ByDennis N. Griffin
The men and women of law enforcement don't have the luxury of picking and choosing each and every situation they become involved in. They respond to calls for service as dispatched, and react to what they observe while on the streets. Complaint-takers can reduce the risk to officers by obtaining detailed information of the situation the officer is responding to. And the officer's training, experience and instincts can guide him or her in how they handle the various circumstances they encounter while on patrol. But nothing is cast in stone. Every call and incident carries its own unique problems and dangers. Yet to keep us and our communities safe, these dedicated individuals are out there day after day putting their lives on the line.
One such person is Enrique Hernandez. Enrique is a cop in Las Vegas, Nevada, and in my eyes is a true hero.
In 2002, 28-year-old Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department officer Enrique Hernandez lived on the northwest side of Las Vegas with his wife Leean and their year-old daughter Maricela. The former Marine had graduated from the police academy in June, and finished riding with a field-training officer that October. He was at the beginning of what appeared to be a promising law-enforcement career. But late that year he was involved in an incident that nearly took his life. I had an opportunity to interview Officer Hernandez in 2003.
It was December 12, and Officer Hernandez was working alone on patrol on the 3 p.m. to 1 a.m. shift. At about 10:20, he was stopped at a traffic light at the intersection of Eastern and Bonanza. Facing southbound on Eastern, he observed a dark-colored SUV turn from Bonanza onto Eastern, also heading south. The vehicle had no license plate, nor was any permit, sticker or decal visible. Immediately after making the turn, the SUV pulled into a gas station and convenience store located on the southeast corner of the intersection. As the traffic light changed, Officer Hernandez proceeded through the intersection and followed the suspect vehicle into the parking lot. He turned on his car’s roof lights, planning to stop the vehicle and determine its registration status.
Although many police officers might argue that there is no such thing as a “routine” traffic stop, up to this point nothing had happened to cause Hernandez to become alarmed. There was no indication that there was anything particularly unusual or dangerous about the SUV. But unknown to Hernandez, its driver, 24-year-old Javier Duarte Chavez, was an illegal immigrant. Previously convicted of a felony in
Nevada, Chavez had served time in
the state prison system and been deported to upon his release. At that
time, he’d been warned that he’d be in big trouble if he returned to the Mexico .
In spite of that, he did come back, using the alias of Saul Morales Garcia. He
told family and friends that he would never again go to prison or be sent back
across the border. United States
That wasn’t Chavez’ only problem, however. On this night he was driving back from the residence of a man and woman who owed him money and were refusing to pay. Though armed with a stolen .38 revolver, the slight, five-foot-tall Mexican, left the couple’s home without the money after being told the police had been called.
It will never be known for sure whether Chavez thought the police were trying to stop him for the incident that had just occurred, although that seems like a strong possibility. Whatever was in his mind, he had no intention of letting Officer Hernandez get a hold of him.
The lives of both men were drastically altered by the events of the next two minutes and 45 seconds.
“I put my lights on, but the SUV swung around out of the parking lot and headed back south on Eastern. I called in that I was in a pursuit and gave the direction of travel. The suspect made a left on Cedar, a right on
and then a left on Marlin. He started out with a lead on me, but I was gaining
on him all the time,” Hernandez remembers.
“Shortly after we got on Marlin, he lost control of the vehicle, jumped the curb and hit a light pole. I pulled in to the curb behind him. He hit that pole pretty hard and I didn’t think he’d get out and run right away, but he did. I called in that I was now in a foot pursuit and the chase was on again.
“We were running through an apartment complex and I was several yards behind. All of a sudden I saw one of the apartment doors open and he ran inside, the door shut behind him. He hadn’t displayed a weapon yet, but it was obvious there was more to this than I had originally thought. In my mind, I was concerned that he may take the occupants of the apartment hostage. I drew my gun, opened the door, and went in. I didn’t see the suspect, but there was a woman standing inside the door and a couple of little kids. The woman started screaming.
