LA officer carries on after suspect's bullet paralyzes her

Jill Leovy, Times Staff Writer
Los Angeles Times
Copyright 2006 Los Angeles Times
All Rights Reserved

Los Angeles Police Officer Kristina Ripatti didn't hear the gunfire that changed her life.

She didn't feel the bullet that plunged through her chest, nicked a rib, tore through a lung and severed her spine. And she never saw the gun in the suspect's hand -- the part that bothers her most, she said. Ten years of reflexively watching people's hands for weapons, and she didn't see it.

There was only an odor -- a sudden, overpowering gunpowder smell bursting into her nostrils. Then she was down, dimly thinking that she wanted to go home.

The shooting that left the 33-year-old Ripatti paralyzed from the chest down underscores how suddenly and unpredictably the demands of policing can escalate into supreme sacrifice.

Ripatti, the mother of a 15-month-old daughter, left California Hospital Medical Center downtown Tuesday headed to a rehabilitation center to adapt to using a wheelchair.

"Obviously there is some reason this happened," she said, this week. "And I can't change it, so.... "

Ripatti was among the highest-risk fringe of officers in the LAPD. She was one of the few female gang officers working in South Los Angeles, and sought out the kinds of confrontations that tended to produce felony arrests and gun seizures, even as they put officers at greater risk of personnel complaints and violent encounters. She was known as a stand-out "obs officer" -- adept at observing slight signs of crime.

Her ambition, she said, was to have male colleagues say of her not that "she's good for a female officer," but that she was "just a good officer."

But in the days after the shooting, her goals were more basic: to cough, to clear the bloody phlegm from her sinuses, to sleep through the night.

Ripatti was on patrol with partner Joe Meyer that Saturday night, June 3, near La Salle and Leighton avenues when a jaywalker sprinted in front of their car. He was a short, older man in a dark, hooded sweatshirt. "Basehead," Ripatti thought, a chronic narcotics user. Not likely to be as dangerous as younger gang members in that area. The man appeared furtive and kept glancing back. Ripatti got out of the car. The man broke into a run. Ripatti, fit from 45-minute daily runs, caught him on the pitch-dark porch of a nearby four-plex. She reached to grab him.

Meyer was a few steps behind. He saw a muzzle flash. Ripatti fell. Meyer drew his weapon. The suspect, 52-year-old James Fenton McNeal, was about eight feet from him. Meyer fired. McNeal would be pronounced dead from four gunshot wounds.

The officers had not broadcast a "code six" before stopping, a way of letting other officers know their location. Now Meyer tried his radio. But the frequency was blocked by another broadcast -- a robbery at a nearby gas station, which Meyer would later hear had been committed by the man he shot. He tried again. A witness recalled seeing Meyer standing over Ripatti, screaming into the radio, "Officer down!" over and over.

Ripatti was on her side, talking. Meyer ripped off her uniform shirt, then her bulletproof vest. It seemed to take a long time. He couldn't find the wound. He searched her abdomen. Nothing.

Ripatti, who was suffused with survival adrenaline, kept pushing herself upright with her arms, insisting she needed to go. Meyer held her, then had to use his full weight to hold her down. She struggled and cursed him.

At last, Meyer saw a tiny stain of red just under the arm of Ripatti's white T-shirt. He pressed a finger into a hole under her armpit, and felt the pressure of blood. Out of the corner of his eye, he was aware of McNeal's gun behind him on the porch, and McNeal motionless beyond.

He kept his finger in the hole, until four officers with emergency medical training arrived, and told him to let go. He backed off, paced, tried to find other things to do, and spent the rest of the night second-guessing himself.

Ripatti's husband, Officer Tim Pearce, 38, of the LAPD's Southeast Division, was on patrol in the Jordan Downs housing development when an "officer needs help" call was broadcast. Meyer's voice was so excited Pearce did not recognize it. It took him a moment to remember that his wife was working that night. It was not her ordinary hours: She was on a special detail.

As his partner sped their car north, Pearce's dread grew. Strange that he didn't hear Ripatti's voice on the radio, he recalled thinking. The call was from an area where she usually worked. As they pulled close, Meyer reached him on the cellphone.

He saw Ripatti lying in the beam of an officer's flashlight. "She's my wife," he said to a firefighter. The paramedics motioned him closer. He began to step around them, and slipped on something wet. He looked down and saw a band of thick, syrupy blood extending from Ripatti's back.

The blood had run down the four steps of the porch, and pooled on the sidewalk. He looked at Ripatti's face.

"She was sheet-white, staring at the moon," Pearce said.

He had seen the signs often as a gang officer in Watts -- the fixed eyes, the thick blood. "I've seen a lot of people in that condition, and they all die," he said.

