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How the San Bernardino PD narcotics unit stopped a terror attack
The officers tracked the suspects and prevailed in a gun battle, preventing the attackers from doing further harm and rescuing a fellow LEO in the effort
In the third annual edition of the RISE Award Program, TASER | Axon and PoliceOne again honor officers and agencies who have risen above the rest. The San Bernardino Narcotics Unit is a shining example of what a Protect Life nominee truly should be. Read their story below.
Walking into the aftermath of one of the deadliest terrorist attacks on U.S. soil, narcotics officer Nicholas Koahou called his wife.
“There’s an active shooter. The bad guys are gone. You need to go home now.”
Koahou’s wife was in class at a university near the scene of the massacre. He felt in his gut that whoever had just killed 14 people and wounded 22 others at the Inland Regional Center was planning another attack. He was thinking soft target – they were going to go somewhere vulnerable and open fire.
Koahou, a Marine Corps veteran who has worked in law enforcement for almost nine years, began to grasp the severity of the situation as his team, the San Bernardino Police Department narcotics unit, rushed back to the city they called home.
The small unit conducts intelligence-led surveillance in cases ranging from dope to homicide, forming a strong bond through years of long nights working together to take down bad guys. They had been following a high-level drug trafficking suspect in Ontario when a message from their intelligence analyst changed everything.
“Active shooter. Multiple victims.”
A flurry of texts from family members and friends began lighting up the team’s phones as they neared the IRC. “Is everything OK?” “What’s happening over there?”
These officers would need every advantage they’d developed over the years, from their training to their investigative work to their camaraderie, to overcome the attackers that day.
‘It was hell’
The team arrived to the IRC to find a scene of controlled chaos, covered by hundreds of cops. SWAT was conducting building searches. Victims were being treated for gunshot wounds. Survivors were being escorted to safety.
“I saw deceased people, I saw shot people, I saw people with blood all over their shirts because they had to carry somebody out, I saw fear in people’s faces,” said officer Jose Loera, an eight-year veteran cop and former firefighter who works in the narcotics unit alongside Koahou. “It was hell, in other words.”
Sgt. Gary Schuelke, the unit’s supervisor, quickly determined that the team’s services weren’t needed at the IRC. So they got to work at what they do best: intelligence gathering.
“I told my team when we got there, ‘Guys, stay tight, stay together, I’m going to try to find out who did this,’” Schuelke said.
Three other officers, including Schuelke’s son, Ryan, joined the narcotics unit in the hunt. According to Loera, when the elder Schuelke, a 24-year veteran law officer, told the team they were going to locate a criminal, he knew nothing would stop them until the job was done.
“If you’re a bad guy, you don’t want to cross him, because he’ll move heaven and earth to find you,” Loera said.
The team discovered an address in Redlands tied to their suspect, Syed Farook. It wasn’t long after their arrival at the home that they were tailing Farook’s SUV.
‘They’re not gonna stop, they’re gonna shoot it out’
At that point, none of the nine officers was sure that the couple they were following was responsible for the horrific attack, but as the officers traveled down the highway behind the SUV, the sense that something was very wrong became unshakable.
Loera noticed someone moving in the back seat of Farook’s SUV. It was hard to make out through the vehicle’s tinted windows, but it looked like the person was scouting their surroundings.
“You could feel it – this is not right,” Loera said.
The officers needed a marked unit to make the stop. Koahou flagged down a passing Redlands PD cruiser. As the officers prepared to pull over the SUV, Farook took an exit that led them to the location of a major shopping center.
Schuelke radioed a message to hold off, fearing an escalation in the busy area that would lead to more casualties.
“The traffic was really bad. Had it turned into a shootout there, we would have had a lot of innocent people caught in the crossfire,” he said.
As they continued to follow the suspects’ vehicle, they noticed it was heading back in the direction of the IRC. The Redlands squad car initiated a traffic stop, but Farook’s car kept rolling forward. Clearly they were not going to go quietly.
