Officer Brandy Roell of the San Antonio, TX Police Department was beginning the second day of her second cycle of field training with a field training officer that she hadn’t ridden with before. Brandy had graduated from the police academy four weeks earlier with her husband, three kids and her best friend Amanda among the supporters in the audience. She’d had a very modest, sometimes turbulent upbringing and was thrilled to be part of what she believed to be a “noble and honorable profession.” She’d worked hard in the academy, taking her training seriously. After graduation, Brandy spent her first month with an FTO who wasn’t thrilled to have a recruit riding along, much less a female, but she didn’t let that dampen her enthusiasm. She was going to be the best cop she could possibly be.
It was September 8, 2008. She and her new FTO, an eight year veteran of the force, had an early dinner at Subway; she remembers having a chicken sandwich and feeling good about the evening ahead. The FTO had gotten wind of a “deadly conduct” warrant for 43 year old Andres Vargas, who lived on the city’s southwest side. Vargas was wanted for threatening his wife with an AK-47 rifle but Brandy was unfamiliar with the case and had not been filled in by her trainer. She was a rookie, and she did what she was told.
The training unit followed another patrol unit to the suspect’s house. The Vargas home stood out among the other homes in the generally impoverished neighborhood; it was larger than the other houses and the entire lot was surrounded by an ominously tall wrought iron fence with spikes on the top. Members of a SAPD specialty unit had been surveilling the house earlier, knowing that Andres Vargas was armed, dangerous and wanted. The two patrol units parked near the address on Redstart Drive, and Brandy’s FTO asked dispatch to hold radio traffic.
The FTO, the other patrol officer and Brandy entered the fenced-in area and then the house with the help of Vargas’ teenaged son, who had the key and was cooperating with authorities. She remembers being nervous as they went in, but she was determined to do her job. “In the academy,” Brandy told me with conviction, “I gave one hundred percent every day. Even if you’re fighting the biggest guy in class, you never give up.” That determination and mindset was about to put to the ultimate test.
The three officers cleared the lower level of the Vargas home. She saw the suspect’s boots and pants on the floor, and his wallet and keys on the bar; his car was in the driveway. It was obvious even to a rookie that he was probably in the house. The son, who’d been allowed to remain in the house during the search, told the officers that his father had just gotten the AK-47, but he claimed that he hadn’t seen his father recently.
There was a stairway and a second floor yet to be cleared, and Brandy suggested to the two senior officers that they back out and call for additional units. She was told to continue the search by her FTO, and she did. With her gun ready, she began moving up the stairs to the second floor. Her FTO was behind her and their cover officer brought up the rear.
At the top of the stairs was a landing with no hallway, just two bedrooms and a bathroom. Brandy cleared the bedroom on the right and then the bathroom. Her FTO opened the door to the left and bullets started flying, rapidly and without warning. “Holy crap!” was her first thought. The noise and chaos were extraordinary. Her FTO was hit several times and fell down the stairs, the cover officer made it back down to the first floor uninjured. Both men were able to get outside as multiple units rushed to the scene. She was in the bathroom alone, and the gunman was still firing away.
“Water lines got shot, the house alarm was going off, there was lots of noise and distraction” Brandy said, so she turned her radio down. “I cannot die in this house” she thought to herself. “It was surreal; I kept waiting for someone to yell ‘cut!’ and for the scene to be over.” But it seemed like everyone had forgotten about the rookie still inside. “My brain was clear and I wasn’t going to give up. I was going to get out of this house.” And she knew she was going to have to do it alone.
The bathroom was filling up with water as she looked for a way out. She was unable to fit through the tiny second floor bathroom window. It became increasingly clear to Officer Roell that the only way out was back down the stairs, right into the path of the gunman. She used the large mirror on the bathroom wall to try and “quick peak” out the door. That’s when she made eye contact with Vargas and he started firing in her direction, through both the door and the wall. She was hit in the back of both legs as wood, tile and other debris flew through the air, striking and cutting her. She fell back into the bathtub and for a moment, she saw herself dead in that bathtub, crime scene photos of her uniformed, bloody body flashed through her mind. She knew some people would say “just another rookie female, not really ready for the job.” Brandy also thought about her kids, ages 4, 6, and 8, her husband Joe, and her “sister” Amanda, who’d pinned on her badge during the academy graduation ceremony just nine months earlier. Amanda was seven months pregnant, and Brandy wasn’t going to miss out on meeting the new baby. She drew on the strength and determination she’d used in the academy and decided she was going to save her own life, no matter what.
She steadied herself, stepped out of the bathtub with her Glock .45 in hand and hit the door, firing her way out of the bathroom entrance. She used two full magazines to provide her own cover fire as she headed down the stairs. She knew she was down to one full magazine, and she thought to herself “I can’t run out of bullets.” She could feel the burning in her legs but there was no real pain. She glanced back up the stairs to see where Vargas was and he fired a volley of rounds in her direction. She felt a tremendous blow to her lower back, and the world went into slow motion as she was propelled to the floor at the bottom of the stairs, her pistol flying out of her hand.
The rounds from the AK-47 had pierced her gun belt and her keepers, striking her spine and blowing a huge hole through her abdomen. Refusing to give up, she flipped onto her rear, faced the stairs and scooted backwards toward the patio doors, pulling herself with her hands, her damaged legs splayed out in front of her. She felt disembodied, but she knew she had to get outside, because no one knew she was in the house.
Brandy was able to propel herself to the French doors that led to the patio area and a driveway where a boat and trailer were parked. She heard an officer who was positioned under the trailer say to another team member “There’s another officer in there, I see her!” The other officer expressed disbelief, saying the house was clear of police personnel, but suddenly there was Officer Pedro “Pete” Garcia, wrapping his arms around the rookie officer and pulling her from the doorway. Garcia held the gaping hole in Brandy’s abdomen closed with his hands, keeping her intestines from exposure. He yelled to another officer to ram the fence with a patrol car, then he threw her on his shoulder and carried her to a squad car, exposing himself to more gunfire from Vargas. He put her in the unit and then returned to his team, who ended up in a six hour stand off with Andres Vargas before he took his own life with the same rifle he’d used to forever change the destiny of young Officer Brandy Roell.
Brandy was put in an ambulance and then flown to the hospital. “I don’t know if I’d be alive if it wasn’t for the officer who rode with me in the ambulance, keeping me awake and talking” she told me. When I asked her how she felt about Pete Garcia, I could hear her smile through the phone. “He’s still a close friend.” She calls Pete “honorable and noble,” the type of cop Brandy wanted to be, the type of person she thought all police officers were.
September 8th, 2008 changed Brandy Roell’s life forever, but it didn’t change the passion she has for the law enforcement profession or the fighting spirit she has displayed since childhood. In Part Two of this series, PoliceOne readers will see what a true winning mindset really means, long after the shooting has stopped. Until then, stay safe!