Saturday, March 26, 2016
CHAPPELL, Neb. — The last image Deuel County Deputy Michael Hutchinson recalls seeing before he was hustled into the hospital was emergency technician Adam Hayward’s face.
The last time Hayward saw Hutchinson, he and others pulled a dozen heart monitor cables off his friend’s chest, torso and legs, and removed a blood-pressure cuff and a finger clip measuring pulse and oxygen levels. He left Hutchinson in the emergency room with a team of doctors, nurses and technicians already busy assessing his multiple bullet wounds.
Hayward stepped outside, overwhelmed and upset.
Fourteen weeks later, he sat on a bench against a wall in a village community center packed with people. Laughter and the aroma of pancakes on the griddle filled the air. He cradled his 2-month-old daughter in his left arm.
Then Hutchinson arrived. A benefit-dinner crowd collapsed around him. Hayward waited for an opening. After a few minutes, he stood, walked five steps and grabbed Hutchinson’s right hand.
“Hey, buddy, how you doin’?” he said.
The two men fell into a long hug, with baby Eadyn snug between them. Faces buried in the other’s shoulder, emotions flowed in tears.
“Thanks for what you did,” a choked- up Hutchinson whispered. “I’ll never forget it.”
Hutchinson — ambushed and shot four times at close range while serving an arrest warrant in Big Springs last Dec. 3 — says he is alive today not just because of a series of extraordinary coincidences, good fortune and heroic efforts by colleagues, friends and strangers.
“I believe God had a hand in it,” he said during a recent interview in his farmstead living room. “Otherwise, I wouldn’t be here today.”
Deputy Sheriff Michael Hutchinson with children of Chappell at Halloween.
'Most of the time you can talk to people and get them to do what you need them to do if you just explain it to them.'
Hutchinson, 52, is a career law enforcement officer who served in a variety of positions across the state before taking a job as a Deuel County sheriff’s deputy in October 2014 to be closer to a daughter and her family in western Nebraska.
A native of Ogallala, he grew up in Cozad, playing high school football and wrestling for the Haymakers. After graduating in 1982 he enlisted in the Army National Guard and trained as a military policeman before joining the regular Army in 1986.
Stationed at Fort Polk, Louisiana, he met Karyl Andrews on a blind date. They married and had three children.
Hutchinson said it was hard to raise children when he was away on training exercises half the time, so he left the Army, and the couple moved their young family to Nebraska in 1989.
He has worked for police departments in Lexington, Cozad, Wayne, Mitchell and David City. He has also served in sheriff’s offices in Keith, Merrick, Nance and Butler Counties.
He was a sheriff’s sergeant in Butler County when he learned of an opening with the Deuel County Sheriff’s Office in Chappell, a community only 60 miles from where daughter Molly Deaver lived in Grant with her husband, James, and son, Everett, now 2.
“Life’s too short,’’ Hutchinson said he and his wife decided. “Let’s go be out around the grandkids.”
The Deuel County Sheriff’s Office is staffed by a sheriff and three deputies. They are responsible for patrolling the county’s 441 square miles and two communities: Big Springs, population 397, and the county seat of Chappell, population 930. The towns represent two-thirds of the people in the county.
Marijuana and other drug cases stemming from routine traffic stops out of Colorado on Interstates 76 and 80 have swamped the little jurisdiction in recent years.
Hutchinson’s daily routine started with checking in with a joint communications center in Ogallala and patrolling U.S. Highway 30 during his 10-minute drive to Chappell. Before stopping at the Sheriff’s Office in the courthouse basement, his first duty usually was providing traffic control at the schools.
He put a stop to a local habit of making U-turns in school crosswalks.
“They’d been doing it for umpteen years,” he said. “I tell them ‘Hey, I see you do that again, you’ll get a ticket.’ Most of the time you can talk to people and get them to do what you need them to do if you just explain it to them.”
Hutchinson, 52, is a career law enforcement officer who served in a variety of positions across the state before taking a job as a Deuel County sheriff’s deputy in October 2014 to be closer to a daughter and her family in western Nebraska.
'I turned around and there’s a shotgun in my face. He told me ‘I’m going to kill you. You’re going to die today.''
