Editor’s note: At a candlelight vigil earlier this month by the Chicago Police Memorial Foundation to honor officers wounded or killed in the line of duty, Officer John Wrigley told the story of the night a bulletproof vest saved his life. The gunman, Howard Morgan, who shot Wrigley and two other officers, later was convicted of four counts of attempted murder and sentenced to 40 years in prison. This is a transcript of Officer Wrigley’s speech.
About nine years ago, on Feb. 21, 2005, I was working in a uniformed beat car with my partner at 1 o’clock in the morning. I remember it being a cold night. We conducted a traffic stop at that point in time. We actually were scheduled to get off work in about a half hour, to go home that night.
We curbed the vehicle, and it finally stopped, and the driver got out and became very aggressive in his speech and mannerisms. We tried to relax him, we tried to talk to him.
Ensuring officer safety, we approached him, and he became more aggressive. It became a fight. During that fight — we were in the middle of the street — we tried to control him. At that point in time I saw in his right hand a handgun, a 9mm semiautomatic, coming out of the front waistband of his clothing. I yelled “gun, gun, gun” and what was a simple traffic stop ended up being a fight, and now it was a gun battle.
As I distanced myself from this individual, and as the other officers tried to distance themselves from this individual, I backed up as fast as I could. I gained my firearm from my holster, and I tried to sight up, just as we’re all trained to do on the range and any time we’re in a combat scenario.
At that point in time I saw him turn around, and he was aiming his gun right at me. We were approximately 15 feet away when I saw muzzle flashes from his gun, as it was pointed at me, going off over and over again. I fired as fast as I could, probably not fast enough, at least not in the moment, and I tried to end the threat as fast as I could.
During that exchange of gunfire, I felt myself get hit, once in the left arm and then once in the upper chest. Finally, after a reload and several more rounds exchanged, he unloaded his weapon. I fired — I don’t know how many rounds. He went down. I went down.
The next thing I remember is being slumped over the squad car, next to it, after the threat was over, trying to do damage assessment. First thing I did was pull up the left sleeve of my leather jacket, and I saw a gaping hole in my left arm, bleeding a lot. But my main worry was the hit I felt in my left chest. I tried to feel around my vest, I tried to feel if there was blood, I tried to feel for a hole in my chest, I tried to gauge my breathing, not knowing how bad it was.
The officers arrived pretty quickly, and the first guys I saw, I got up, I told them I’d been shot and I needed to get to the hospital as soon as I could. I got in the back of their squad car. They calmed me and drove me to Cook County Hospital as quickly as they could. In the back seat of the squad car I had time to reflect, and a lot of things were going through my mind, as you can imagine — my life, my family, my friends, the time I had at that point, the time that I may not have again. I didn’t know when I was going to pass out or if I was going to pass out or if I was going to live or die.
From my cellphone in the back of the squad car I called my family. I told them they needed to get to Cook County Hospital as soon as they could. I told them I’d been shot, I told them that I was going to be all right, not really knowing if that was the truth or not.
We got to the hospital and the officers helped me into the emergency room. I was able to walk. There, the nurses and the doctors were waiting for me, and they started treating me. The first thing they obviously wanted to do was take off my clothing, so they started taking off my leather jacket and the outside clothing that I had, and the equipment that I had.
At that point in time, I heard something hit the floor. It was something small, something metal, something that sounded like a bullet. And I looked down and it was. A bullet. A bullet that had been fired. That was the first time in this incident that I took a sigh of relief and began to think to myself, “maybe this is OK, maybe you’re going to survive.”
I got onto the bed in the hospital and the doctor looked me over, and he confirmed what I was hoping. He came up to me and he said, “Officer, you received a gunshot wound through your left arm. We’re going to stitch it up. You’re going to be OK. You have a bruise on your left upper chest. You’re gonna be OK.’’
The bulletproof vest I was wearing that night did exactly what it was supposed to do. It caught the bullet that was headed right above my heart, and instead of the doctors treating a gunshot wound in the emergency room, I had to nurse a bruise for the next couple of weeks in my upper chest area.
I was wearing my vest that night, and I totally believe that I’m able to tell this story to you today for two reasons:
Number one, because I was really, really lucky that night.
And number two, because I was wearing a bulletproof vest, one that was issued to me at the academy, and one that stopped that one bullet that could have changed everything for me. Everything.