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Downed Utah officer found will to live

Instead of eating dinner with his wife, Lt. Steve Alexander lay in the street of a Magna neighborhood trying to decide what he was made of and whether that was enough to keep him alive.

It was a bullet from the assault rifle of an angry and distraught husband that forced him to make that decision the night of Sept. 22.Alexander, the watch commander for the Salt Lake County Sheriff's Office that night, was crouched behind a patrol car talking to Sgt. Steve Roland and deputy Renee Haunchett when a bullet came flying through the patrol car and hit the 25-year-veteran cop in the head.

"I immediately went down," he said.

"Thoughts go through your mind so fast, to try and tell you, it's not fair. . . . I knew I was shot. I knew it could go two ways. I could think negatively and die. Or I could think positive. I had to find a will and a reason to live."

He found it in his family.

"I didn't want them to be told their father, her husband had died in the gutter," Alexander said, his voice choked with emotion. "Once I came to that realization, I just felt it wasn't my time to go.

"Whoever said there are no atheists in a foxhole had it right," he said. "I had a serious conversation (with God) down there. . . . I didn't want to die. If I was going to, there was nothing I could do about it. But if I was going to live, then I had to do my part."

He said the impact of the bullet felt like it had "blown the top of my head out the back."

Alexander told Roland he'd been shot, and the sergeant made the radio calls for help. They called for medical help and the sheriff's SWAT team. Then the three officers "snuggled" together for what would be a long and emotional game of "liar's poker," he said.

Roland put his hands on Alexander's head and neck in an attempt to slow the bleeding.

After finding what he needed to survive inside, Alexander said he began to do what made him comfortable - working. They went over what needed to be done and he said he continued to "be the watch commander."

"I don't know if anybody was listening, but it kept my mind from thinking of the tragedy," he said. They reassured each other, told each other things were "messed up" but they would work out.

"He was lying to me, I was lying to him," Alexander said. "The two of us were trying to figure out a way out of there. . . . I remember telling them they could go."

They didn't leave him. The three of them laid there between the wheel of a patrol car and a cement curb for 42 minutes.

"I'll never forget it," Alexander said. Many of his thoughts were of his family. Ironically, they were thinking of him. He was shot about 8 p.m., and at 8:02, his pager vibrated, alerting him to a message.

It was his wife.

"Hi, honey. I love you. You must be busy. (Our daughter) went to get some sandwiches, so call me when you can or just come home and eat," she said to the beep.

When Alexander didn't call her back, she did what she's never done before: She called dispatch and asked if he was OK.

They told her he wasn't, but that someone was coming to her home.

While she began to learn what happened, her husband and Roland had decided they had to get out of the street.

"I felt like I was going to get shot again," he said. "I said, `If I get shot again, please make it quick.' It's a terrible feeling thinking you're going to be shot."

That's when Alexander noticed somebody wearing white had sneaked up next to a fence about 15 yards away.

"I didn't know who it was," he said. "I rolled over on my belly, and that's the first time I saw all the blood. . . . I remember saying I was too old for this stuff. . . . Then I heard the voice saying, `Come on, Steve. Come on, crawl.' "

It was Sgt. Jim Potter, the department's public information officer.

"He gave me the hope I needed," he said. "I knew if I could get to him, I'd be OK."

Potter slapped the pavement and urged Alexander on. Slowly the lieutenant made his way to the fence. When he thought he was close enough, Alexander stood and tried to run. His legs were too weak and he fell on Potter.

"I remember telling him I was too heavy and he couldn't carry me," Alexander said. "He fireman-carried me (over his shoulders) behind the house."

From there, Roland and Potter dragged Alexander to a waiting ambulance. His wife and children were already headed to the hospital. It's in the bright lights of the emergency room that Alexander's memory fades.

He would find out later that his life was spared by 1/8 of an inch.

A week and a half later, Alexander still feels the pain - physically and emotionally - of that night. He says he'll go back to work - but not forever - to the job he's loved for more than two decades.

"I'm going to go back and face the monster," he said. "I'm going to retire but on my terms. I'm not going to let somebody chase me out. . . . You have to really reach down inside and find out what you're made of, how tough you are. In my mind, (my survival) was nothing short of a miracle."

But he also acknowledges things have changed. The streets are more violent and people don't seem to respect law enforcement like they used to.

He has some anger toward the media and the man who changed his life. One of his children learned he was shot while watching Monday Night Football, when a local news program announced he'd just been shot in the head.

"That's not right," he said. "I was laying in that gutter worrying about how (my wife and kids) would be told. . . . We (cops) know it's the nature of the beast, the hazard of the job. But if it ever does happen, you hope your family will be told with some compassion. We're just family men trying to make a living."

Alexander is also angry about how the man who shot him has been portrayed at times. He said he made promises to Johnny Lovato's family that Lovato wouldn't be hurt if he'd just come out of the house.

Police were trying to serve Lovato, 42, with a protective order when the standoff began. Lovato shot and killed himself more than five hours after the ordeal began.

"I gave them my word," he said. "(Lovato's) the one who changed the rules. . . . We can't have people threaten us with rifles and just walk away. It's just not right."

And while criminals don't seem to have to follow any of the codes society asks us to abide by, he said, "We still have to abide by the same rules, and it doesn't make for a fair game."

Alexander has learned about himself, learned what's important to him, and he said he's learned he's not alone.

"We in law enforcement tend to get isolated," he said. "We think we go about fighting a war by ourselves. . . . That's not true. There were a lot of people out there who don't know me, who were praying for me."

It is for those people, and partly for himself, that he will return to patrol.

"They deserve to have the protection, to be safe in their homes and on the streets," he said. "If I can contribute even an inkling, be there, help someone, then I want to.

"They were there with me when I was hurt, and I'd just like to pay them back."