NM cop reflects on wounds, long recovery
Officer Robin Hopkins' world was changed the day a suspect shot at her through her squad and shattered her leg
By Leslie Linthicum
BERNALILLO COUNTY, N.M. — The loud clap of a rifle round slamming into the engine block of her police car was about the best sound Robin Hopkins could have hoped for.
For a split second, the 15-year veteran of the Bernalillo County Sheriff's Department thought her big Crown Vic had saved her from the guy who was aiming a sawed-off Romanian AK-47 out the window of a stolen cop car — aiming right at her.
Then, Crack! Crack! She heard two more.
The balding 35-year-old who had strapped on body armor, pulled on a black face mask and gone on a shooting spree had already shot three police officers and was leading police on a chase that had ricocheted through Albuquerque's North Valley.
Now he was pulling alongside her and taking two more shots.
One of the rounds pierced the driver's side door — making a neat bullseye of the sheriff's department shield painted on the door — and blasted through her thigh.
It's a well-worn cliche that a life can change in an instant. For Hopkins, at 11:46 a.m. on a beautiful October day, it did. "Do you want to see ?"
Hopkins, balancing on her right leg in her room at a rehabilitation hospital in Albuquerque, pulls down her gray sweat pants and offers a tour of her dangling left leg.
Long scars from surgical incisions sweep across her hip bone, her hip crease and down the front of her thigh. More scars mark where pins were inserted and two long incisions stretch from her knee to her ankle on both sides of her calf.
Pointing to a dark purple pucker, she says, "Here's where it entered and did what it did." She's referring to the bullet, a 7.62 mm steel core round that is capable of piercing the body armor police officers wear, and tearing apart muscle and bone.
Hopkins is 5'5" with the lean physique of a distance runner. Her inseam is less than 30 inches and her leg now holds a total of 4 feet of surgical scars.
Hopkins picks up an X-ray taken as soon as she arrived at the emergency room at the University of New Mexico's Health Sciences Center."That's the tourniquet and that's the rifle round," she says, pointing to a ghostly gray image of her pelvis, her left hip bones and her left leg.
Anyone who's ever looked at a plastic Halloween skeleton knows how the leg bone is supposed to be connected to the hip bone. On Hopkins' X-ray, there's just a mess of shattered pieces where the connection should be. The upper thigh bone, the femur, is the largest, heaviest bone in the body. Hopkins points to where hers should be and says, "This was blown away right here."
Another X-ray taken after orthopedic surgery shows a long rod extending from hip to knee in a vast expanse of black shadow. "This," she says, "is where I need to grow bone."
Hopkins spent a month in University Hospital before she was moved to rehabilitation. She's a marathoner, a staff sergeant in the Air National Guard and the mother of an active toddler, and when she arrived at rehab she wrote down her goals : "#1 Get to bathroom, toilet and shower use. #2 More bend in my knee. #3 More rest and get strong and return to work."
Hopkins, with a wide smile, crackling blue eyes and unforgettable red hair, counts small accomplishments now -- being able to use a walker, going to the bathroom alone.
Even though she has been on the mend for two months now, Hopkins knows that hers is a long haul with an uncertain outcome.
"It's going to be a long road, and I just have to accept that, which isn't easy, being a go-go doer. So patience is one of the many lessons that I'm going to have to learn."
Hopkins woke up as usual at 4:30 a.m. on Oct. 26.
She was working a Thursday-through-Monday morning shift, so Saturday was the middle of her week. Her husband and toddler still asleep, she put in a yoga DVD, laid her mat out in the living room and did a half hour of yoga poses.
Then, the house still quiet, she made some coffee and, as is her routine, sat still in the early morning darkness.
"I just sit with a cup of coffee and just breathe, just be quiet," Hopkins says. "I like to wake up early and just get centered and ready for whatever."
Hopkins' father is a retired Marine who, over a 30-year career, fought in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. Her mom, she says, "is somewhat of a hippie."
"I'm like a balance of the two for sure," she says. "I love yoga, and I love my Second Amendment rights."
Centered and ready, Hopkins got dressed and headed out the door for her 7 a.m. shift at the North Command substation on Fourth Street, in the heart of the Village of Los Ranchos.