The Hutchinsons celebrated Michael’s birthday, the night before the shooting, at a dinner with Molly and her family at the Open Range Grill in Ogallala. Molly surprised her parents with news that she was pregnant and expecting in July.
The next day dawned bright and chilly, a brisk 30 degrees at the Hutchinsons’ rented farmhouse.
Hutchinson was up by 6 a.m. and cooked himself bacon and hard-fried eggs, added a slice of cheese and slipped it all between two pieces of toast to create a breakfast sandwich. He clicked the remote starter for his black-and-gold patrol car — a 2013 Dodge Charger — to warm it and start the defrosters. He checked his equipment and was out the door.
He radioed that he was on duty: “9783, Ogallala. 10-41.”
Hutchinson headed to Chappell as usual, then later that morning to Big Springs for funeral escort duty. After Hutchinson finished the assignment, Sheriff Scott DeCoste called by mobile phone and told Hutchinson to stay in town, because a Colorado judge had just issued an arrest warrant for Neil Stretesky of Big Springs.
Stretesky, a 66-year-old electrician, was out of jail on an attempted first-degree murder charge. He was arrested in October 2014 after beating his 90-year-old father with a hammer in Julesburg, Colorado. During the incident, Stretesky twice pointed an AR-15 rifle at Sedgwick County Sheriff Randy Peck, according to court documents. The sheriff drew his gun and told Stretesky to drop the rifle or he would kill him. Stretesky complied.
Knowing Stretesky’s recent violent history, DeCoste, Hutchinson and Deputies Jerod Hahn and Spencer Rowley — the entire department — met at the Big Springs Sheriff’s Office to plan how to take Stretesky into custody. Hahn, 33, had been on the staff about seven months; Rowley, 24, had been hired in mid-November. DeCoste, a 17-year law enforcement veteran, was appointed sheriff in October.
The plan called for Hutchinson to go to the Stretesky house and knock on the door. DeCoste, Hahn and Rowley would be parked in two vehicles out of sight nearby. When Hutchinson made contact with Stretesky, the others would drive up and assist.
“I’m, like, ‘OK,’” said Hutchinson, who has served thousands of paper services and hundreds of warrants of all kinds during his 26-year career.
The old dashboard video camera in Hutchinson’s car was on the blink, and unlike the other three officers, he didn’t have a body camera. DeCoste gave Hutchinson his body camera.
Hutchinson headed to Stretesky’s house about 12:20 p.m. As he neared the dwelling on West Cedar Street, he saw Stretesky’s wife, Nellie, pull into the driveway and hurry into the hillside house. Hutchinson pulled in behind her car.
“I thought ‘Well, this guy has been pointing guns at other people before. I’m going to put on my tac vest,’” Hutchinson said.
Hutchinson was not wearing a body armor vest under his shirt because it didn’t fit. His bulkier and heavier tactical vest, designed for high-risk situations, was in the back seat.
Hutchinson stepped out of his car, opened the left rear door of his car and heard shouting.
“I turned around and there’s a shotgun in my face,” he said.
It was Neil Stretesky.
“He told me ‘I’m going to kill you. You’re going to die today,’” Hutchinson said.
The deputy replied: “Neil, I’m not here to get killed or anything. I’m here basically to talk to you about your dog.”
Neighbors had long complained about Stretesky’s dog running loose. Deputies had been to the house with warnings. Hutchinson was to use the dog ruse when he went to the door.
“He said ‘Bullshit, I know you’re here to pick me up,’” Hutchinson said.
Stretesky fired the shotgun into the ground, at Hutchinson’s feet. He commanded Hutchinson to drop his weapons near the rear wheel.
“I’m not giving you my gun, Neil,” Hutchinson said.
Hutchinson noticed Stretesky having trouble jacking the forestock of the pump-action shotgun to eject the spent shell and chamber a fresh one. Hutchinson figured he didn’t have time to draw his Glock .40-caliber pistol. He grabbed the barrel and stock of the shotgun and tussled with Stretesky before swinging the stock into his jaw.
“He went backwards. I went backwards,” Hutchinson said.
Hutchinson fell on his back, his legs raised.
“The next thing I know is I hear a shot. I felt a burning sensation in my left leg.”
