When Guns and Dogs Aren’t Enough

by OFFICER JASON THOMAS, cedar city police department

My NAME IS JASON THOMAS AND I AM

a K9 Officer with the Cedar City Police Department. I am also Second Chance Body Armor Save #992.

11. When Guns & Dogs Aren19t Enough-1An Incident unfolds January 5th was my first night back to work after taking time off for the birth of our third child. A winter storm had come through our area that day and we were busy with calls for service. After clearing from a domestic violence call, I responded to a vehicle in the roadway on Highway 56. I arrived and found it to be abandoned and in the travel lane. As I sat behind it on the busy road, I was overwhelmed with a feeling that something bad was going to happen. I began to use “what if” thinking with various scenarios while waiting in my vehicle until the tow truck arrived.

Grateful for my safety, I cleared the scene and went to check on a fellow officer that was out on a DUI stop. As I arrived into the area I came across another slide off. There was a vehicle that had already stopped to offer assistance, and the drivers of the two vehicles were in the process of hooking up a chain onto the stuck pickup. The driver of the pickup watched me as I pulled up behind his vehicle and I recognized him immediately as Bryan Featherhat. I had been on previous calls that involved Featherhat, but this was simply a motorist assist – a vehicle stuck in the snow following a pounding snow storm. I stepped from my vehicle and Featherhat walked away from me.

Earlier encounters with Featherhat had shown him to be a defiant and belligerent individual, and this time was no exception. The ground was littered with beer cans, and I had to call him back to talk to me. When he returned, he brought his passenger with him, and their breath was pungent with the odor of an alcoholic beverage.

My gaze swept the two men and their unregistered vehicle and I asked both for ID. Featherhat shoved his in my face, but the passenger blatantly lied about his identity. Featherhat again walked away, heading for the vehicle that had stopped to help him. Still dealing with the uncooperative passenger, I trailed behind and overheard him tell a female to “tell the cop you were driving.”

Featherhat’s attitude was interfering with my questioning of the passenger, so I allowed him to stay in font of his vehicle while he hooked up to the tow chain, although I informed him that he was not free to leave. That was the first mistake that I made that night. Street Survival training calls this the “moment of discovery” – the instant the suspect realizes he is going to jail – and it’s the time when volatile suspects are most likely to retaliate. I knew that Featherhat had been drinking, and I knew I had had trouble with him in the past, so I never should have let him out of my sight. Especially after alerting him to the possibility of jail.

The Attack

At the time I didn’t realize my mistake and I continued to question the passenger. I felt that he was my threat because of his blatant lies. When Featherhat came back to join us, I assumed he was returning to tell us he’d hooked up the truck and was ready to pull it out, but something didn’t look right. Featherhat was clutching a long, black object in both hands. In a moment, what appeared to be an umbrella due to his curved handle took on a different appearance – it looked like he was holding a pipe, and was going to attack me with it. I braced myself for the attack before I realized that what he really held was a shotgun. Reality crashed down on me as I recognized the magazine protruding from the bottom of the barrel and Featherhat’s left hand on the pump-action. There was no time to react.

“If you reach for your gun I’ll kill you,” Featherhat said. I don’t recall everything but I know I drew my gun out of instinct. Before I knew it I saw a muzzle flash. I didn’t hear the shot but felt something hit me hard.

Only 5 feet separated me from the barrel of the shotgun, and I realized the round hit me in the upper right side of the chest. Although my body armor took the brunt of the force, the shot knock the breath from my lungs and brought on immediate pain. I turned to my left with my gun drawn. The storm had turned the roads into straight ice, and I had to carefully negotiate my steps as I hurried around the side of my vehicle searching for cover. I heard the action of the gun and knew there was another shot coming. The next shot echoed in the street as it struck my back and left shoulder. I was being shot at in a residential neighborhood with my K9 in the car and innocent bystanders all around me. I couldn’t return fire because of the people nearby, and freeing my K9 would only get him killed. I also knew there were kids in the vehicle that had stopped to help Featherhat.

I didn’t know where the kids were at the time and that also hindered me from feeling confident in shooting in the darkness. Instead, I continued to search for cover. For the third time I heard that distinct shotgun action again and immediately felt bb’s strike me in the side of the head.

Spotting a parked vehicle in the distance, I ran for it. The road was so slick that the icy surface greatly hindered my speed. Breathing was an absolute struggle. There was blood running down my back and excruciating pain radiating through my chest, back and left arm. I knew that I couldn’t fight where I was and my only chance was to get distance. As I was struggling up the road, I looked down and saw a shotgun wad protruding from my chest. My vest had caught the lead ball by only an inch.

