There are moments, blessedly rare in this country, when the very best of mankind comes into sudden, violent conflict with its very worst. One such moment came the night of last June 3, as Los Angeles Police Department officers Kristina Ripatti and Joe Meyer patrolled Southwest Division, one of the city’s most violent areas. They were driving down a residential street not far from the police station when a man appeared as if from nowhere and ran in front of their car. The officers did not know it at the time, but that man, James McNeal, 52, was a career criminal who moments earlier had robbed a nearby gas station at gunpoint. He had nearly made it to the safety of his home when the officers came down the street.
Though unaware of the robbery, Ripatti and Meyer were experienced enough to know that something was surely amiss and that McNeal needed to be stopped and investigated. McNeal ran into the yard of his home and then onto the front porch with Ripatti and Meyer now chasing him on foot. Ripatti reached him first and grabbed him, but in the darkness neither she nor Meyer saw the .22 caliber pistol in McNeal’s hand. McNeal fired, hitting Ripatti twice before Meyer shot and killed him on the spot. Ripatti was wearing a Kevlar vest, but one bullet struck her in an unprotected area under her left arm and tore through her chest.
Meyer put out the broadcast on the radio, the one dreaded by cops everywhere: “Officer needs help . . . shots fired . . . officer down!” Four members of the LAPD’s SWAT team had just finished their shift and were leaving the nearby police station when they heard the call. Officers Ralph Ward, Gary Koba, Gil Pinel, and Keith Bertonneau, all of whom are trained as EMTs, were at Ripatti’s side in less than a minute, joining Meyer and Sergeant Robin Brown, a plainclothes vice officer who was the first to arrive. Together they worked to stop Ripatti’s bleeding during the seemingly interminable period it took for fire department paramedics to arrive.
Among the many other cops who also rushed to the scene was Ripatti’s husband, Tim Pearce, who was patrolling another part of South Los Angeles a few miles away. He knew the area where the shooting occurred, and he knew Kristina spent much of her time focusing on the street gangs in that neighborhood. He arrived to find his worst fears confirmed. Kneeling at her side, he held her hand and kissed her, fearing it would be for the last time.
By the time paramedics arrived Ripatti was very near death, with her blood pressure dropping quickly. The visible bleeding had been stanched but there was no way of knowing how much she may have been bleeding internally. A firefighter drove the ambulance to downtown L.A.’s California Hospital, allowing both paramedics and an additional firefighter to work on Ripatti on the way. Police cars and motorcycles raced ahead of the ambulance, saving valuable seconds by clearing traffic at every intersection along the route.
Once at the hospital, Ripatti was immediately surrounded by doctors, nurses, and technicians who worked feverishly to save her. As her husband looked on helplessly, her blood pressure continued to fall even as she was infused with one unit of blood after another. A fire captain occasionally stepped from the room to report on Ripatti’s condition, and these bulletins were passed from the cops lining the hallway to those now filling the parking lot outside and the street beyond. Things were not looking good. The pace of activity in Ripatti’s room was beyond frenetic, an ominous sign to those looking on.
Finally, after six units of blood and about 45 minutes of the most intense medical attention imaginable, the activity in Ripatti’s room began to calm. She was out of immediate danger though still in critical condition. But the doctors still had been unable to locate the bullet, and it wasn’t visible on X rays taken with a portable system in the emergency room. A CT scan would be required to find it and determine the next step in Ripatti’s treatment.
Flanked by an escort of uniformed cops and with her husband at her side, Ripatti was taken upstairs to the radiology department where the CT scan confirmed what had been feared: the bullet, smaller than the eraser at the end of a pencil, had severed her spine and was still lodged there. She would be paralyzed from the chest down.
But Kristina Ripatti’s story is one of triumph, not tragedy. Less than a week after the shooting she was sitting up in bed and greeting visitors, amazing those who had seen her hovering so near death only days before. Her voice was clear and strong, her handshake firm, her color restored. It is as much a testament to her own grit as it is to the skill of those who cared for her that she survived that first night. She has continued to receive the best of medical and therapeutic care, but it is that inexhaustible grit that has marked her recovery and made her an inspiration to so many.
Though this episode in Kristina’s life began with a chance encounter with the worst sort of man imaginable, she has attracted the very best of people to her side since then. Her story was brought to the attention of the producers of ABC’s Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, and in October Kristina, Tim, and their 20-month-old daughter Jordan came home to their brand new house in Redondo Beach. Less than a week earlier, the old home was smashed to kindling by the LAPD’s SWAT team, after which more than 1,500 volunteers worked around the clock to build a home more hospitable to Kristina’s needs. The finished product is spectacular, complete with an overhead track system that can carry Kristina anywhere in the house by using voice commands.
I was grateful to be among the thousands of people lining the street to watch as the new home was revealed to Kristina and her husband for the first time. The moment was entirely beyond my ability to describe it, so I encourage you to watch when the special two-hour episode airs this Sunday, December 10. You’ll be very glad you did.
– Jack Dunphy is an officer in the Los Angeles Police Department. “Jack Dunphy” is the author’s nom de cyber. The opinions expressed are his own and almost certainly do not reflect those of the LAPD management.