It was a slow Saturday, and she had finished an early lunch at the substation and was cleaning up in the locker room when traffic on the radio got hectic.
Then, the radio crackled with the news of officers down and the suspect heading north on Broadway. That got everybody's attention.
In a matter of minutes, Christopher Chase, a man with "COP KILLER" tattooed across his knuckles and a history with police dating back more than 20 years, would be dead at a corner gas station in the North Valley, riddled with bullet holes. But all Hopkins and her fellow officers knew as they headed for the substation's parking lot was that a suspect had been taking shots at Albuquerque city police and that he was now in a police car on Broadway and headed north.
Hopkins knew Broadway Boulevard turns into Edith Boulevard when it crosses Candelaria Road. If he kept going north, the bad guy would drive right into BCSO territory.
She added her "I'll be in route" to all of the others flooding into dispatch and got in her car, engaged her siren and sped south.
"He's ours," Hopkins thought.
Tom Jones credits the beer with changing his life.
Jones spent his career as a nuclear engineer for Los Alamos National Laboratory and he would probably still be solving nuclear safety problems instead of chasing a toddler around the house if he hadn't stopped into O'Niell's Pub in Nob Hill for a drink on March 24, 2007.
The High Desert bagpipers were playing a benefit show there and the cute redheaded drummer tried to sell Jones a commemorative pint glass. Jones was just back from a trip to Europe and all he had was euros. She'd let him pay with a euro note, she told him, if he would give her his phone number.
Jones and Hopkins clicked, became a team and were married three years later. Last February, they welcomed a baby boy they named Bronson.
They're older parents — he's 45 and she's 44. And when it came time to talk about who should stay home with the baby, it was no contest. Hopkins loved her job, and she was good at it. And she had only a few more years to go before her 20-year retirement. So Hopkins strapped on her gun belt and went back to work, and Jones became a stay-at-home dad.
Jones was home in the North Valley with Bronson that Saturday morning while Hopkins was at work. Because it was a warm day, he took the boy out into the front yard to do boy things. Bronson was happily digging in the dirt when Jones heard sirens -- a lot of sirens -- wailing nearby.
When you're married to a cop, you know officers don't engage their sirens all that often. And you know that it's even more rare for a lot of officers to engage their sirens at the same time.
Jones guessed they must be speeding up Rio Grande Boulevard, and he wondered where Robin was working that day. On relief squad, she could be assigned to the East Mountains or the North or South valleys. She'd left the house that morning while he was still asleep, and he hadn't a chance to ask what part of town she'd be working.
"Are you North today?" he texted her. "Because something big's going down."
Chase had a lot of firepower
He was carrying two large-caliber, semi-automatic firearms — a Zastava M57 pistol and a Cugir Mini Draco, a Romanian-made pistol-grip semi-automatic rifle, with the barrel sawed off. He had a lot of ammunition — more than 350 rounds of 7.62 mm cartridges in magazines and drums.
After telling bystanders at Broadway and Iron to call the police and tell them he was waiting for them, Chase started firing at arriving officers. He had hit three APD officers and stolen an APD Dodge Charger with "POLICE" in big letters on its side by the time the chase started racing north.
The Charger was in the lead with a trail of police cars behind it when it turned west off Edith onto Griegos Road.
Hopkins was headed south in her cruiser, monitoring the chase on the scanner and thinking, "I can catch up." She also turned west onto Griegos, then north onto Rio Grande. When she reached Eakes Road on Rio Grande -- at the double dog leg known as "the buffalo curve" -- she heard Chase had turned back east onto Ranchitos Road.
"I can get to Chavez and turn east," she thought and made the right turn onto Chavez Road.
Ranchitos and Chavez roads run parallel to each other a few miles apart through the leafy residential neighborhoods of the Village of Los Ranchos.
"I'm picturing he's going east, I'm going east," Hopkins said. "I don't know what's going to happen next."
But she knew Ranchitos would run out — it dead ends into Edith — and he would either have to turn north or south. She hoped he'd turn south, headed her way.
"Southbound on Fourth," the radio called out.
