Nightmare on New Year's Eve

I never had to use my gun before. But this day was different—and prayer helped me survive.

by
Posted in , Nov 14, 2008

I am a retired New York City corrections officer. I worked at Rikers Island prison and before that in Brooklyn's criminal court. I am licensed to carry a gun, but until December 31, 1993, I had never had to use it. That's the day my friend Sasson asked me to work security in his clothing store just off Jamaica Avenue in Queens.

As I drove to the store that New Year's Eve morning, I instinctively touched my jacket where the familiar weight of my holstered .38 Smith & Wesson rested comfortably against my chest. Since Sasson hadn't had any trouble I knew of, I hadn't worn my bulletproof vest.

Just before I left home, my wife Georgia had been insistent that I be back in time for our daughter Sade's birthday party. I assured her I would be there. Later Georgia and I would be going out with friends. We were really looking forward to our first New Year's Eve out in six years.

Jamaica Avenue was thronged with holiday shoppers. Sidewalk vendors hawked incense, African jewelry and books about black history. Every now and then, through the closed windows of my car, I could hear the happy beat of Hispanic and Afro-Caribbean rhythms blaring from shop loudspeakers.

I parked the car, then I hurried around the corner and down the avenue, past a West Indian produce market, a dress shop and a former movie house that was now the Tabernacle of Prayer for All People.

My friend's shop, which caters to rap artists and other celebrity types, is a half block off the avenue, in the Jamaica Bay Mall. The big display window features baggy hip-hop outfits, jeans, shirts, and pricey sneakers.

Inside, the store is one big, almost square room, about 40 feet by 60 feet. In the back, to the right, is a door leading to the office and a storeroom. The left-hand wall is dominated by a checkout counter on a long, slightly raised platform.

The store is crammed full of clothes racks. Coats, sweaters, shirts and slacks cover nearly every square foot of its walls. But the entire floor is open, making surveillance easier.

It was about 11 a.m. when I greeted Steve, the security man at the door. I was introduced to another plainclothes guard who was working that day. We were to blend in with the customers.

At about 12:30 p.m. Steve signaled me. "Those three guys who just came in..." he muttered as I walked past him. "I think they're casing the joint."

I strolled across the store, trying not to attract attention. The trio were in their late teens, wearing baggy pants with hooded coats. I tried to signal the other security man, but when I looked back the teens were gone. I hurried outside, brushing past a young guy by the door. He didn't react when I bumped into him. My antenna went up.

The others had vanished. And when I turned, the kid by the door was gone too. Inside, I studied the shoppers. Nothing was amiss, yet I felt uneasy. I headed to the back to alert the other security guard.

I never got to him. Near the back wall stood the young guy I had bumped at the door, and he wasn't looking at merchandise. Instinctively my hand went inside my blazer and closed around my pistol. Suddenly the young guy was waving a gun in the air and yelling, "This is a stickup! Everybody on the floor!"

I drew my .38, and in the next split-second, time seemed to slow down. The holdup man started to turn toward me, his gun coming around in my direction.

I had no choice. As he faced me, I pulled the trigger. Twice.

Deafening reports echoed off the walls. The holdup man, arms flailing, fell backward.

I ducked behind a cashier's counter. How many of them are there? Where is the other security man?

Two women cashiers were on the floor, eyes wide with shock and fear.

Cautiously I peeked over the counter. Everybody was hugging the floor, except one of the holdup men: He was pushing Sasson into the back room. The robber was packing an Uzi, a deadly assault gun. I didn't dare shoot; I might hit Sasson.

Where is Steve? I wondered. And where the devil is the other security guy?

I raced to the front of the store. I figured the robbers would have somebody at the door, so I made for the big display window. Then at the last second I hesitated. As I turned, the shooting started.

I felt a stinging sensation as one bullet hit my left leg. A second hit my left buttock. Another hit my right leg, and a fourth lodged in my left hip.

I returned fire, but my six shots were soon spent. A bullet hit my right forearm, knocking the empty gun out of my hand.

As I went down, a last shot tore into my back. I fell on a clothes rack. Crashing through the rack, I slid under it thinking, If my face isn't visible, they might think I'm already dead. 

I closed my eyes and began praying: "Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name." Thoughts of Georgia, my kids and grandkids tumbled through my mind....

Running feet moved past me. A door crashed open.

After a moment of dead silence, I opened my eyes. Charlie, one of the employees, was looking down at me.

The door opened again. A voice snarled, "Get down on the floor by him! Hands over your head! Move it! Or I'll blow your head off!"

I closed my eyes as Charlie got down beside me.

Now they were calling for their partner. There was no answer. "He's dead!" one of them said from the back of the store.

"Leave 'im! Let's get outta here! Now!"

I looked along the floor underneath the clothes racks and saw high-priced sneakers pounding out the front door again.

I closed my eyes. I hurt bad and felt...tired, so tired. Close by, a woman was screaming. Charlie scrambled to his feet.

"Louis...?"

I opened my eyes. One of the saleswomen was looking down at me.

"I...I can't breathe," I rasped.

Squeezing my hand she said, "Don't try to talk. We've called 911. You're gonna make it!"

The party! All I could think was: Georgia's going to kill me 'cause I messed up the party!

Racks were being kicked over. The cops...

A florid Irish face was peering into mine. "Where you hit, buddy?"

"My legs...my back."

A strange numbness was creeping through me.

They found Sasson in the back room, sprawled on the floor, shot in the arm and head. Steve returned; he had run next door to call 911. The other guard had fled when the shooting started.

Later that night Uncle Jesse, Aunt Beatrice and Georgia joined hands beside my hospital bed and prayed for me. I knew I was on the road to recovery. The doctors left one bullet lodged in my hip. In another week they sent me home. Sasson too was recovering.

Georgia couldn't forget the dead holdup man; he was only 21. But after two others were arrested, the police learned he had been the ringleader.

Still, it was tragic. Death always is. I was sorry I had had to use my gun. But it was my job to protect the store and the people in it. And I know the Lord was with me. If it hadn't been for God and his providence that last day of 1993 would have been my last day, too.

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