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Triumph and tragedy: Lesson of one great cop's life

Fred Thornton — a 50-year-old patrol officer and 29-year veteran of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg (N.C.) Police Department — was the heart and soul of his SWAT team

During one shift in 2010, Fred Thornton — a 50-year-old patrol officer and 29-year veteran of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg (N.C.) Police Department — came upon an intoxicated driver. The suspect was passed out behind the wheel of his car. The vehicle was still in gear and running, with the driver’s foot on the brake. Fred tried to slide in, hit the brake, and put the car in park.

Fate would not favor his good intentions, however, because the driver’s foot slipped off the brake and hit the gas. The car took off, dragging Fred along with it, until he managed to get the car stopped. Fred tore up his knee and it required reconstructive surgery. It looked like his SWAT days were over, if not his entire police career.

The Triumph
Sgt. Eric Peterson of the CMPD said that Fred could have had light duty until his retirement, scheduled for the summer of 2011, but Fred would not have it. Fred Thornton had spent his whole career in better condition and with more energy and enthusiasm for his job than most 23-year-olds. Peterson said that Thornton was one of the trainers most new officers got to know when they started on the police department. It would be hard to find anyone on the department that was not positively influenced by Fred Thornton.

Fred Thornton’s older brother Tom said that Fred could not have taken a job off the street. He explained, “That’s all he always wanted to be, a police officer. Not a desk cop. A street cop.”

Sergeant Peterson said Fred “kicked ass” to get himself back to street-ready condition. Some wouldn’t have done it and most couldn’t have done it, but Fred did it. On February 25th 2011 Fred was back with his beloved SWAT Team. He was in top condition again and he told Sgt. Peterson, “I’m feeling great!”

As the team prepared to move on a house whose occupants had boasted they would not be taken again, Fred turned to the team and shouted, “Bring it in!” The team formed a huddle around Fred, the man who Peterson called “the heart and soul of the team.”

The team huddled as they had done hundreds of times before. It was a focusing drill started by Fred many years before. Fred had 23 years with the team and was its longest-serving team member. Fred extended his hand to the middle of the circle and every team member placed theirs on top of his as they shouted in unison, “One, two, three, SWAT TEAM!” The ritual completed, they loaded up and prepared to move.

Minutes later, the team executed the set plan perfectly. The perimeter was locked in, the door was breached, the flash bang was deployed, and the entry team took down the two targeted suspects and others. The drug dealers were caught and the guns the suspects possessed were not used, because to them it clearly would have been a losing battle.

Sgt. Eric Peterson said Fred Thornton was thrilled after the action and declared, “I feel great and I’m on top of my game.”

The Tragedy
After the call-out Fred Thornton returned home, pulled into his garage and began to prepare his equipment for his next call-out. Then, something went horribly wrong. A neighbor, C. R. Braniff said that he heard what he thought was a truck backfiring. “It was loud — irregularly loud.”

At 1735 hours, emergency services were called to Thornton’s home and Fred was transported to Carolinas Medical Center, where he died after emergency surgery. Fred Thornton is survived by his wife Linda and four children, the youngest being 13 years old. Fred was the victim of a tragic accident.

The investigation has revealed that Fred Thornton had been checking his equipment, when his issued Def-Tec #25 non-reloading Model 7001 Distractive Device detonated in close enough proximity to his person to cause a fatal injury. Fred had once commented that this was one tool that had saved many law enforcement officers lives.

The investigation continues to determine exactly as to how the tragic accident occurred. Sgt. Peterson said when findings are in, the information will be properly disseminated to law enforcement.

Lesson of Fred’s Life
Sgt. Peterson said of Fred, “You know, no matter what the task, no matter what the risk, if Fred was there he had your back.” This is a compliment that every street cop hopes they will earn in their career.

Peterson and fellow team member Jim Hetrick agreed Fred Thornton was a great officer, and said, “Whatever it is that makes an officer great Fred had it.”

“Fred was not a cop who was counting the days to retirement,” Sgt Peterson said. “He loved being a cop. He lived it every day.” The Sergeant added that as far as the SWAT Team was concerned, “Fred was the heart and soul of the team.”

Fred Thornton had been a police officer for 29 years and a member of the SWAT Team for 23 and he was a happy man. He was months away from retirement and he was not only still doing what he loved but he also loved what he was doing. He shared his enthusiasm with every member of his team and it was contagious.

They say actions speak louder than words and every day of his life Fred Thornton’s actions spoke loudly to everyone around him and all one needed to do was listen. His message was, “Police work is a job that you can learn to hate, but it is more fun when you never forget how much you love it. There will be times that it will knock you down and knock you down hard. When that happens you have to get back up!”

Goodbye to a Teammate
Fred Thornton is one great cop that will be sadly missed, but remembered greatly, and on Tuesday March 1, 2011, more than two thousand people gathered around the grave site of this great cop. The command was shouted, “Bring it in!” The green-clad members of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Tactical Team, Fred’s family and friends came forward and huddled with their team-mate, hands joined in the middle.

One last time came the shout, “One, two, three, SWAT TEAM!” as Fred breached the gates of heaven.

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