When she got to Fourth Street, she swung north and saw the stolen Charger and a line of flashing lights headed toward her.
"I see a black car. I know it's a PD car. And then I just see a bunch of cop cars behind him. I'm excited. I'm like, 'OK, got him. I have to stop him. It's my turn.' "
As both cars approached the intersection of Schulte Road, the stolen Charger slowed down.
Hopkins grew up in Phoenix as a tomboy
She signed up for the Marines as an 18-year-old just out of high school. She married a fellow Marine, had a baby boy she named Freedom, got divorced and left the corps. By the time she saw a notice that a police department in Bernalillo County in New Mexico was looking for officers, she was a single mother of a 9-year-old, taking classes at a community college back in Phoenix and working as a corrections officer at a maximum security prison.
She went through the BCSO academy, started on patrol and then moved to Polk Middle School as a school resource officer. She became a full-time DARE officer, moving among schools to teach an anti-drug curriculum and, after a stint as a property crimes detective, she returned to patrol, her first love and the core of police work.
"It's the heart of what we do," Hopkins says. "I like the people part of it, the unpredictability part of it, helping people. You start your shift and never know what's going to happen."
As Hopkins saw the stolen police car slow down, she only had seconds to make a plan.
"He slows down, and I slow down. In a second, all these things go through your mind. I'm thinking I'll get in front of him and then he'll crash into me and then the guys will get him. That's my plan."
Hopkins had just started to turn her car into the oncoming lane when Crack! Crack! Chase started firing.
In 15 years on the job, Hopkins had never been shot at before and she had never shot at anyone.
"When it hit the engine block, it was loud. I don't hear my siren, I don't hear the radio, I just hear Crack! And then I'm grateful and, just for a moment, I thought 'I'm good' because they always tell you that behind the engine block is a good place to be."
In a split second, the Charger started to pull around her. Another shot hit her hood.
And then the driver pulled parallel to her and fired once more before taking off again.
The fourth round went through her driver's side door and hit Hopkins below her bulletproof vest, just below her left hip.
"When I got hit, I felt my leg just get big -- that's the only way I can explain," Hopkins said. "I thought, it's not good. And I knew this guy was armed with something high powered, and if I'm hit, it's just not good."
A call came out from Hopkins unit, #234: "I'm hit. Fourth and Schulte."
Sirens — lots of sirens — interrupted the firefighters' late breakfast.
Inside Station 30, a bright modern Bernalillo County fire and rescue station that fronts onto busy Fourth Street, the B Battalion was just finishing up a meal of chicken-fried elk steaks when they heard the sirens and then a rapid succession of pops that sounded like it was right outside. "I think that was shots fired," engineer Alexandro Coriz yelled out and squad members peeked outside to see if there was someone with a gun.
The shooter and the phalanx of cops chasing him had already sped away and all the firefighters saw was a sheriff's car stopped in traffic lanes with its nose in their parking lot. They ran outside.
In the driver's seat was a deputy, her seat covered in blood. Coriz, a nine-year veteran of the department, recognized Hopkins immediately. They had gotten to know each other in New Orleans in 2005 when they helped out in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
APD Sgt. Shawn Lockey had also pulled to a stop in the fire station lot. He had been on the Charger's tail for most of the 17-minute chase, managing to stay on the chase and use his radio to direct the cavalry of officers who were heading toward the running gun battle.
When he saw puffs of smoke from the Charger and then saw Hopkin's car drift toward the fire station, he could guess that Chase had hit another cop.
He and the firefighters ran toward her car and dragged Hopkins out and laid her on the ground.
It was obvious Hopkins had a leg wound, so Coriz pulled off her gun belt and cut off her pants while Lt. Anthony Gonzales ran inside to call in the transport and firefighter Isaac Rowe fired up the rescue unit and started getting IVs ready inside.
BSCO Deputy John Osborne had been right behind Hopkins as she drove north. When he saw the shooting, he slammed to a stop and, seeing the blood, ran over with a tourniquet the department had issued to him just the week before.
Firefighter Jeremiah Jensen-Fisher got the tourniquet on as high as he could and turned it tight while paramedic Brandon Mosely and the rest of the team got her bulletproof vest off and looked for more wounds.
