The Big Read: 'My people are dead' - Inside the Dallas police massacre

By Jamie Thompson

Sergeant Ivan Gunter leads a special team of police officers called the Foxtrots in the Dallas Police Department. Photo / Washington Post
Sergeant Ivan Gunter leads a special team of police officers called the Foxtrots in the Dallas Police Department. Photo / Washington Post

Sergeant Ivan Gunter climbed the stairs, sweating beneath a ceramic-plated tactical vest, his finger resting beside the trigger of his 9mm handgun. He could hear the suspect's muffled voice above, between thunderous cracks of gunfire.

Gunter, 49, led a specially trained team of nine Dallas police officers called the Foxtrots. In the July twilight, beneath the city's skyscrapers, a gunman had taken aim at his officers as they stood along Main Street policing a protest rally. One fell, then a second, and a third. After helping to drag one of his wounded men into a patrol car, Gunter followed the gunman's trail of broken glass and blood.

As sirens wailed across downtown, Gunter paused in a stairwell of El Centro College. He was part of a small group of police officers closing in on the shooter.

"Hold your positions," a supervisor ordered over the radio. Gunter crouched in the stairwell, waiting. After a few minutes, his cellphone buzzed.

"Where you at, Gunter? You okay?" asked Sergeant Alan Villarreal, a longtime friend, calling from the hospital. He spoke the names of two of Gunter's Foxtrots.

"Pat and Krol - they didn't make it."

"What?" Gunter said.

"I'm sorry, Gunter," Villarreal said. "You need to get over here, now. Your guys need you."

Gunter felt a wave of anguish, then rage. Two of his men dead, others gravely wounded on what would become the single deadliest day for US law enforcement since September 11, 2001. Gunter couldn't leave the stairwell, not with the gunman still alive, still firing.

"You're going to have to take care of them for me, brother," Gunter said. "I have to see this through."

Protesters were in downtown Dallas minutes before a gunman started shooting. Photo / AP
Protesters were in downtown Dallas minutes before a gunman started shooting. Photo / AP

Seven hours earlier, at 2.30 pm, Gunter had arrived at a two-storey brick building off West Illinois Avenue in southwest Dallas. He swiped his security card and walked to his desk, passing rows of cubicles filled with sergeants who supervised the Southwest Division, one of seven patrol districts at the Dallas Police Department. About 300 of the department's 3375 officers worked there.

Gunter's team of Foxtrots handled special assignments requested by supervisors across the department. The group had been formed nearly a decade earlier to respond to high-priority calls on third watch, from 3 pm to 11 pm. Some of its founding members were military veterans who picked the name Foxtrot, which signifies the letter F in radio communications.

The Foxtrots were trained in combat medicine, fugitive apprehension and tactical surveillance. They responded to shootings, carjackings and armed robberies, as well as to lower-priority calls if a need arose.

They operated radar guns on high-traffic roads, investigated clusters of vehicle break-ins, tracked robbers snatching women's purses in parking lots. Some officers considered them a miniature version of the department's elite SWAT team, responsible for the district's 195 sq km. The unit had demonstrated success and been replicated at other stations in Dallas.

I'm sorry, bro - I know it hurts. You'll make it. Just stay with me
Ivan Gunter

Gunter needed a team with a variety of skills, and he helped pick his nine officers, choosing one seasoned robbery detective for his knowledge of sophisticated computer programs to help track suspects. He chose another for his enthusiastic tenacity in locating drug houses and cultivating informants.

They were a close-knit group who ate together, spent long hours on surveillance together, knew each other's partners and children. One officer's mother invited them over for Sunday barbecues. The department did not allow units to have their own logos, but the Foxtrots quietly created one anyway, sketching a picture of a red fox with a menacing stare, a lightning bolt shooting behind it. Gunter had the drawing made into a patch. Some of the men Velcroed it onto their heavy ballistic vests, marking them as Foxtrots.

Gunter arrived at work on July 7, wearing his Class B uniform - navy cargo pants and a police button-down - already informed that his team would help with crowd control that night at a protest against shootings by police. Tensions were high across the country again; that week, two videos had gone viral in as many days, showing black men shot dead by police.