“It was a small apartment. The living room was on my right and I could see that the next room toward the back was a kitchen area, with a sliding glass door leading to the outside. I didn’t know if the suspect had gone out the back or was somewhere in the apartment. I started moving cautiously toward the kitchen, stopping by the wall that separated the two rooms. As I again went forward into the kitchen, I detected movement against the wall to my left, about five feet away. Then I saw two muzzle flashes. My left arm was jerked back, but I didn’t realize right away that I’d been hit. We then fired at each other simultaneously. I learned later that my round struck him near the right armpit and exited out his back. His bullet got me in my right forearm, my gun arm. It shattered the bone, then traveled up my arm and lodged in my shoulder; it’s still in there. It felt like the arm had been blown off. It went dead and I lost the feeling in it; my gun fell out of my hand to the floor. I was now totally defenseless. It turned out that his wound wasn’t debilitating.”
There was a brief pause, during which Officer Hernandez realized that he had to get out of that apartment. As he started to retreat, he accidentally kicked his gun, knocking it under a piece of furniture. Before he could get out of the room, Chavez again opened fire. Hernandez was struck in his side, neck, and leg. He stumbled toward the front door, falling, then regaining his feet. He made it outside and fell to the ground about 10 feet from the door. Chavez, his gun now empty, fled in the other direction through the sliding-glass doors. It was later learned that the apartment in which the shooting occurred was where Chavez lived. The screaming woman was his girlfriend.
Hernandez continued his story, “A guy came out of the apartment and asked if I was okay and told me not to die. It turned out that he was the suspect’s brother-in-law. He’d been upstairs taking a shower while the shooting was going on. I asked him to call 9-1-1 and tell them what had happened. The last they’d heard from me was when I called in the foot pursuit. Responding units would have no idea exactly where I was.”
As additional personnel arrived, they administered medical treatment while Hernandez, who remained conscious at all times, provided suspect information. He said it wasn’t until he got into the ambulance that the pain began to set in.
While the fallen officer was being transported to the hospital, his survival uncertain, the hunt for Javier Duarte Chavez began. SWAT and K-9 teams soon tracked the fugitive to a nearby row of unoccupied apartments. One of the dogs confirmed that Chavez was hiding in an airshaft a few feet above the floor. As SWAT officers prepared to enter the apartment, they were not certain of how much ammunition Chavez had for the .38, and thought he might have picked up Hernandez’ service weapon, which remained undiscovered at the scene of the shooting.
After several unsuccessful attempts to get Chavez to surrender, he pointed his .38 at the officers and they opened fire, killing the suspect. It was later determined that his gun had been empty and the incident was a case of “suicide by cop.” A coroner’s inquest and Use of Force Board both ruled that the shooting of Chavez was justified.
Officer Hernandez was released from the hospital before Christmas, but he faced more than a year of therapy and rehabilitation. In January 2004 he completed treatment and was taken off medication. He returned to work on light-duty at the Downtown Area Command and the Public Information Office. In early March he was assigned to the Domestic Violence Detail on restricted duty. He carries a gun, but is prohibited from getting involved in physical altercations. It is anticipated that the three bullets still in his body will eventually work themselves out and no surgery is planned. “My right arm is in good shape. My hand is only about 60% and my left foot hurts most of the time, but I’m back to work and I’m happy,” Enrique says. He has no complaints about how Metro has treated him since the shooting.
“I couldn’t ask for anything more. My Metro family has done everything possible in the way of help and support,” he said.
And finally, the big question. On that night, wounded and unarmed, did he think he was going to die?
“I never thought that. I knew I was going to live,” Hernandez said confidently.
Under those circumstances, how could he be so sure?
“Because I wasn’t going to let a guy like him kill me.”
And he didn’t.
Dennis Griffin is a True Crime Author, Co-Host of Crime Wire and Real Wiseguyson Inside Lenz Network. He has written several books concentrating on the history of the mob presence in Las Vegas. www.dennisngriffin.com