Then, they put her into the waiting rescue unit and sped south on Fourth. It was what they call a "scoop and run," and the elapsed time from injury to ambulance in this case was just over two minutes.
Hopkins had lost a lot of blood.
When she was rolled into the emergency room at the University of New Mexico, she presented a serious, complicated and life-threatening injury. The first order of business was to stop the bleeding, and Hopkins was rushed upstairs to the operating room.
When it entered her hip, the bullet had torn through Hopkins' femoral artery, the big main tube that runs from the torso and moves blood to the lower extremities. The job of the tourniquet was to clamp that artery closed so Hopkins wouldn't bleed to death in the ambulance.
When trauma surgeons removed the tourniquet they found a mess.
Hopkins' husband had rushed to the hospital and was waiting outside while the vascular surgeon went to work. In the coming weeks, he would wait through nearly a dozen more surgeries. He would also become well versed in the anatomy and vascular system of the human leg.
Arteries pump blood from our hearts out to the rest of our bodies; veins return that blood to the heart. Jones learned that the femoral artery splits into two arteries at the hip socket and that, when the bullet entered his wife, "Both of those were just destroyed, along with the biggest vein that comes up from the leg."
In that first surgery, doctors removed the biggest pieces of the bullet and tied off the main vein because it was too severely damaged. And they made repairs to the two femoral arteries. But one of those repairs didn't take and Hopkins was back in the operating room later that night to have that artery tied off.
With only one artery feeding blood into her damaged leg and without her big vein to return that blood, circulation was the biggest concern. Without it, the leg might have to be amputated.
Hopkins had made peace with losing her leg to amputation as the ambulance sped toward the hospital. Still, one of the first things she did when she regained consciousness after surgery was to edge her right foot over in the bed until it found her left foot.
"I have my leg," she thought. "That's a blessing."
Her leg blood flow impaired, the leg ballooned and she was back in the OR twice in the next few days to have a procedure known as a fasciotomy — a deep cut down the length of the leg to relieve pressure. First, her calf was carved open, then, her thigh.
Those incisions can take more than a month to knit themselves closed sufficiently to allow a surgeon to sew them shut. But there's a window of opportunity for orthopedic repairs and Hopkins' window was closing quickly. She didn't have another month to wait.
Trauma surgeon Joseph Kambe suggested a new wound closure system that might cut that time and Hopkins was back in the operating room where Kambe inserted a series of hooks at the openings and threaded them with thread. Like cinching up a hiking boot, the system pulled her wounds closed in four days. On Nov. 20, an orthopedic surgeon put in the foot-long rod that will serve as Hopkins' femur while she waits for her bone to grow around it.
"We're going to go again."
Physical therapist Joshua Lovato takes hold of a swollen ankle dressed in a compression stocking and begins to gently push it, causing Hopkins' knee to flex as she lies on a mat and grimaces. "Pull, pull, pull. Help me," Lovato encourages as Hopkins tries to use her left thigh to move her own leg.
Hopkins finished the 2005 Boston Marathon in seconds over 4 hours. Now she times her laps around the rehab center gym on a walker, with her right foot doing the work in a running shoe and her left leg dangling.
"Active for me now is getting up and going to the bathroom," Hopkins says. And then she laughs.
She works hard in physical therapy with the hope that her left leg will grow stronger and more flexible, that blood flow to her foot will improve, that bone will regrow to envelop the rod in her leg and begin to resemble something like her old thigh bone.
Hopkins and Jones don't know much about their future except that it will involve a lot more surgery, and it will be different than their lives before the gunshot.
"We can't really say right now," Jones says. "Robin desires to fully recover. She knows she's going to have ongoing issues forever because of this, but she wants to be as active as she can."
Will her capillaries regrow sufficiently to allow adequate blood circulation and keep the leg alive? Will her orthopedic repairs eventually allow her to put weight on her leg? To walk? Might some technology for wounded combat veterans help this cop get back on the beat?
When people see Hopkins smiling in her wheelchair, it's easy for them to imagine her back in uniform and walking the beat soon.