'WE HAVE AN ACTIVE SHOOTER': Listen to the radio call from the scene. The audio clip gets loud at the 10 second mark.
The Deuel County sheriff and his three deputies patrol the county’s 441 square miles.
'I prayed the Lord would give me one more shot to make this stop and prayed that my aim be true.'
DeCoste heard a shotgun blast while parking his car about 75 yards away at the bottom of the hill and talking on his mobile phone to a deputy a block away.
“Did you hear that? Did you hear that?” the sheriff yelled into his phone.
As DeCoste grabbed his gearshift he heard voices, scuffling noises and another shotgun blast.
The sheriff dropped his phone and raced the marked sport utility vehicle around the corner and up the hill. He saw Hutchinson and Stretesky wrestling over the shotgun. He watched Hutchinson fall on his back. He saw Stretesky stand over Hutchinson — who flipped to his front after the first shot — with a handgun and shoot.
Stretesky turned and fired a shot at the approaching sheriff, now about 10 yards away. The bullet hit the vehicle frame between the windshield and driver’s door.
“I stop and I put it in reverse and I hit the gas,” DeCoste said. “The RPMs went really high and the speed was really slow.”
The gearshift lodged in neutral instead of reverse. DeCoste let the vehicle roll down the hill to back away from Stretesky, who pointed the gun at him the entire time. When Stretesky turned the weapon back to the fallen Hutchinson, DeCoste stopped the car. He was about 50 yards away. He reached for his AR-15 patrol rifle, stepped out, loaded a bullet into the chamber and shouldered the gun.
“Then there was a pop. He shot him again,” DeCoste said.
DeCoste pulled the rifle’s trigger. Nothing happened. The safety was engaged.
The sheriff flipped the safety off, shouldered the rifle and fired. Stretesky fell behind Hutchinson. DeCoste didn’t know it, but his shot missed.
Stretesky briefly peered over Hutchinson’s body at DeCoste, ducked and did “something with his hands,” the sheriff said. Authorities believe that’s when Stretesky shot Hutchinson under the right armpit. It was the fourth wound.
Hutchinson lay between the sheriff and Stretesky. DeCoste had a small target.
“I prayed the Lord would give me one more shot to make this stop and prayed that my aim be true,” DeCoste said. “He picked his head back up and I shot. I shot him in the face.”
Stretesky’s handgun rolled about 6 feet away. He lay mortally wounded. It was the first time in DeCoste’s career that he had fired his gun at a suspect. Last month, a Deuel County grand jury found the use of deadly force justified.
DeCoste and the two deputies ran to the men. Stretesky and Hutchinson’s feet were tangled. DeCoste, a trained emergency technician, pulled Stretesky away and turned over Hutchinson to find and address his wounds.
Hutchinson’s first words to DeCoste: “He shot me in the butt. I can’t believe he shot me in the butt.”
DeCoste was ecstatic his friend was alive.
The scene at Neil Stretesky’s home in Big Springs the day last December that Stretesky shot Michael Hutchinson four times. Photo by Vickie Sandlin/Julesburg Advocate
'Just hang on, buddy. We’ll get you some help. Just hang in there.'
The Big Springs Fire Department and its ambulance are staffed by volunteers, who respond immediately when paged for emergencies.
Many of them happened to attend the funeral Hutchinson helped at an hour earlier — instead of being at their jobs scattered across the region — and were still in town for a luncheon at the Assembly of God Church three blocks from the Stretesky house.
Among them was 36-year-old Adam Hayward, who, 14 months earlier, while still the Deuel County sheriff, had hired Hutchinson. Hayward was now an agronomy products salesman for a co-op in Grant. He typically would be nearly 40 miles away at his job.
Hayward and his pregnant wife were making a brief stop at their Big Springs home before returning to the church from the cemetery burial when his scanner erupted with a report of an active shooter. The town’s fire whistle wailed. Hayward’s pager sounded. It was 12:24 p.m.
Hayward hurried to the fire hall and was in the back of the first ambulance to arrive at the shooting scene 4 minutes later. The ambulance stopped within 10 feet of the victims and Hayward flung open the door.
There lay Hutchinson, blood pooling on the ground around his legs. Hayward hadn’t known his friend and former colleague was one of the victims.