“I was already throwing my vest on, I had my rifle next to me,” Koahou said. “I figured we were gonna jump out and do a felony stop on these guys, but now I’m thinking, ‘They’re not gonna stop, they’re gonna shoot it out with us.’”
The SUV made another turn. The vehicle’s rear window shattered as gunfire erupted.
A ‘hail of bullets’
“The whole team starts receiving this hail of bullets. We were all swerving, thinking ‘Holy crap, we’re getting shot at!’” Loera said.
Schuelke pulled up closer to the SUV to get a better look. “I could see that the back window was blown out. All I see is a pair of hands coming up in the back window and a rifle. At that point, I was like, ‘OK, this is real,’” Schuelke said. He radioed for backup and to warn the rest of the team.
Koahou heard the first shots shortly after Schuelke made the call over the radio.
“I thought, ‘Oh crap, here we go,’” Koahou said.
The SUV continued forward as the officers tried to evade round after round from Tashfeen Malik’s AR-15.
As the SUV finally came to a stop, the officers began exiting their vehicles and returned fire. Because they worked undercover, the team would engage in one of the most challenging fights for survival an LEO could ever face dressed only in T-shirts and shorts. Their vests were their sole protection against a barrage of rifle rounds.
Investigators gather around the SUV that was involved in the shootout. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)
A San Bernardino County Sheriff’s unit had overshot the area where other police vehicles were stopped and ended up dangerously close to Farook’s SUV. Koahou, who was still in his vehicle, drove into the opposing traffic lane and got as close as he could to the deputy in an attempt to get him out of harm’s way as Farook kept firing.
“He started moving from the vehicle and walking north, shooting at the deputy. I recognized that as a flanking maneuver, and I’m thinking he’s gonna circle around this deputy and kill him,” Koahou said.
As Koahou moved to get a clear shot at Farook, he screamed at the deputy, who was pinned behind his squad car, to stay down. Once he found a position that wouldn’t force him to shoot over the deputy, Koahou’s military training kicked in: Make yourself small. About 70 yards away from the gunman, Koahou went prone, found his target and began shooting.
Farook stumbled and fell. For a moment, Koahou thought he had neutralized the threat. Then Farook sat up.
“I was thinking, ‘Holy shit. I just put a couple rounds into this guy and he’s not staying down,’” Koahou said.
Thinking Farook may be wearing body armor, Koahou took aim at the gunman’s lower body and fired another round.
‘Stay in the fight’
Farook stopped moving, but the gunfire continued. In the middle of the street with no cover, Koahou attempted to escape the volley of gunshots coming from the SUV. As he neared a patch of raised dirt while laying down suppressive fire in an attempt to protect the trapped deputy, he felt a pain in his left thigh.
“It felt like somebody punched me in the leg. I remember thinking, ‘Did I just get shot?’ and then my leg gave out,” Koahou said.
Koahou fell behind the patch of dirt. He looked up at the sky, flat on his back, trying to process that he’d just been hit. He ran his hands up the interior of his thigh. He couldn’t find an exit wound, and the blood wasn’t pumping out like it would have been if his femoral artery had been damaged. He had a chance.
Two things kept Koahou in the fight: His will to survive and his refusal to watch somebody get killed.
“In the Marine Corps, it’s beaten into your head from day one you don’t give up, you don’t stop fighting. No matter how bad it is, you’ve always been through something worse,” he said. “I’m staying in the fight until I die. I’m not just gonna go out on my back.”
A Riverside County Sheriff’s deputy arrived and pressure dressed Koahou’s wound. Another officer rolled up and tried to take him off the street to safety.
“He yells at me ‘You’re shot, get in the car.’ I told him ‘I’m good.’ We went back and forth, then he shoves me into the back seat,” said Koahou. “I remember looking out the window and still hearing rifle fire coming out of the back of the SUV. I pushed myself back out onto my feet and I told him, ‘I’m still fighting, we’re good. We gotta get the deputy.’”