"They think she's so much better," Jones says. "No, she's not. She's really upbeat. She's in good spirits, because that's the kind of person she is. But we're years away from any sort of full recovery, if that's even possible."
"I'm about to put a sign on the door, which I haven't done yet."
Hopkins rolls her wheelchair toward a table and picks up a notebook and pen.
She had been receiving a stream of friends and colleagues without regard to time of day until she realized there was a connection between the amount of sleep she gets and her mood.
"I get weepy," Hopkins says, "and it's directly related to lack of sleep."
Last week, Hopkins made a vow to turn away visitors and enforce nap time.
"I'm looking for all the lessons I can learn from this," Hopkins says, "and one of them is it's OK to put a 'Do Not Disturb' sign on your door."
As the pen reaches the paper, "Do Not Disturb" seems too rude. She writes, "Therapy Session in progress," wheels over and tapes it on the door.
On Oct. 26, Christopher Chase got up in the morning and taped a note to his front door. It gave contact information for his next of kin. He walked a few blocks over to Broadway with two guns and the intention to live up to his knuckle tattoo: Cop killer.
Chase, according to APD Police Chief Allen Banks, had his first run-ins with Albuquerque police in 1992 when he was 14. He was identified as the suspect in property crimes and was arrested for family violence. His record from then on shows another eight arrests — for domestic violence in 1993, battery on a household member in 1994, disorderly conduct and evading officers in 2000, embezzlement in 2004, and a string of arrests for warrants and failing to appear.
Chase was the suspect but not charged as a juvenile and an adult in several burglaries, criminal damage to property cases, in a car theft, an identity theft and a vehicle embezzlement case.
Banks imagines that when Chase went out on that Saturday morning, he was probably picturing a shootout that would settle up his score with police.
When he pulled up next to Hopkins at Fourth and Schulte, aimed his rifle out the window and fired bang, bang, bang, bang, he didn't see a mother of two children, or a runner, or a yoga practitioner, or a wife or a friend. All he saw was a police car and a badge.
"That was the guy's intention, to kill cops," Hopkins says. "It wasn't personal; it wasn't Robin Hopkins. It was what I stand for. And I'm OK with that."
"And fortunately," she adds, "he did he not kill cops, and he didn't hurt one citizen."
Hopkins doesn't give much thought to the man who shot her. She never saw his face as he drove by and she hasn't spent much time looking at TV, the newspaper or the Internet trying to understand him.
"I haven't sought it out because it really doesn't matter. As far as my curiosity about him, it's been met in the little that I know."
She thinks of him as Any Man — any man with a problem that turns him angry, unpredictable and violent. "I really think of him as a society problem," Hopkins says. "He represents a society problem."
After a minute, she circles back.
"If I was to think of him, I'd actually think of all the good that has come and will come and I will make happen because of him. So, 'thank you, the good that evil does.' "
"Oh, there's so many divine things that come into this."
Hopkins isn't the type to look behind her or wonder "what if?" But — her leg practically blown off by a high-powered rifle — she's been thinking about the blessings that came her way on Oct. 26.
"He didn't hit my head. It happened in front of the fire station. The APD officer pulled me out of my car, another deputy ran up with a tourniquet and the EMTs put it on. Those people saved me time. And, with a femoral injury, that time is my life. I really shouldn't be alive."
The five B Battalion members who helped Hopkins were awarded medals of valor at a ceremony last week.
Larry Abraham, the mayor of the Village of Los Ranchos, who stood in his driveway on Rio Grande on Oct. 26 and watched the chase speed by, credited the five with bringing something good to a terrible day.
"As tragic as this event was, it could have been more tragic," he told the firefighters. "It's safe to say that Robin is alive because of you."
Coriz was right with Hopkins in the ambulance, talking to her and keeping her alert, which was easy because the 115-pound cop who loves to talk was talking — about Katrina, about her sons, about what a good job the rescue crew was doing.
"She was encouraging us as much as we were encouraging her," Coriz said. "Tough as nails. She is an amazing woman."
Leslie's regular column will return on Thursday.
Copyright 2013 the Albuquerque Journal