A black man born in Dallas and a 25-year department veteran, Gunter sympathised with the Black Lives Matter movement. He'd had his own run-ins with police as a boy. He once got stopped while riding his bike to a friend's house in a largely white, affluent neighbourhood. The city's activists were not given to violence, and Gunter wasn't expecting trouble at the rally. Still, he needed to be prepared.

As his team members filed into the station around 3 pm, he instructed them to "gear up," standard protocol for rallies and protests. They climbed the stairs to the second floor and grabbed black bags filled with riot gear - shin guards, batons and helmets. Gunter also required all Foxtrots to have military-grade ballistic vests that could protect from high-velocity gunfire. The officers had bought the vests for about US$300 each because the department did not provide them.

The team walked out into the sweltering heat carrying their bags and bottles of water. Several officers paired up to ride downtown together. Among them were Senior Corporal Lorne Ahrens and Officer Michael Krol.

Ahrens, 48, was one of the most experienced investigators on the team, known for his guile and ability to get suspects to talk. He was 6 foot 5, weighed more than 135kg and could rip burglar bars off a house with his bare hands. Friends called him "Meat" and loved summoning him as backup. But those who knew him well considered him a softy. They'd seen him roll around with his two children, 8 and 10 years old.

Police officers take cover after another officer was shot during protests in Dallas in response to recent shooting of young unarmed black men by Police in the United States. Photo / Washington Post
Police officers take cover after another officer was shot during protests in Dallas in response to recent shooting of young unarmed black men by Police in the United States. Photo / Washington Post

Officer Krol was 40 with a boy's face and goofy grin. He was the only member of the team - maybe the only officer on the force, his colleagues joked - who loved working traffic accidents. Most cops consider them tedious and loathe the paperwork. But Krol enjoyed the meticulous task of figuring out who had collided with whom, and at what speeds and angles.

Krol, like Ahrens, towered over 6 feet. When the pair climbed into a patrol car, officers liked to watch and laugh as it drooped towards the ground.

That afternoon, Gunter led the caravan in his patrol car filled with supervisors' tools, crowbars, rifles, a gas mask and two medical bags. The Foxtrots headed north to police headquarters to receive their assignments.

About 6.45 pm, the Foxtrots parked their patrol cars near the intersection of Commerce Street and Interstate 45. Their job would be to block protesters who might try to march onto the highways.

Officer Gretchen Rocha sat in the passenger seat of a patrol car. At 23, Rocha was a recent police academy graduate three weeks into her field training. She was married with an 11-month-old and had wanted to be a police officer since she was a girl. One of the Foxtrots, Senior Corporal Ivan Saldana, 44, had been assigned to train her.

As Rocha waited for orders, she glanced in a side mirror and saw a man who looked homeless approach a patrol car behind her. He banged on the window, visibly upset. She watched as another Foxtrot, Patrick Zamarripa, stepped out of his car. Rocha and her trainer climbed out to see what was happening.

Someone had stolen his potato chips, said the homeless man. He was near tears. Zamarripa walked towards a convenience store, the man following. Inside, they headed toward the chips. The man looked at Zamarripa, then picked out a bag.

"Want two bags?" Zamarripa asked.

The man shook his head. "Just one."

Zamarripa paid for the chips, then led the group back to their patrol cars. The homeless man thanked Zamarripa the whole way. He asked whether he could sit next to Zamarripa's car as he ate, worried that someone might steal the chips again. Zamarripa nodded. The man sat cross-legged on the pavement and ripped open the bag.

That interaction made an impression on the rookie, Rocha. Such a small gesture, but she could tell it made the man's day. She was impressed with Zamarripa, a 32-year-old father who had served in Iraq before joining the department.

Before long, their sergeant, Gunter, walked over. Supervisors now wanted the Foxtrots to leapfrog from intersection to intersection, blocking traffic as the marchers headed toward the end of the parade route. The officers worked their way toward Main Street, eventually stopping at Lamar Street, near El Centro College. Protesters walked by, some thanking the officers, others stopping to pose for selfies. The officers still had their riot gear - including their military-grade ballistic vests - on the back seats of their cars. But the crowd was peaceful. The department had spent considerable money and resources in "de-escalation" training in recent years and wanted to avoid looking like an occupying army whenever possible.

The sun had fallen by the time the marchers' chants began to fade. The protesters drifted off Main Street, walking towards their cars. Just before 9 pm, Gunter was about to dismiss his unit when he heard the first crack of gunfire.

