Shot on duty: Reflections on faith, family and being a cop one year after I nearly died
On June 9, 2016, York County Sheriff's Deputy Michael Lutz was shot in the face at point-blank range while serving a warrant; this is his story
As part of our year-end coverage, we look back at some of the biggest law enforcement news stories of 2017, and reconnect with some of the officers and departments involved in them to find out what has developed since.
On June 6, 2016, York County Sheriff's Deputy Michael Lutz, 36, was shot in the face at point-blank range while serving a warrant.
On October 19, 2017, Lutz received the Curtis D. Sowers Medal, awarded to deputies who show gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of their own lives, as they go above and beyond the call of duty. He also received the Medal of Valor for heroism and courage under fire and was inducted into the Police Heritage museum; the Purple Heart for the injuries he sustained; and awarded an honorary Black Belt in Isshinryu Karate (from his Sensei Ken Marsh). Lutz recently launched a nonprofit to help wounded Pennsylvania LEOs with initial costs associated with such a traumatic event.
In this essay, he shares his story of the events the day he was shot.
On June 9, 2016, my unit was dispatched to assist the York City Police Department in the apprehension of a man with an arrest warrant named James Nickol. He was wanted for felony escape and had prior burglary charges. Our team met up with the city police and developed a plan of action. However, none of us could have predicted what was going to happen next. I would soon find myself face to face with an armed gunman, fighting for my life. It was vicious. It was bloody. It was a close-quarters gun battle; as close as it gets. This is my story as seen through my eyes.
When I reached the end of that narrow breezeway, I was the first to make contact with the individual we were looking for. He was about three feet away from me, standing on a small wooden deck of the residence. I immediately gave him commands, in full-duty uniform and at gun point, to show me his hands.
I could tell by the look on his face that he was shocked to see me. I expected him to give up and allow me to handcuff him, but instead, he ignored my commands, and turned away from me. I held my position and continued to repeatedly shout, “Police! Let me see your hands!”
He kept his back turned to me, bent down and started doing something with his hands, but I couldn’t see what that something was.
At this point, my instincts kicked in and something was telling me to move in and grab him, and that’s exactly what I did. I brought my pistol down to my right hip, stepped up onto the deck, and grabbed ahold of him with my left hand. My intent was to bring him down, handcuff him and end the situation peacefully. Instead, he quickly turned into me, and fired a revolver directly into my face.
My head got rocked from the impact as the bullet struck me through the nose, shattering the bones in my right cheek. It continued to bore its way through my face, striking my jaw and finally deflecting out the right side. Blood started pouring out of my face and both of my ears started ringing loudly.
Though an incredibly hard hit, it didn’t knock me down. My feet didn’t move, and I came right back into the fight. I immediately placed my finger into the trigger-well of my pistol and returned fire, striking him with two rounds. I stopped firing, punched out with my left hand and grabbed his gun in an attempt to disarm him, but he again pulled the trigger. The bullet struck my left thumb and the force of the blast caused me to lose the grip on his weapon, and my left arm flew back into my chest. His bullet sheared off the top of my thumb, and now I was bleeding from the face and hand.
I knew at that moment I had no choice but to put him down to stop his violent actions. It was fight or flight, but flight was not an option.
Bleeding profusely, I fired two more rounds again from the hip as he continued to fire at me. Our gunfire exchange sounded muffled as if we were fighting inside of a tunnel. I started bringing my gun up, firing two right-handed shots. I then used every ounce of strength left in me to put my hands together. I zeroed in, seeing my front sight post and my left thumb, which was spewing blood like a geyser. I was able to get one last round off, striking him. His eyes widened, he turned and fell face down onto the deck.
‘Watching my blood pour out onto the pavement’
I felt like the fight was finally over. I started stumbling backwards trying to make my way off the deck while blood continued to pour out of my face. It felt like a warm shower. I had lost so much blood that I was too weak to hold onto my pistol anymore, and it slipped out of my hands.
Though dizzy and disoriented, I stayed on my feet, staggering towards the back yard. I started taking off my gloves to assess my hand injury and that’s when I looked up and saw my partner, Deputy Nate Payne, coming to my aid. I remember telling him, “He got me good bro! He got me good!” I was mumbling my words as it was difficult to speak. It felt like the entire right side of my face was missing.