Hayward cut into Hutchinson’s pants with trauma scissors to find the leg wound. Hayward and DeCoste put pressure on the wounds, wrapped them and lifted Hutchinson to a backboard and into the rear of the ambulance.
Another ambulance crew tended to Stretesky.
Hutchinson’s ambulance rolled away from the scene at 12:33 p.m. The nearest hospital is 12 miles away, in Julesburg, Colorado.
The Big Springs responders, however, had decided before they arrived at the scene of the shooting to head 22 miles to Ogallala Community Hospital, because it has a surgeon on staff with wartime experience in bullet wounds. The crew had already called ahead for an Ogallala paramedic to head west toward Big Springs.
As the ambulance sped east down U.S. Highway 30, the crew monitored Hutchinson’s vital signs and cared for his wounds. It also discovered one of his armpit wounds.
“He was in quite a bit of pain,” Hayward said. “He was having trouble breathing.”
Paramedic Jordan Meininger intercepted the ambulance near Brule and jumped in for the final 9 miles into Ogallala. He administered pain medication and inserted a tube into Hutchinson’s chest to relieve pressure and aid his breathing.
Hayward encouraged Hutchinson.
“Just hang on, buddy. We’ll get you some help. Just hang in there.”
Karyl and Michael Hutchinson walk outside their home in Chappell, Nebraska, earlier this month.
'Is he dead?'
Karyl Hutchinson was eating soup for lunch at her desk in Grant, annoyed that her husband wasn’t answering his cellphone. She works for her daughter and son-in-law at their auto repair shop.
Perkins County Sheriff Jim Brueggeman banged on the locked door. He told Karyl there had been an officer-involved shooting and to come with him. Karyl assumed her husband had shot someone.
“I never could have imagined that he was the one that got shot,” she said. “He’s so good at his job that there’s no way.”
As she reached for her purse, Brueggeman shook and turned ghostly white.
“Mike’s been shot,” he said.
During the 20-mile drive to Ogallala, Brueggeman kept lowering the volume on his communications radio so Karyl couldn’t hear.
“I finally said ‘Is he dead? Because if you know he’s dead, I’d rather you tell me than let you drive me all the way to Ogallala thinking I’m going to get there and he’s still alive.’”
Brueggeman said he knew only that the wounds were serious.
'THE SCENE IS SECURE': Listen to the radio call from the scene. The audio clip gets loud at the 10 second mark.
Dr. Shane Banks met Hutchinson in the emergency room following the shooting.
'Officer Hutchinson, I'm Dr. Banks. You have severe injuries. We're going to take good care of you.'
Dr. Shane Banks, 40, was home for lunch in Ogallala when the hospital’s chief operating room nurse called to tell him gunshot victims were en route.
Banks joined the 18-bed hospital’s staff in 2013. A Missouri native, he graduated from the Air Force Academy and the University of Texas in San Antonio medical school. His 12-year military career included a tour at Offutt Air Force Base near Bellevue from 2007 to 2009, where he helped with weekend trauma calls at the Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha.
He also served four months as a combat surgeon at Joint Base Balad in Iraq in 2008. Three years later he deployed with special operations forces on the front lines in south-central Afghanistan for five months.
“I was pretty busy,” he said.
When Hutchinson arrived at the hospital, Banks met him in the emergency room.
Standing at the deputy’s head, Banks leaned over — their faces upside down to each other — and said: “Officer Hutchinson, I’m Dr. Banks. You have severe injuries. We’re going to take good care of you.”
Hutchinson replied: “OK. You do what you got to do. Please make sure my wife knows.”
Banks said Hutchinson was in the emergency room about 20 minutes while the medical team established intravenous lines, drew blood and assessed injuries. Hutchinson told the team his medical history and the medications he takes.
“He was in severe pain but had a very calm demeanor. He was very polite,” Banks said.
Moving into an operating room, Banks was joined by another doctor, two certified registered nurse anesthetists, two surgery nurses and three other nurses who worked the edges of the activity.
Banks said their goals included stopping major bleeding, controlling contamination (especially as Hutchinson had suffered injuries to organs) and preparing the deputy for prompt transfer to a major medical center.
Karyl arrived at the hospital during the hour her husband was in surgery.