Sergeant Ivan Gunter, right, speaks with members of the Foxtrot team. Photo / Washington Post
Sergeant Ivan Gunter, right, speaks with members of the Foxtrot team. Photo / Washington Post

Officer Krol screamed, then fell to the ground. Ahrens collapsed beside him, his immense frame sprawled across the pavement.

Another crack, then another. Gunter looked around, trying to figure out what was happening. The sound of gunfire echoed through the streets, getting louder, coming closer. "Get down, get down!" Gunter shouted.

He realised his unit, standing within a space of 4.5 to 6m, was under fire, in the middle of the street, with nowhere to hide except behind patrol cars. Gunter recognised the sound as that of an assault rifle. The thin Kevlar vests beneath their shirts would not protect them.

Gunter turned to his right and saw Zamarripa fall. He pressed the button on his radio. "Shots fired, officer down! Shots fired, officer down! We're in a kill zone! Stay clear!" Gunter recalls saying on the radio.

He dragged Zamarripa behind his car.

A few feet away, another Foxtrot, Jorge Barrientos, 28, felt a shift in the air as bullets whizzed past his ears. He ran towards a patrol car, seeing bullets hit the ground next to him. A chunk of his radio, attached to his belt, flew into the air. He's aiming at me, Barrientos thought.

Just before he ducked behind the patrol car, he felt something slam into his chest. It stung, then faded. Barrientos coughed into his hand, looking for blood. He didn't see any and figured he was okay. Then he looked down and saw a piece of his left index finger dangling.

He and his partner crouched behind the car. "Stay down!" he screamed. A piece of a tyre blew off, striking his partner in the face and pitching him backward.

During a break in the gunfire, Barrientos looked out into the street and saw Krol, lying motionless. He saw Ahrens struggling, trying to apply a tourniquet to his own leg. Then he saw his sergeant, Gunter, crouched over Zamarripa. He crawled over to help.

"Grab my med kit," Gunter yelled. It was in the back of his patrol car. Barrientos raised his head, felt the bullets speed by. He couldn't reach the kit without exposing himself.

Gunter tugged on Zamarripa's shirt, trying to remove it. Trained in combat medicine, Gunter feared his officer had a sucking chest wound, one that might fill his thorax with air and cause his lungs to collapse. He needed to plug the hole.

"What do you have?" Gunter asked Barrientos.

Barrientos reached into his pocket and pulled out a pack of Marlboro Lights. Gunter grabbed them, slid off the clear plastic wrapper and placed it over Zamarripa's wound, pushing down.

Zamarripa flinched. Good, Gunter thought. He's with me.

"I'm sorry, bro - I know it hurts," Gunter told him. "You'll make it. Just stay with me."

Gunter grabbed his officer's hand; Zamarripa squeezed back.

Another Foxtrot, trainer Saldana, was across the intersection when the shooting started. He shouted at his rookie: "Get cover!" He raced towards the fallen officers, hiding behind a patrol car. Sparks flew as bullets struck the pavement. Saldana got on his stomach and peered beneath the car. From this vantage point, he could see Ahrens, lying on his belly, struggling to raise himself up, as if doing a push-up. Then Ahrens shook his head and went back down. It looked as if he were trying to move closer so he could help Krol. Saldana yelled at him from beneath the car: "Don't get up! He's still shooting!"

Farther down the street, another Foxtrot, Senior Corporal Brian Fillingim, 36, ducked behind the wheel of his patrol car. In front of him, he saw a man throw his girlfriend into a gutter, then lie on top of her. The man shouted at Fillingim: "My mum! You've got to help my mum!"

As the man shouted, a motorcycle officer roared into the road and laid his bike down to help cover them, crouching behind it. Fillingim and other officers saw the mother in the street, ran over and dragged her between two cars. Fillingim felt several bullets fly past his head, as if a wasp were buzzing beside his ear.

Fillingim rose and looked out. He saw Krol and Ahrens lying in the street. He stood there staring as everything fell quiet. Then bullets ripped down the street, jolting him back.

The rookie, Rocha, stood across the intersection near El Centro. She had lost sight of her trainer. She took cover behind a patrol car. Three weeks into her training, she had no idea what to do. She heard her trainer's voice in her head: Just keep moving.