I radioed dispatch for help: “10-33! 10-33! I’ve been shot!” Dispatch responded immediately and confirmed my location. As I relayed my information to dispatch, the reality of my situation sank in. I was in big trouble. The pain was immense and I knew I could die, but I refused to die before letting dispatch know who it was that had shot me.

My breaths coming in gasps, I told them, “Bryan Featherhat pulled a shotgun. Shot me twice. I don’t know how bad it is.”

The possibility of death was nearly overwhelming to me. I couldn’t breathe and I began coughing up a lot blood. My thoughts turned to my wife and children. I wanted to lay down, but I knew I was dead if I did. I had to fight for my life. Fight hard.

Fighting To Stay Alive

My Street Survival training kicked in and I knew I had to maintain a survival mindset. If I went down, I would die. So I stayed on my feet and fought although the pain was excruciating.

I focused my attention on where I’d last seen Featherhat, but there were distractions everywhere. People were stepping from their homes to see what had happened, putting their lives at risk, and I had to yell at them to go back inside. They were offering help but I couldn’t take the chance that the threat of Featherhat was still close by.

I got back on the radio and warned my backup about the shotgun, but unknown to me Featherhat had already left the scene He had stolen the vehicle from the people who had stopped and helped him and fled the scene. Backup arrived, quickly, and I couldn’t have been in better hands than my shift supervisor and friend Darin Adams. A nurse and paramedic, Adams assessed my injuries and made the decision to transport me to the hospital himself. Within minutes I was receiving life saving medical care.

My fellow officers took over from there with help from local agencies and the Utah Highway Patrol helicopter. They all tirelessly searched in the bitter cold until Featherhat was located approximately 7 hours later walking north of town. He was taken into custody without incident and a trial was, subsequently, held. He was convicted of attempted aggravated murder and aggravated robbery. He is currently serving two five to life sentences in the Utah State Prison.

As for my K9 Gino, he remained in my vehicle until my good friend and fellow handler UHP Sgt. Ryan Bauer was able to respond and remove him from my patrol car. I didn’t want him killed and there was a high probability he would have been shot the moment I released him from my vehicle. If he hadn’t been killed he certainly would have delayed medical care because of his efforts to protect me.

A Survivor Mentality

11. When Guns & Dogs Aren19t Enough-2As my wounds healed, it became very clear that two things saved my life that night: my departments mandatory vest policy and my Street Survival training from Caliber Press. Vests are not comfortable but they are absolutely worth it. There is not question in my mind, or that of my doctor, that I would have died without my vest’s protection that night. Positive self talk also played a major role in getting me through the ordeal. I had to convince myself that I would win, just as I had been taught.

I implemented calming techniques by taking deep, steady breaths. I stayed on my feet, alert and aware of my surroundings, and convinced myself that I would survive, even with a shotgun blast to the chest, head and back.

The damage done that night didn’t end after my stay in the ICU and I was released from medical care. I faced horrible survival guilt and other symptoms related to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) – something I never could have imagined before I was shot. I replayed the scene over and over, asking myself what I could have done differently. I contemplated suicide several times. I was a mess emotionally. Finally, I realized the importance and sought counseling and I began to do a lot better.

Through conversations with Bobby Smith, PhD, a Louisiana State Trooper who was shot in the line of duty, I realized everything I was feeling was normal. It was, however, going to be catastrophic if I didn’t swallow my pride and get help. He reaffirmed positive self talk and taught me to end every “what if” scenario with me surviving and the bad guy going to jail. It was time for me to stop thinking of death and to start focusing on being alive and being a survivor.

My experience has not only changed my own thinking, it has helped other departments and officers take a closer look at their own practices. After hearing of my save, several departments have changed their vest policies, as well as other policies that will help officers injured in the line of duty in the future. I have also shared my survival story with others to show them that it is possible to survive multiple close range gunshot wounds if you have the right equipment and mindset. I was shot three times with a twelve gauge shotgun from five feet away. I have no doubt that my vest and my survival skills saved my life that night. I believe that similar skills and equipment can save yours.

The Case for Body Armor

Only 47 percent of officers nationwide use body armor on a regular basis. That means 53 percent of officers are leaving themselves vulnerable to the criminals they face every day. If you are a spouse, brother, sister, mother or fathers of an officer and you are reading this article make sure that your officer is going to work as protected as they possibly can be.

My goal in writing this article is to educate fellow officers and departments as to the importance of wearing body armor and having a policy that supports officer’s safety. I want officers to also understand that it is possible to make it through these traumatic events if you have the will and desire. Don’t be afraid to ask for help!

Body armor actually can be compared to wearing a seatbelt in your vehicle. You have the choice whether or not to put it on, but it can’t save your life if you are not wearing it. Body armor saved my life and one day it could save yours. Don’t ever work without it.