Banks passed Hutchinson off to a waiting medical helicopter crew from Great Plains Health, a regional medical center in North Platte, for the flight to North Colorado Medical Center in Greeley.
“We said some prayers for him, too.”
Karyl spent the next three months at her husband’s side, sleeping in a recliner or window seat in his hospital rooms.
The family descended on Greeley. Daughter Sarah Andrews of Chicago drove nonstop to Greeley with daughters Lilly, 15, and Yael, 3. Son Zach came from Casper, Wyoming, and Molly from Grant.
Colorado law enforcement agencies provided money, food and lodging for the family — even a big-screen TV to watch the Denver Broncos win the Super Bowl.
“You leave home in the morning and you don’t realize that you’re not going to be back for 11 weeks,” Karyl said. “About three weeks into it, it dawned on me that I needed someone to come clean out the refrigerator.”
Hutchinson underwent four surgeries, shuttling back and forth between the hospital and a long-term acute care center in neighboring Johnstown. He returned home to Chappell and a hero’s welcome Feb. 22.
When the Hutchinsons walked into their house they found it still decorated for Christmas. Michael insisted on spending the next day wrapping gifts. That night they watched their 2-year-old grandson open his presents.
Hutchinson received hundreds of cards and letters, including a handwritten note from Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts.
“He had an ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ moment, when you get to see how many lives you’ve touched,” Karyl said.
Hutchinson at the benefit pancake feed held in his honor March 11 in Brule. Hutchinson is flanked by Adam Hayward and his baby daughter, Eadyn, at left, and Deuel County Sheriff Scott DeCoste.
'I’m going to kick your ass for not having your vest on!'
Hutchinson didn’t expect to eat syrup-soaked, cold pancakes, but he had no choice.
Nearly every time a friend or stranger — well-wishers all — passed by his table at the Brule Community Hall earlier this month, Hutchinson popped up to shake a hand. But not when a former boss arrived.
“Sit still!” ordered retired Keith County Sheriff Earl Schenck.
Schenck looked down at Hutchinson and told him to get well fast, “because I’m going to kick your ass for not having your vest on!”
Schenck later acknowledged that Hutchinson’s body armor wouldn’t have done much to prevent the point-blank wounds he received.
“But I don’t care,” he said. “He still has a kick in the butt coming. He just scared the hell out of me when I heard about it.”
The Brule Lions Club pancake feed was one of several dinners, silent auctions and other events nearby communities and organizations hosted to financially help the Hutchinsons. It raised about $2,800. The Hutchinsons said the donations help replace Karyl’s lost income. She hasn’t worked since the shooting, in order to be with her husband.
Hutchinson’s mother, Mary Ann Fong of Elwood, Nebraska, came for the pancakes and also attended a soup supper in Big Springs shortly after the shooting.
“It’s overwhelming to see all the people who turn out,” she said.
Dayton and Carolyn Ballentine of Brule had never met Hutchinson but were seated down the table from him.
“We have to support law enforcement,” Carolyn said. “They’re out there every day putting their lives on the line.”
Hutchinson’s sister, Tracie Guffey of Blue Springs, Missouri, said rural communities stand tall in the way they rally around their own.
“It says a lot about small towns,” she said, “and it says a lot about the person.”
Michael Hutchinson has an hour of physical therapy exercises every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at Sedgwick County Health Center in Julesburg, Colorado.
Hutchinson underwent multiple surgeries in Greeley, Colorado, for severe abdominal injuries, then spent time at an acute care center in nearby Johnstown. After 11 weeks, on Feb. 22, he was released to return to Chappell. Photo by Vickie Sandlin/Julesburg Advocate
'I'm not strong enough yet.'
Hutchinson hasn’t returned to work. Doctors told him it will be six to 12 months before that day may come.
He suffered traumatic gunshot wounds in the lower left torso, under each arm, and what he calls the “Forrest Gump shot’’ into his left upper hamstring.
One bullet fractured his pelvis. His spleen is gone. He will never have full use of his kidneys. Parts of his stomach and intestines are gone. His damaged liver is expected to rejuvenate.
“My goals right now are to physically get stronger, build up stamina again so that I can do the things I want to do,” he said. “I’ll probably go see a psychiatrist and make sure I’m functioning upstairs. ... Mentally, I’ve got to be able to talk about this without falling apart.”