Rocha saw the wounded officers lying in the street. Patrol cars screeched towards them, bullets flying all around. Several officers began dragging the three wounded toward the cars.

Rocha ran over to help. On the way, she felt bullets whizzing by.

After they loaded Krol into a car, Rocha noticed the driver's seat was empty. She jumped in. Another officer climbed in the back and started CPR. "Do you know how to get to the hospital?" she asked him.

"Yes," he said. "Go!"

She slammed the door, pressed the gas and jumped a curb. Bullets slammed into the car as she sped away. As she gripped the steering wheel, she noticed a throbbing in her right arm. She looked down and saw a growing circle of blood. She, too, had been hit. As the officer in the back pumped on Krol's chest, Rocha pressed harder on the gas, watching the speedometer climb to 190 km/h.

At Parkland Memorial Hospital, medical staffers heaved Krol onto a stretcher and rushed him inside. Rocha ran in beside him. "Don't give up," she told him.

Nurses noticed blood on Rocha's arm and forced her to sit. As they began treating her wound, Rocha reached for her phone to call her husband.

Micah Johnson, who was a suspect in the sniper slayings of five law enforcement officers in Dallas. Photo / Facebook
Micah Johnson, who was a suspect in the sniper slayings of five law enforcement officers in Dallas. Photo / Facebook

As the wounded officers were being rushed to two hospitals, whoever was shooting was still near the intersection of Lamar and Main streets. Gunter, still at the scene, shouted to the officers around him: "Get your heavy vests on, now!"

He pulled his on and joined a couple others racing toward El Centro College, less than a block away from his patrol car. The rage that filled him was of a sort that he had never before felt.

"Where is he?" Gunter shouted at other officers.

Officers followed the gunman into the college. Inside, Gunter helped clear the first floor. Then he entered a stairwell. The college's security alarm wailed as the gunman exchanged fire with police. An officer on the radio gave the gunman's location, about 18 minutes after the shooting started: "Second floor, body armour, just reloaded, assault rifle."

A minute later, "We may have the suspect pinned down, northwest corner of the building, on the second floor."

"We have dialogue going with the suspect. We need the sirens in the building off to communicate."

Supervisors instructed officers to hold their positions. No one was allowed onto the second floor except the SWAT team.

Gunter crouched in the stairwell with three other officers, just below the gunman. Gunter remained on one step, his arm raised as he pointed his 9mm pistol toward the door, in case the gunman appeared. An officer from El Centro stood on a nearby step, pointing a rifle at the same door above them.

While in the stairwell, Gunter got the call from Villarreal, letting him know Zamarripa and Krol were dead. Gunter bowed his head and fought tears. Another sergeant approached: "Do you want to take a minute? Do you need to leave?"

Gunter shook his head. How could he walk into the hospital and face his men, with the gunman still alive, still shooting at officers? He would hold his position until it was done.

For the next four hours, Gunter remained in the stairwell as police negotiated with the gunman. Gunter called his cousin, told him to call Gunter's mum and let her know he was okay. As news spread about the shooting, texts poured in from friends.

"Ivan, are you allright?" one sergeant texted.

"No," Gunter texted back. "My people are dead, I'm held up in a stairwell, 1 susp still in the building above me, and the car is shot up ... I'm pretty far from ok ... i'm pissed the hell off."

Another sergeant - it was a group text - added: "Keep your head on the damn swivel and get off yo phone. Update us when you are safe."

Gunter knew the SWAT team had the gunman cornered above. All he could do was await directions. He never saw the gunman, but he could hear him as he talked on a cellphone to a police negotiator. At times the gunman shouted. "F*** it," he yelled at one point, according to Gunter.

The officers' hands became cramped and sore from aiming their guns for so long. They rotated positions and took short breaks, passing bottles of water around. At times, Gunter thought about his men and felt a rush of emotion, then suppressed it.

Near 1.30 am, Gunter heard an explosion and felt the building rumble. Then quiet.

The standoff was over. Gunter waited for another hour while officers searched for bombs. Finally, a supervisor's voice came over the radio: "All clear." Micah Johnson, the Army veteran who had ambushed police, was dead.

Gunter stepped outside into the glow of the streetlights. By now he knew three of his officers were dead.