To Pearce it seemed that so many doctors were working on Ripatti in the trauma bay at California Hospital that they were actually crawling over her. Her arteries were too constricted for an IV. They kept jabbing her. Someone handed Pearce her jewelry. He hung back at the foot of the bed.

"I just stood there," he said.

Trauma surgeon Bryan Hubbard was so focused on his near-dead patient he barely noticed the man in the corner watching. Only later, when the man nearly passed out, did he learn he was the husband.

Ripatti would say later that all she remembered after the sharp smell of gunpowder were voices in the dark -- Meyer's, her husband's, other people's. After that, she remembered the lights of an operating room. "I'm here, I'm here!" she tried to call, but no sound came.

Later that night, Pearce's mother, Jean, recalled asking him on the phone whether Ripatti would be all right.

"No!" he shouted. "She is \o7not \f7going to be all right."

When Pearce saw Ripatti after the surgery, swollen with fluids and on a ventilator, he was still without hope. He thought of blood infections. She looked to him like she was dying.

Ripatti was raised in Apple Valley and went to California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks, playing soccer on the college team. She had always been "a tomboy," she said, and wanted a job that would allow her to work outside -- "to run around and jump over fences."

At the Los Angeles Police Academy, she met Pearce, a former construction and utility worker from Torrance.

"He seemed like a nice guy, but I didn't have much of an opinion," she said.

They went their separate ways. A year later, they were made partners in the Southwest Division.

Pearce blanched at the assignment. Ripatti seemed a little intense, he said. Ripatti makes a point of saying they didn't date when they were partners. They married in 2003.

Asked to describe her personality, Pearce said, "Pretty hyper." Ripatti made a face. "Not hyper. \o7Restless\f7," she said.

LAPD is full of jocks, especially the South Bureau. But even in the department, Ripatti's devotion to fitness stood out. She did kickboxing, jujitsu, surfing, daily runs and circuit training.

"What are you training for?" people would ask. "Life," Ripatti would tell them.

Now she knows, she said. A high level of physical fitness will help her recover more quickly, doctors said. To Pearce, after the first day, it seemed like her swelling diminished every six hours.

When the doctors came to tell them that the paralysis was probably irreversible, Ripatti cried. They would have more time with their daughter, Pearce said.

When Dr. Gudata Hinika said he would prescribe an antidepressant -- standard for patients reeling from such news -- Ripatti declined. "Guinness and the World Cup" would work better, she joked, adding: "There may be a time for that, but I don't want it now."

By the weekend, she was propped up on pillows, fretting about being cooped up in a hospital and showing off the purple, 12-inch stapled surgery scar that reached from her ribs to mid-back. "I think it's cool," Ripatti said.

She has received scores of visitors, so many the hospital had to cut them off one day. Five dozen bouquets crowded the waiting area outside her room. By Sunday she was worrying about sending thank-you notes.

Her light blue eyes were clear and her color restored beneath her tan. Despite the nickel-size bullet puncture wounds and dark bruises, all her restlessness was channeled into her arms and hands. She ran her fingers through her spiky blond hair and waved her hands for emphasis.

She became tearful only when talking of missing her daughter. They would be allowed only short visits during the weeks of rehabilitation. Her relationship with Pearce, whom she calls her soul mate, makes it easier, she said.

"I know he is not going anywhere," she said.

Among the jumble of thoughts Pearce had in the first few days after learning that his wife would use a wheelchair, many had to do with how to keep up her athletic lifestyle. Among the first was "that I would be running the marathon next year," with Ripatti competing in a wheelchair, "something I would not do on my own," Pearce said, looking rueful.

He thought about tandem surfboards, and how his wife could still fish -- the only thing that she seemed able to keep still for. He realized they would need a new, single-story home.

He was musing on the family barbecue his division holds every year at the beach and suddenly had an image of Ripatti, stuck in one place, unable to move, not wanting to ask for help. His heart sank.

"Something so simple as the sand. It got to me," he said.

As word of Ripatti's paralysis spread throughout the Police Department last week, relief at her survival gave way to drastic disappointment. Meyer, her partner, summed up the feeling. "I felt sick," he said. He only felt better when he saw her.

Pearce and Ripatti's emotions followed a different arc. Pearce had been so absolutely convinced she would die that "everything now is just a bonus," he said.

Ripatti said she knows there are hard times ahead, but she is not without hope that she might regain some use of her legs. She said she knows she has to be there for her husband and daughter.

"I'm glad I'm alive," she said. 

See related:

LAPD: Officers at risk despite armor

LAPD officer shot by killed gunman is stable

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