|Deputy Jennifer Fulford-Salvano receiving her award at the 2005 IACP convention (AP photo)|
By PoliceOne News Editor Lindsay Gebhart
Deputy Jennifer Fulford-Salvano of the Orange County (FL) SO had been on the force for just three years when she was put in a situation where her training and instinct took over- saving both her life and those of three children she was protecting. Her heroic actions recently earned her the title of "IACP Officer of the Year." In an interview with PoliceOne, she shared her amazing story.
It was shortly before 8 a.m. May 5, 2004. Fulford-Salvano and a trainee, Jason Gainor, were on patrol when they received a suspicious incident call in an adjoining zone. An 8-year-old had called from a cell phone saying that strangers were in the house with his mom. Gainor was intrigued, so the two of them headed over to assist the primary responders, Deputies Kevin Curry and Dwayne Martin.
The residential area was known for heavy crime. They arrived at the only house on the block with burglar bars on the windows.
"They were trying to keep people out and we didn't know why," Fulford-Salvano told PoliceOne.
Curry and Martin were on the front lawn talking to a black female. When Fulford-Salvano walked up the female started talking to her. Fulford-Salvano assumed it was because the woman felt more comfortable talking to a female officer.
The woman told her there were three men in house and she didn't know what they wanted or why they were there. She wouldn't give any more details. The officers told the woman to wait by the street. The primary unit decided to back off and separate to check out different parts of the house exterior, but Fulford-Salvano, the only officer at the call without children, was worried about the kids.
The situation seemed suspicious. The woman gestured toward a two-car garage that had a door open, revealing a gold minivan. Suddenly, the woman started crying, "My babies! My babies!"
Although none of the officers knew it at the time, the woman was hiding something that would later land her in prison. The men had come to take the 341 pounds of marijuana and $60,000 in cash the woman had in her home. Her husband was in Jamaica and the men must have figured the house would make for an easy heist. The three men had already begun loading the drugs before the police arrived on the scene.
"I was trying to get to the kids. Everyone else was saying 'pull back, wait for K-9,'" she said. "But all [the intruders] had to do was put a hand out and put down the garage door." Fulford-Salvano didn't know exactly what kind of situation these kids were trapped in, but she knew it wasn't good and she was gravely concerned for their safety.
She entered the garage through the open door and crouched down on the driver's side of the van. She could see two-year-old twins but she couldn't see the little boy who made call. The door handle was locked so she couldn't get in.
Suddenly she heard male voices and three to four shots from house. Stuck in the garage with no where to go, she hit ground and yelled, 'Shots fired!'
A black male, George Jenkins, came around the back of the garage, positioned himself behind the van and began firing out through the garage. Then he spotted Fulford-Salvano and began firing directly at her. The deputy returned fire and ducked back behind the van. Jenkins fell against the garage wall.
Fulford-Salvano then heard movement from the front of van. Another man, John Dzibinski, began to fire at her from the hood. She fired back and began oscillating between firing at Jenkins and firing at Dzibinski. She emptied her magazine and reloaded.
"I kept on thinking, 'I need to keep them away from me,'" she recalled.
The last time she leaned out to fire at Jenkins, she landed a head shot, but not before one of his rounds hit her in the right shoulder. She didn't notice the injury until she was done firing. With her right, dominate hand out of commission, she picked the gun up with her left hand.
At this point, Dzibinski popped out again from the front of the van and Fulford-Salvano fired, hitting him in the head as well. He would be pulled off life support a week later.
Knowing for sure that Dzibinski was done fighting, but not sure the status of the other gunman, Fulford-Salvano took a minute to check on her own injuries. When she looked at her body she saw blood coming from lots of different places. She knew she needed to concentrate, control her breathing and focus on staying conscious. She had learned what to do to prevent shock, and she didn't know if the guy in the front was going to come up again.
Unbeknownst to her, Jenkins, who was fatally wounded, had stumbled out into the driveway and collapsed.
She then heard Deputy Curry call her name - Jennifer - which struck her as strange because everyone calls her Jen. He and Gainor came into the garage and grabbed her, pulled her to the end of the driveway. and with the help of five or six other officers, ran her to an ambulance waiting down the street.
"We're all taught that you have to believe you are going to win, not die," Fulford-Salvano said. "But it is one thing to have someone telling you that, another to hear from someone who had been through it. I remember thinking, 'This garage is not the last thing I am going to see.'
"I had gotten engaged in January. I had spent too much time and money on (wedding preparations). I haven't had any kids yet … it is amazing the amount of stuff that ran through my head."
Only 47 second passed from the time shots were fired until the gunman came into driveway. During that time, the mother attempted to flee the scene, fearing that she would be arrested.
One of the high-stress sensory reactions Fulford-Salvano remembers experiencing is auditory exclusion.
"I heard the first few shots, but then it was almost like my body shut my ears off.," she said. "At some point I realized I wasn't hearing the radio. There was a big chunk missing out of it."
She said her recent training was the key to her making it out alive.
"[Training in] off-handed shooting really, really helped me. I just reacted," she said.
In her weak hand development training she held a tennis ball in her strong hand and learned to use her off hand to do everything, including reloading using her shoe or the ground. She said her training did not involve the shoot/reholster approach that can lead to muscle memory.
"(In training), they made us keep our guns out, communicate with each other and keep moving," she said.
" [The incident] felt like a movie, It wasn't like I was watching it, but it was like, 'This can't be happening."
She said you never know how you will react until you are in a deadly situation.
"All things considered it turned out well," she said. "Forensics said ten bullets hit me. Three hit my equipment and didn't injure me." The other seven did.
After the incident she went on to marry her fiancé, a firefighter, and returned to light duty July 23, 2004. She returned to full duty 38 days later. She has received nearly a dozen honors for the incident, including the IACP Officer of the Year award and U.S. Medal of Valor.
The woman and her husband went to jail for drug trafficking. Shaun Schaumbryom, the man who remained in the house and lived, received life in prison.
Fulford-Salvano is now working as a detective in her station's child abuse unit.