I rarely do—but I did have a small .38-caliber pistol in a holster clipped to my khaki trousers. I drew the gun and cracked open one of the doors.

Straight ahead, past rows of upholstered seats with room for about 150 people, sat six members of the school board at a long desk.

Ginger Littleton, the only woman on the board, wasn’t there. The rest of the room was empty except for a tall, heavyset man in a dark sweatshirt, jeans and tennis shoes pacing around in front of the board members.

The man carried a large automatic pistol in his right hand.

Right away I knew this was a hostage situation. The man for some unknown reason was holding the board at gunpoint. He’d told everyone else, including spectators and all the women in the room, to leave.

There might not be enough time to keep this guy talking until the SWAT team arrived, which is one way of dealing with a hostage-taker. And my little .38-caliber pistol was no match for that man’s automatic.

I had five shots. This guy would riddle everyone in the boardroom with bullets before I could empty my chamber.

There was only one thing to do. I had to get to my car parked a few hundred feet away and grab my automatic pistol and bulletproof vest, which I kept in a lockbox in the back hatch.

I would have to confront this man. I would have to put myself between him and the board members.

“Sir,” I called to him. I wanted him to know I was there before I ducked away. “How you doing?”

The man turned. “Oh, one of the cops,” he said—my parka had the word Police on it. I tried to get a glimpse of his face. Was he deranged? Angry? He didn’t look scared at all.

“No, I’m just a school safety officer,” I told him. “You got a real gun there?” The man began walking toward me.

“Come on in,” he said. He sounded aggressive, not one bit afraid. I closed the door and sprinted to my Ford Explorer. I yanked out my gun and threw the bulletproof vest over my parka, not even bothering to cinch it shut.

I raced back to the boardroom, hoping against hope that my brief exchange with the man had bought the board members some time.

The moment I opened the door I heard a shot. The man stood directly in front of the board members, pointing his gun at the superintendent, Bill Husfelt.

Bill’s body jerked back. The other board members dove behind the desk. I was too late!

The man fired again. I stepped into the room, raised my weapon, aimed and squeezed the trigger. The man stumbled forward.

I shot him again. The man fell to the floor with a grunt. I stepped farther into the room, hoping that now that he was wounded the man would surrender.

His arm jerked up and he fired at me. Shot after shot. I dove behind a row of seats and returned fire over the seat-top, trying to keep the man pinned down.

The world seemed to close in even more. I heard nothing but the popping of the bullets. Everything was by instinct.

The firing stopped. Cautiously I raised my head. The man was on the ground, his gun pointed at his own head. Before I could do or say anything the man pulled the trigger. He died instantly.

Bill. I raced to the shooter’s body to make sure he was dead. I grabbed his gun and flung it away. One by one the board members’ heads lifted from behind their desk.

Then Bill’s head rose up. He stood. He was alive! Oh, Lord, I’m either dead and in heaven or Bill and everyone else really did make it, I thought.

“I’m alive, Mike,” said Bill. “I’m alive.”

“Everyone else okay?” I choked.

“We’re okay!” they cried.

At that moment the tunnel that had closed in around me widened and suddenly I was back in normal time, back in the world. Between us, we’d fired 18 rounds in 13 seconds.

I fell to my knees and the full impact of everything that had just happened slammed into me and I burst out crying. The board members staggered out from behind their desk and we all just stared at each other.

Then we looked at the man lying on the floor. Behind Bill’s seat two bullet holes marked the wall—somehow the man’s bullets had ricocheted off the desk and lodged there, missing Bill by inches.

Six more holes scarred a wall at the back of the room—they formed a perfect circle, exactly where my head had been just seconds before I dove behind the seats. If I’d waited even one more instant, I would not have gone home to Colleen. I would not have lived.

Minutes later the SWAT team arrived. Paramedics tended to me, and before I knew it I was being loaded into an ambulance. My heart was going 188 beats a minute. They ended up having to sedate me to bring the rate down.

When I came to in the hospital, Colleen was there at my bedside. It was night. By the grace of God I was alive and with my wife.

It’s been a year since that harrowing December afternoon. I’ve been on TV to talk about the shooting many times and given lots of speeches. I always give thanks for God’s protection, but I do not in any way celebrate that day.

The man I shot was not just some crime statistic. His name was Clay Duke. He was in the boardroom that day because his wife, a schoolteacher, had recently been laid off in a round of budget cuts.

He was a troubled man with a criminal record and extremist views. Still, he was a human being and I do not believe that God ever intends for people’s lives to end in tragedy.

I know God was present in that boardroom that day and I pray that he ministered to Clay Duke’s troubled soul.

I believe that serving in law enforcement is one of the most solemn trusts a person can be given. Police officers have the power to save lives and to take life.

And so even after being called a hero for protecting the Bay County school board, I still give my same advice to new recruits. It’s the ones we love who mean the most.

We honor them and we honor God when we remember that and do everything we can to come home safe at the end of every day.

 

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