Inside the mind of a warrior – One officer’s courageous response to a “routine” call
By Kisty Fairchild, PoliceOne Contributor
On the night of Feb. 7, Officer Sean Shelton with the Crenshaw (MS) Police Department received a call that would forever change the way he does his job. It would test his courage and his mental fortitude and in the end, it would completely change his life. It would also serve as a painful but powerful reminder that NO call is routine.
The call came from Joyce Betts, a local woman he knew. She was afraid to enter her house because the power was out. Nothing out of the ordinary, he thought. Just like the hundreds of similar calls he’d responded to so far in his 5-year career.
This time, however, things were drastically—nearly DEADLY – different. Shelton’s “typical” night on the job was about to be shattered by the kind of nightmare call that sends chills down the spines of everyone in law enforcement.
Into the Darkness
Shelton entered Betts’ home and was immediately engulfed in darkness. He tried the kitchen light and got nothing.
“I continued inside the residence about eight to10 steps while Ms. Betts stood in the door frame leading outside,” he told PoliceOne. “I scanned the living room using my flashlight and I asked her where I could find the circuit breaker box which turned out to be in the utility room outside.”
As Shelton turned to walk back out the door, he caught a glimpse of a silhouetted figure standing in the kitchen. When he pointed his flashlight in that direction, he saw a man, 49-year-old Lawrence Richardson – Betts’ ex-boyfriend – pointing a 22 automatic pistol directly at him. What Shelton didn’t know when he responded to the call was that Richardson had been threatening Betts since their recent break-up.
“I announced myself as a police officer and as I was ordering him to drop his weapon, he fired one shot, striking me in the abdomen,” Shelton said. “I remember hearing Ms. Betts scream. She had run out of the house and was out of the line of fire, so I immediately dropped my flashlight and returned fire.”
Fire in the Dark
Richardson was standing 10 feet from Shelton and according to news reports, he fired at least 10 rounds at the officer.
“Richardson started backing up like I had hit him,” Shelton recalled, “and that’s when another one of his shots struck me in the face right below my right ear. It felt like someone had slammed a baseball bat into my head at full force and I immediately hit the floor.”
Shelton’s thoughts raced as he lay there in the dark for about 30 seconds. “I thought this was the end, that I was going to die,” he told PoliceOne. “But I heard a voice in my head saying ‘GET UP NOW!!!’ I did not want to die in there, and I didn’t know where the suspect was. If I didn’t get up, I knew I would die for sure.”
Shelton quickly focused in on thoughts of his wife and six children. “Somehow that gave me miraculous strength and I pulled myself up.”
A Hero Emerges
Shelton started feeling around in the dark for another exit while applying pressure to his badly bleeding head. Unfortunately, no other escape could be found so he was forced to go back the way he came, unsure if the suspect was going to be there waiting for him.
“I still had my duty weapon in my hand just in case he wasn't down,” Shelton said. “As I made my way back to the kitchen area I saw him laying on the floor in the fetal position. I walked past him while keeping my weapon trained on him and exited the house.”
Once Shelton made it outside he saw that Betts was gone. He reached his car and got on his radio to let dispatch know he’d been shot and that both he and the suspect both needed ambulance. Richardson was pronounced dead later that night.
During the investigation, details of Richardson’s chilling plans for the night began to unfold. It turns out that he was preparing to ambush his ex in the dark house and torture her to death. Investigators found a butcher knife next to an overturned coffee table covered with a sheet, bedspread and sleeping bag. Zip ties were placed around all four legs of the table, designed to hold someone down. It turns out that Richardson had cut off the power to the house and was sitting in the dark…waiting. But instead of Betts, it was Officer Shelton who walked into his trap.
Shelton survived and is back on the job he loves and throughout Crenshaw he is hailed as a hero for saving Joyce Betts’ life.
Lessons Straight from the Heart of a Hero
Shelton explained to PoliceOne that looking back on the incident, he has learned some very valuable lessons from his experience. He will never respond to any call the same again.
“Brothers and sisters please don't treat any call as routine because I am fortunate enough to be alive to tell you that things can go very wrong very quickly.”
He also now feels very strongly about the importance of backup. “I will never enter a residence alone without backup unless it’s absolutely necessary,” he said. He’d responded to countless calls just like the one from Ms. Betts, and now he has a new perspective on responding to future calls.
“You may answer 99 calls and it will just be something simple, but just one call can be something else. You just never know,” Shelton said.
Lessons from Street Survival
While there are lessons to be learned from our hero, Sean Shelton, Street Survival Seminar Instructor Ray Decunto explains that it is important to understand there are lessons to be learned from any call we answer in law enforcement. It is only the violent encounters like this one that are magnified because life is at stake.
“When we have an officer sharing his story like this, we must take the opportunity to learn,” Decunto says. “And Shelton himself touched on a very important lesson we can take from his experience which is – it’s not just the big cities where cops get killed. It can be anywhere and on any call. In fact, there is an additional element of danger in smaller towns where you know everyone.”
Being an officer in a rural town where you see so many familiar faces makes it far too easy to fall into a sense of complacency, even making Shelton comfortable enough to give out his cell phone to local business owners in case they need him.
In a perfect world, the call would have come through dispatch, or the complainant would have given the officer more intel on specifically why she was afraid, and perhaps the officer would have prior information on the fact that the complainant’s ex-boyfriend had been threatening her. But the call came in directly to the officer from the complainant and he walked into an ambush fueled by an angry, deranged perpetrator.
“Another very important lesson to be learned here is that sometimes our own training forces us to throw verbal challenges out there when we should be shooting and moving,” Decunto explains. “I’ve been involved in two gunfights and in one of them, I am positive I would not be alive today if I hadn’t moved because a moving target is a lot harder to hit than a still one.”
“I know our training in the academy teaches us that we must deflect liability by giving a verbal warning. But if giving verbal warning jeopardizes your safety, you don’t have to do it. The weapon pointing directly at you is more likely to fire and hit you if you are still. Remember, shoot and move!” Decunto says.
The Will to Win
Obviously we can learn a great deal tactically from the experience of other officers. But something has to be said of the heart that it took for this officer to not only survive, but to WIN this encounter.
Even when he was down, bleeding on the floor, Sean Shelton made sure the victim was out of harm’s way and then he picked himself up, finished the fight, and made his way back to his car to call for an ambulance.
“His will to WIN is what saved his life,” says DeCunto. “If you quit, the bad guy will finish you. And Sean Shelton was not a quitter. He was a warrior, and ultimately, a hero!”
Editor’s Note: Be sure to check out Chapter 1 titled “A Call to the Darkside” out of Chuck Remsberg's book "Blood Lessons". This chapter includes a story very similar to Sean Shelton’s story and gives additional must-see training details.