Nate grabbed hold of me and pulled me to safety in the alleyway. He got me behind the cover of a fence and started applying pressure to my face to stop the bleeding.
I was standing there slumped over, holding myself up by my knees, looking down at the ground, watching my blood pour out onto the pavement. I was completely soaked from my face down to my boots in my own blood.
I could hear Nate telling me to “get down on the ground,” but I didn’t want to. If I was going to die, I wanted to die on my feet! I figured that it would only be a matter of seconds until I’d go out. I felt certain I was about to die. Nate had to force me down to the ground.
I heard him call out to my partner, Deputy Rich Drum, for help. I felt more pressure against my face as Rich had placed his hand over Nate’s, but the blood still needed somewhere to go. It started running down the back of my throat. I began swallowing and spitting it out.
I told Nate, “I’m swallowing too much blood, brother; I’m swallowing too much blood!”
I started desperately reaching for my phone in my right cargo pants pocket because I wanted to be able to talk to my wife one last time, but it was still plugged into the charger of my patrol car. That’s when I looked up at Nate and gave him what I thought was going to be my final request before I died. I asked him to promise me he’d tell my wife and boys that I love them and would always be with them.
Nate responded, “Stay with me, Lutz, you’re going to make it, the ambulance is on the way!”
He wouldn’t let me give up, as I started to choke on all the blood I’d been swallowing. I felt him take my injured and bloodied left hand and place it on his uniform. He said, “Grab onto me and don’t you let go!”
I began to pray. I was praying to Jesus, preparing myself to meet Him. I asked that my wife and children would always be watched over and protected, and that my partners would be kept safe from harm.
Transported to hospital
The next thing I remember was being placed into the back of an ambulance. Nate never left my side; he was still with me, applying pressure to my face. The medic had to forcefully remove my hand from the grip I had on Nate so he could start an IV in my arm.
Hearing Nate’s voice, knowing he was there, gave me great comfort as I hung on to life. The ambulance was moving, but I was getting weaker by the moment. I continued to pray. I prayed for the man that I had just exchanged gunfire with. I prayed that he would be OK, and I prayed for his family.
In and out of consciousness, I don’t remember much after that until the doors of the ambulance swung open and I was being carted into the trauma room at the York Hospital.
They started cutting off my uniform and were preparing me for a CAT scan. One of the nurses held my right hand. I looked up at her. She told me that they were working on saving the other guy. That’s when I remember first starting to cry as if the whirlwind of my emotions and adrenaline had just collided.
I told her, “I didn’t want to have to shoot him, but he gave me no choice.”
While tears rolled down my face, she let go of my hand as I started moving into the machine. Inside, it felt like an eternity. I was crying, bleeding and in pain. All I could hear was the loud sound of the machine running and the ringing in my ears.
Later, in recovery, a doctor entered the room. He told me he had been working on Mr. Nickol. I remember seeing blood on his scrubs. He took off his gloves, grasped my right hand and told me he was sorry. He said, “We did everything we could, but he didn’t make it.” I took this news very hard, but thanked him for all he did to try and save him.
The events of that day have been very difficult to process. Every time I think about the gun battle, though everything happened so quickly, I see it all, every detail, replaying over and over again in slow motion. One moment in particular was especially hard for me to accept for the longest time, when I had that grip on his gun. I would think to myself, if only my thumb hadn’t been covering his barrel. I might have been able to disarm him, and the outcome may have been different. Instead, he fired at me five times, emptying his weapon. I was somehow able to avoid being struck by three additional rounds. I wasn’t wearing eye protection, my ballistic sunglasses were up on top of my head, but yet everything but my eyes got peppered with gun powder.
Psalm 91:11 tells us, “For He will command his Angels to protect you in all you do.” God did just that; He sent angels to protect me, and I now understand it was Nickol’s decision to pull the trigger. There was nothing I could do to stop him.
Some people have told me how lucky I am to have survived such a shot to the face and they are amazed that it didn’t knock me off my feet. But I do not believe in luck. I am a man of faith, as I have been my entire life. I believe that when he fired that first shot directly into my face, my Guardian Angel rose up a shield and deflected his bullet causing it to take the path that it did. If it had been just a fraction of an inch one way or the other, it could have killed me instantly. This was truly a miracle and divine intervention at its finest.