After Farook went down, Schuelke realized the gunfight wasn’t over.
“I’m standing there and watching him [Farook] to see if he’s going to continue moving, and I can still hear bullets whizzing past my head. It dawned on me, ‘Oh shit, there’s somebody else shooting here,’” Schuelke said.
Despite spending his career in one of the most violent cities in California, this was the first firefight Schuelke had experienced in his 24 years in law enforcement.
“It wasn’t what I thought it was going to be. I didn’t feel fear – I just wanted to stop them from hurting any of us,” he said.
To further complicate matters, in addition to Loera and one other officer, Schuelke was fighting alongside his son, Ryan, who had a little over a year on the force.
“Once I saw my son’s initial reaction – out with the rifle and engaging and being OK – I was good,” Schuelke said. “I knew he could keep himself safe and I didn’t need to watch out for him.”
In this image taken from video, armored vehicles surround Farook's SUV following the shootout. (KTTV via AP)
Malik was bringing her rifle up to the car window and firing in short bursts. She and the officers took turns exchanging gunfire.
Not all of the officers involved had rifles. Some, like Loera, were forced to go up against the AR-15 with nothing but a handgun.
“I ran out of bullets for my rifle and had left my rifle bag inside my car. So I tossed it [the rifle] and continued advancing with my handgun,” Loera said. “Once we started receiving rounds from them, you can’t stop. Even if one of your brothers drops, you still have to stop the threat. My concern was living – I wanted to come home, and I wanted to stop these people.”
Koahou, along with the officers who rushed to his aid, walked toward the pinned deputy using a patrol car as rolling cover and put suppressing fire on the SUV as Malik continued firing in their direction. The officers managed to reach the deputy, got him behind cover and moved him to safety.
“And it just seemed like that was it. The rifle fire stopped. That was the end of the firefight,” Koahou said.
Farook and Malik had 1,600 rounds on them when they were killed. Koahou, Loera and Schuelke are convinced that their actions and the actions of other dedicated officers on the scene that day stopped a second attack.
“There are no words to adequately describe the guys that I’m around,” Koahou said. “They’re pure warriors at heart, and none of them stopped to think about whether they were gonna get hurt. They all got out and fought just like I did.”
The Saturday after the incident, Gary Schuelke hosted a Christmas party at his home that had been scheduled prior to the attack. The team, along with their wives and children, were in attendance. Koahou, despite being on crutches and recovering from his injury, even managed to make it to the celebration. They exchanged stories, shared laughs and mourned the victims.
The party was as somber as it was celebratory. The officers were alive and they had protected countless people, but their city had just suffered the unthinkable. In addition to the physical pains – Koahou’s thigh, a bump underneath Schuelke’s right eye that he’d later dig a bullet fragment out of – there were the emotional pains: Loera couldn’t forget the faces of fear he saw that day. He wished he could have done more to help. Schuelke realized the outcome could have been very different for his team.
Officer Nicholas Koahou, center, walks toward the podium to answer questions during a news conference. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)
“I’m sitting there looking at all these guys with their wives and their kids, and that’s when it really kind of hit me. You know, ‘Holy shit, the decisions I made that day could have put these guys in harm’s way and did put these guys in harm’s way,” Schuelke said. “They didn’t even balk at the idea of chasing these people. There was never a ‘Hey Sarge, don’t you think we ought to hold off and get more help?’
“These guys – sometimes I gotta pull the reins back and tell them to slow down a little bit, that’s how hungry they are to fight crime and chase bad guys. It’s an amazing feeling being a part of something so special.”
The San Bernardino Police Narcotics Unit’s brave actions on a day of unimaginable terror is why we’re proud to name them as nominees for the TASER | Axon and PoliceOne RISE Protect Life Award.