An exercise bicycle sits nearby at a picture window with a view of a greening field of winter wheat. A copy of “Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement” sits atop an end table beside his couch.
Hutchinson still rises each day at 5 or 6 a.m. to do exercises prescribed by his physical therapist. He makes breakfast, showers, shaves and brushes his teeth.
“Then I sit to catch my breath,” he said. “I tend to fatigue easily.”
By 3 p.m., he’s ready for a nap.
Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, he travels 16 miles to the Sedgwick County Health Center in Julesburg for an hour of physical therapy stretching and exercises.
The low-impact exercises are designed to increase Hutchinson’s stamina, stretch and strengthen muscles, provide a cardiovascular workout and improve balance.
Physical therapist Wes Harens runs Hutchinson through the paces, and although the deputy dives into the routines, he keeps Harens on his toes.
“How many was that?” a weary Hutchinson asked during a hamstring exercise.
“Six or seven,” Harens said.
“I thought it was 10,” Hutchinson said.
After Harens asked Hutchinson during a balance exercise how far he was walking, he suggested the deputy increase it to one or two blocks.
“Our blocks are like a mile long,” Hutchinson said, referring to country roads.
Harens, in mock exasperation, responded: “You know what I mean.”
Hutchinson was a broad-chested, formidable figure as a law enforcement officer, with a shaved head and goatee. Standing about 5-foot-10, he was a fit 265 pounds and filled out his “Army Strong” T-shirts. After four surgeries he returned home with a nagging infection and low-grade fever, weighing less than 220 pounds and unable to get out of a chair or up from the floor by himself.
His Olympic-style weight set gathers dust in the basement.
“I’m not strong enough yet,” he said.
The effort is evident when the exercises are strenuous. “I tend to fatigue easily,” Hutchinson said.
'My job wasn’t to give up that day, and I didn’t.'
Hutchinson replays the Big Springs encounter over and over in his mind.
“If a guy’s got a gun, you want to try to talk the situation down, because it’s the best thing you’ve got,” he said.
Grabbing the shotgun at close range was his only chance, because it would take the weapon out of the equation.
“It wasn’t a situation for a Taser,” he said.
Hutchinson relies on his high school wrestling skills when subduing suspects.
“I like to be in close,” he said. “When there’s separation, there’s too much time to think. Too much time to let your hands do whatever.”
He has pulled a gun on suspects, but has never fired. “I was able to make a believer out of them,” he said.
Hutchinson said he lost control of Stretesky when both men stumbled backward. Hutchinson saw no handgun on Stretesky, but now assumes it was tucked in the back waistband of his blue jeans.
There is no video of the encounter. The borrowed body camera he was wearing turned out to have a dead battery.
DeCoste said Stretesky’s shotgun and 9 mm Glock handgun were stolen from a neighboring house. The shotgun was thought to have been missing since the Thanksgiving holiday. The pistol was taken from a bedroom nightstand shortly before the assault on Hutchinson.
DeCoste later learned that Stretesky’s attorney, a public defender, called his client the morning of Dec. 3 to tell him a judge had issued the arrest warrant.
About 10 law enforcement officers are killed in ambushes each year in the United States, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. On average, one officer is killed in the line of duty every 60 hours.
Hutchinson said he can’t help but dissect his actions that day.
“Did I do this right? I must have done something right. ... My job wasn’t to give up that day, and I didn’t.”
Hutchinson sits in a custom-made chair with a Deuel County sheriff's patch, a gift from a grateful member of the community, at his home in Chappell.
'I'm in no hurry.'
A few days before the shooting, Hutchinson’s son called and read a Bible passage from Ephesians.
“It was about putting on God’s armor and carrying his shield,” Hutchinson said.
He has taken that as a sign that God has a plan for him.
“I just don’t know what it is yet,” he said. “Part of me wants to slow down and do something else. Another part of me says ‘Get your ass back in that car, you’ve still got a lot of sheep to herd out there.’ ”
He thinks of his grandchildren and spending time with them.
“We’ll just wait and see. I’m in no hurry,” he said.
Contact the writer: 402-444-1127, email@example.com