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Grief haunts officers who kill in line of duty

SHARE Grief haunts officers who kill in line of duty

The gunman with the hollow, drunken eyes crept through icy darkness.

Rifle raised to his shoulder, he hunted for the sheriff's deputy.In the nearby shadows, deputy Mike O'Brien froze. He watched as the gunman's rifle darted back and forth, then stopped as it found its target.

The deputy looked one last time into the eyes of his would-be killer.

"Death - that's all I could see in his face and eyes," O'Brien recalled. "A total vacancy of all humanity."

O'Brien pulled the trigger of his own gun and joined the ranks of officers who live with the ultimate burden: taking a human life.

They have killed to protect the public, to protect other officers and to protect themselves. While they're trained to carry out this duty with detached precision, little prepares them for the aftermath.

"People think we are without feelings and emotions," said Jeff Thomas, a Kootenai County sheriff's lieutenant who has shot and killed two people in the line of duty.

Instead, he said, these officers often suffer a private and profound grief. Struggling to reconcile their duty as protector with that of killer, they ride a roller-coaster of anger, tears, confusion, adrenaline and fear.

Some turn to booze for comfort. Others withdraw from friends and family. Some are plagued by nightmares and doubt. Some find a new appreciation for their own lives.

In Spokane and Kootenai counties, 20 officers have taken a life during the past 10 years.

O'Brien, who killed a distraught and violent Twin Lakes man in December, was the most recent until Spokane office Rick Dobrow shot an irate, knife-wielding man after responding to a report of a family fight.

"At first you're giddy with adrenaline. Then, within the space of a second, you realize what you've done," said deputy Kevin Mumford, who killed a man during his second month of training.

"We are the only people on Earth who have to be a judge, a jury and an executioner all at once," said Lt. Nile Shirley. "And we have to do it in a split second."

In 1977, Larry House shot and killed a man and then watched his own life unravel.

Cursing and shouting, David Gunter charged out of his Athol, Idaho, home, pistol in hand. "I told him to put the gun down three times, but he started to raise it," House said. "There was this voice screaming in my head, `He's gonna shoot you, he's gonna shoot you!' "

As Gunter charged at the deputy, House fired his gun. "I could see the life go out of his eyes."

Twenty years later, House, now 53 and retired, still remembers how the wife of the dead man wailed at him. "I started bawling. I cried for two days," he said.

It was the beginning of years of depression. Back then, little was known about the psychological damage sown by brushes with violence. Cops weren't encouraged to admit they had feelings, much less discuss them.

The chief deputy at the time told House, "Aw, you'll get used to it where it won't bother you a bit."

He couldn't have been more wrong.

Although House believed he'd done the right thing, "I just felt dirty." He suffered severe mood swings. "I drank enough beer to fill Hayden Lake."

In 1993, House again had to shoot someone. This time, a suicidal woman armed with a handgun stepped outside of her home and took aim at a deputy. Both House and Lt. Jeff Thomas fired their weapons. For House the aftermath was difficult but different.

All involved, officers, 911 dispatchers, emergency workers, were taken to a hotel. Their husbands and wives were brought in. Counseling was offered.

Most important, they were given support and encouraged to talk. "People understand now that you're going to need some help," House said.

Charlotte Weaver is thankful for the officer who took her husband's life. She believes that she, and many more people, would have died in 1992 if deputy Brad Maskell hadn't shot and killed her husband.

"Brad was an angel that God sent to me that day. He gave me my life."

Maskell was on his way home on Sept. 25, 1992, when a domestic violence call came over his radio. He sped to the Hayden complex where Weaver had just jumped from a second-story balcony to escape the abusive husband holding her and a friend at gunpoint.

Maskell watched as Robert Weaver dragged Tom Foutz from the building, a cocked revolver jammed to his head.

"He was yelling that this guy was going to die," Maskell said. "I knew I was going to have to do something.

"I was scared to death."

He fired. Robert Weaver dropped dead.

Although he had saved Foutz's life, questions began circling in Maskell's mind like sharks. "Did I see things correctly? Did I do the right thing?"

The deputy read newspaper articles about the two children he'd left fatherless. He saw photographs of the dead man's son and thought of his own young boy. "I was actually grieving for his family," Maskell said.

Then, the dead man's widow began asking to meet him.

"I was really concerned about him," Charlotte Weaver said. "I knew he had to be suffering and there was enough suffering already."

She had endured years of abuse and had no doubt her husband intended to kill her, Foutz and as many officers as he could that day.

"The day affected both Brad and me, but I think it was easier for me to come to terms because I knew Bob," Weaver said. "Brad didn't have that benefit."

Two years later, Maskell met with the widow.

"I walked through the door, the next thing I know this woman clutches me in a hug. I was kinda shocked. She's crying. I'm trying to hold back my own tears. It just blew me away," he said.

Weaver told Maskell she didn't blame him. He'd done the right thing.