After warehouse shooting, Ill. officer's family perseveres through health challenges

Since the Feb. 15 shooting in which a gunman killed five employees and shot and wounded five police officers, Cebulski has been slowly on the mend

By Megan Jones
The Beacon-News, Aurora, Ill.

From his hospital bed, Aurora police officer John Cebulski wondered if doctors could bandage his knee so he could make it to his son’s senior night basketball game.

Cebulski had been shot in the leg about an hour earlier responding to the Henry Pratt warehouse shooting. While his situation was still tenuous, Cebulski’s focus was on his son’s big night.

“This was a big moment for my family and it’s not about me, but about him,” Cebulski said.

Since the Feb. 15 shooting in which a gunman killed five employees and shot and wounded five police officers, Cebulski has been slowly on the mend. He’s returned to work, but he’s limited to desk duty for now. That recovery, though, has been secondary to another family health crisis.

Cebulski’s wife, Jane, was diagnosed with melanoma last year. The couple have taken turns leaning on each other as they grapple with their health concerns and at the same time are trying to keep their focus on their four children.

On a recent weekday afternoon at the Aurora Police Department, the duo maintained a remarkable sense of positivity, cracking jokes about each other’s health. They credit their spirituality for their upbeat outlook.

As the Cebulskis work to recover and return their lives to a sense of normalcy, they say more than anything they just want to show their children what it means to handle adversity.

“They say the lord only gives you what you can handle,” John said.

‘Why did I not kiss him after lunch?'

The family had a much different mission on Feb. 15 — to honor their son Jonas during his senior basketball night at Aurora Central Catholic High School.

John Cebulski, a 31-year-veteran of the police force, had just stopped home for lunch and Jane Cebulski was headed to a hardware store for supplies to decorate the gym. John was only blocks away from the Henry Pratt Co. warehouse when he received the call for an active shooter.

One officer had already been shot, and Cebulski and another officer began searching the second floor of the warehouse to see if the gunman was shooting from a window. Cebulski passed the room where five employees had just been killed.

Moving down a hallway, he saw something out of the corner of his eye and stopped, yelling “Aurora police.” But before he could finish the phrase, the gunman opened fire, hitting Cebulski in the knee. He took cover in a nearby room and waited, wondering if his injury was a signal that he should retire from the police department.

Jane was three miles away and noticed the hardware store was eerily empty. A clerk explained there had been a shooting in the area, and Jane, a former Aurora police dispatcher, said she sensed immediately that her husband had been one of the officers shot. Henry Pratt was part of her husband’s beat.

“I’ve lived with him for this long, and trust me he’s always number one or two getting into a building," she said.

While she waited at a red light, Jane said she saw a squad car racing toward her subdivision and knew it was coming for her. She honked as she sped down her street, hoping the officers at her front door wouldn’t leave.

Jane rode in the back of a squad car as it rushed to one of several hospitals where her husband might be. Her mind ricocheted through a jumble of thoughts, including ones that may appear trivial but in the moment were important.

“The main thing I kept thinking was why did I not kiss him goodbye after lunch?” Jane said.

Jane arrived at her husband’s hospital room where doctors were removing a temporary bandage from John’s knee. Jane asked them to pause and she pulled out a camera to document the wound.

"I said, you have to understand, we are a law enforcement family and this is our first shooting,” Jane said. “They were like OK crazy lady.”

Jane remained at her husband’s side in the hospital for the next three days, even telling one of the officers standing guard outside that he could go home.

“I said I’m sitting right here in this chair until he leaves and if anybody comes in, I’ll take them out myself,” Jane said.

The senior night basketball game was rescheduled four days later. As part of the festivities, John Cebulski used a wheelchair to escort his wife and son onto the court to huge applause from those in attendance. The attention, which was supposed to be on his son, was slightly embarrassing, John Cebulski admits.

In April, Aurora planned a grand ceremony to honor the officers who responded to the shooting. On the day before the event, Jane slipped on a dog toy and fell down the stairs at the family home. Both Cebulskis showed up to the city ceremony on crutches.

With their mobility limited, the couple pushed ahead with graduation parties in May for three of their children, one eighth-grade graduate, one high school, and one college.

A sounding-board wife

The warehouse shooting was not the first time John Cebulski faced gunfire. In February 1992, Cebulski sat against his squad car as a hail of bullets rang down around him, worried he’d leave his wife of five months a widow.

Cebulski felt a bullet fly through his hair, just missing his head, he said.

Post-traumatic stress disorder wasn’t well-known back then, therapy wasn’t required and it wasn’t “macho” to ask for help, he said. The next day, the wives went to church, Cebulski’s fellow officers met for drinks and everyone went back to work.

After the shooting, Cebulski leaned on Jane for support, just as he has in recent months since the Henry Pratt shooting.

The couple met in 1988 during a domestic violence training class when Jane, a 911 dispatcher for the Aurora Police Department, filled in as an actor to role-play a scenario at the police station.

John jokes that during the class, as part of her character in the scenario, “she was calling me all kinds of four letter words.”

The next day, John was down in the dispatch center for training to see how calls came out and they met again.

Jane worked as a dispatcher for 16 years, and she never really worried about her husband’s safety, especially during the months that their shifts aligned and she could hear the calls.

“It was after I left that it became more difficult because I didn’t have my finger on the pulse of what was going on,” she said. “I know he loves what he does and I want him to be happy with how it turns out.”

‘One step at a time’

Before the shooting and Jane’s diagnosis, life seemed stable with John’s steady job and the family’s good health. But now Jane says they live in a state of uncertainty about whether he will return to patrolling the streets and whatever comes next.

“It’s one step at a time, one doctor appointment at a time, one therapy session at a time,” she said.

John said he grappled with whether he would be able to come back to work, but he is eager to fully return. He thought he’d be back to full capacity by July. For now, he remains on desk duty.

John had surgery last month to remove the bullet behind his knee and he does physical therapy twice a week. His mobility is still limited, and he needs to recover enough to show he can quickly exit a squad car or run after a suspect, for example.

For John, the shooting not only bonded him with the department but with the whole city.

“When I first came on, things were kind of wild here,” he said. “I always felt like it was us against them. And no one had our backs beside us. Now, there is more of an outcry from people saying they do.”

The bond between his family is closer too, with his youngest son now telling his dad he loves him anytime he says goodbye or goodnight.

Their kids are definitely more worried, Jane said, and they seem to just want to know that things won’t change. They can sense the family is tight financially because John is not working as much overtime.

After Jane was diagnosed with melanoma in June 2018, she juggled monthly infusions and treatment and had surgery, she said. Her monthly infusions weren’t really affecting her and doctors were amazed at how well she was feeling, John said.

In the six months since the shooting, Jane provided emotional support for the rest of the family while John slowly recovered. The couple said it seemed as if that Jane’s body knew it had to rise to the challenge, and she remained relatively healthy during that time.

But in recent weeks, Jane has seemingly reached her limit and her health has suffered.

“She’s doing the best she can right now, but she’s really tired,” John said.

Doctors haven’t identified the problem yet, John said. Whatever it is, the family plans to tackle it head on, just like they always do.

“I guess really we are trying to teach the kids how you handle adversity, and when it just keeps coming, you have to just keep swinging,” Jane said.

©2019 The Beacon-News (Aurora, Ill.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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