Philippians 4:13 says, “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.” God gave me strength that day. The strength to stand and not fall! The strength to fight back and survive! He protected me, and my partners – Deputies Nate Payne and Rich Drum – saved me. If it weren’t for their actions to slow the bleeding, I may not be here today. They are true examples of “I got your six.” I will always be indebted to them for this, and they will forever be my brothers.
The York County 911 dispatchers sent out the call, and law enforcement, medics and firefighters answered it. The medics got me to the hospital as quickly as they could. Gifted nurses and doctors at the York Hospital kept me alive and took great care of me. They all deserve the utmost admiration for the heroic, selfless work that they do.
I found out later about the vast police response that took place after the officer down call went out over the radio. All they knew was that a fellow officer had been shot and came to my aid. This is true bravery, how law enforcement looks out for each other, and what the thin blue line is all about. I may never know everyone who responded, but I want them all to know how grateful I am for what they did.
I want to thank my sheriff, chiefs and leadership, and all my fellow deputies for their unwavering support.
A long recovery
The recovery process is long and hasn’t been easy. The nerve damage in my face continues to heal. I have seven pieces of bullet shrapnel in my face, each piece encapsulated with scar tissue, five small fragments and two larger ones. The largest piece is so deeply imbedded between the bone of my sinus cavity and nerve endings in my right eye that surgeons are unable to remove it. I was told that if attempted, it could cause both loss of vision and loss of strength in the entire right side of my face.
In late October 2017, I underwent face surgery. The surgeon attempted to remove the second largest piece of bullet shrapnel. Unfortunately, he was unable to remove it because it too was embedded in bone. Instead, he scraped out some of the smaller fragments and smoothed out scar tissue.
The medications for pain management and therapies designed to help me with these discomforts are ongoing as my body continues to heal. The concussion from the gun blast causes me to suffer from headaches and other neurological complications. I lost 60 percent of the hearing in my left ear. The ringing in my right ear stopped, but my left, which was closest to the gun blast, continues to ring. I was told that I will have permanent tinnitus in this ear and have been trying to deal with it the best I can.
Though I suffer these afflictions, I am working hard to retrain my body and mind to accept them for what they are. All the support from my doctors, family, and friends has been a big help in pushing me onward.
People have asked me if I would still have attempted that warrant not knowing how it was going to happen but knowing I’d be severely injured. My reply without question is yes, as I have always been prepared to put my life on the line to save someone in trouble. It’s all I’ve known my entire life, protecting and saving people no matter what the cost, and without regard for my own personal safety.
I am comforted in knowing that my actions that day saved innocent civilian lives by stopping a man who had, among other items found at the scene, additional weapons, ammunition, and the intent to kill. I am glad that it was me who took the bullets that day. I was able to stop the threat and keep my partners and York City officers safe from harm.
Saved by the Spartan mindset
My prior military and police training instilled in me what I call the Spartan mindset. Modeled after the ancient Spartan warrior, it is best described as never give up, never let anything stop you and never accept defeat. This is not something you are born with; it is what you learn by overcoming the most difficult situations in both training and real life.
That first shot I took to the face should have knocked me down, but it didn’t. That’s the Spartan mindset. It’s about courage, self-discipline, teamwork, strength and perseverance. You cannot let fear control you. From my experiences, if you go into a dangerous situation afraid, you are more likely to make a mistake. You must be confident in everything you do and have a sense of fearlessness about you. You have to train your mind to channel that fear into positive energy. Once you’ve learned to do this, you will be prepared to face whatever comes your way.
As a staff sergeant in the United States Army, I taught this to my soldiers. I also taught them that just because you are wounded, it doesn’t mean you’re out of the fight. You pick up your weapon, and you get back in the fight. You fight until the battle is won or you die trying, and that’s it. No retreat. No surrender. I hope that they are proud of me for leading by example.
I turned 35 three days before the shooting. I had a 2-month-old son, a 2-year-old son and a loving wife at home that morning. I thank God every day that I am still here to continue to be a husband and father.
Mothers and fathers, hold your children close. Hug them, kiss them and tell them every day how much you love them. Husbands, tell your wives every day that you love them. You never know just how short life really is until it’s almost taken away from you.
About the author
Michael Lutz is a deputy sheriff with the York County (Pa.) Sheriff’s Office.