He had thought the gunman's death would feel like a victory. It didn't. Gunter walked alone, towards his car.

A member of the Dallas Police Choir passes the portraits of five fallen officers before a memorial service at Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas on July 12. Photo / AP
A member of the Dallas Police Choir passes the portraits of five fallen officers before a memorial service at Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas on July 12. Photo / AP

Another Foxtrot, Fillingim, also had remained downtown. He had raced inside a high-rise parking garage during the shooting, thinking the gunman was inside. After he had cleared the garage, supervisors had ordered him to stay put. For hours, he had been texting Ahrens. The men were close, had worked dozens of robberies together.

Where you at?

Did you go with Krol?

What's going on?

No response.

After the standoff, Fillingim got a call from his sergeant, Gunter. The men met in the street. They looked at each other in silence for a moment. Then they turned towards Gunter's car. Bullet holes dotted its exterior; three tyres had been shot out.

Without speaking, they walked over to Fillingim's car. It was still running, just as he left it hours earlier. They climbed in, and Fillingim flipped off the chatter of the police radio. He put the car in drive. The night was silent, except for the low sound of Gunter's voice.

"I was supposed to look after them."

"This wasn't even our fight. Our guys, they had nothing to do with this."

The men drove through the quiet streets downtown to Baylor University Medical Centre. They stepped around the yellow crime scene tape surrounding the ambulance bay. Dozens of officers fell silent as they saw the pair.

The men walked through the hospital to Ahrens's room and stepped inside. His giant, tattooed frame stretched across the hospital bed, still hooked to a ventilator, machines beeping. It seemed impossible that this powerful man - who had once commandeered a cab to chase a bad guy - was gone.

Ahrens's wife, Katrina, who is a Dallas police detective, was not in the room when her husband's commander arrived. She'd been awakened that night and taken to the hospital. She'd let their two children sleep, in the care of their grandparents. She'd learned that her husband survived an initial surgery before being rushed back into the operating room. The damage to his liver was extensive, and doctors had not been able to save him.

Fillingim approached, said his goodbyes. Then Gunter walked over. He looked at Ahrens, said a prayer, and turned away.

Ahrens was the fifth officer to die that night, a final, crushing blow to the dozens of officers who had arrived at the Baylor hospital. Gunter also went to Parkland, where his other two men had been taken. But by the time he arrived, his men already had been zipped into body bags and taken to the medical examiner's office.

Gunter walked back into the Southwest station about 5 am. Several supervisors, including Lieutenant Juan Salas, sat at their desks, waiting for him.

Salas called Gunter into a chief's office. Years earlier, while Salas had been supervising a gang unit, one of his officers had been shot and killed. Salas had felt responsible. He'd endlessly replayed the what ifs. Salas believed that if he had talked about his guilt - said it aloud, rather than keeping it in his head - he might have healed better.

Salas and the other supervisors sat down, telling Gunter they wanted him to talk. No documentation, no recorders, no therapists. Just cops.

Gunter sat in a chair. It all came tumbling out. Seven of his men on duty with him that night, five of them injured, three fatally, at the hands of a sniper.

It was an ambush, an unfair fight, the officers told him. It wasn't his fault.

For the first time that night, Gunter broke down and sobbed.

Senior Corporal Ruben Lozano, a Foxtrot team member who was on duty the night of July 7, displays the tattoo he got to honour his fallen partners. Photo / Washington Post
Senior Corporal Ruben Lozano, a Foxtrot team member who was on duty the night of July 7, displays the tattoo he got to honour his fallen partners. Photo / Washington Post

The following week, three Foxtrots were lowered into the ground. Two others and the rookie in their care had begun recoveries from gunshot and shrapnel wounds.

After the last funeral, Gunter and four of the men met at a tattoo parlour near downtown. They took with them a picture of their patch, the red fox head, the bolt of lightning. Around the bottom, the tattoo artist sketched in the badge numbers of the fallen: #9217, #8193, #10112.

The needles buzzed, branding the officers on the back of a calf, on a forearm, on a left shoulder. Foxtrots forever.

Gunter stood to the side, watching. He wasn't ready for the tattoo yet. He wanted to quiet his thoughts, to stop the images in his mind. He wanted to remember. He wanted to forget.

- Washington Post

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