Officer's winning mindset and calming self-talk saved his life after ambush shooting

From the Calibre Press Street Survival Newsline

He admits he had become somewhat complacent when it came to breaking and entering calls. The Lansing, Michigan, Police Department responds to dozens of such calls every week and most of them turn out to be nothing more serious than an estranged boyfriend returning to the apartment for his belongings. Many times, a parent gets a child to call in claiming the "intruder" has a gun so police will arrive faster.

The call that came in from a calm-sounding little girl about 10:30 p.m. on April 29, 2004, sounded like all the rest, and there was no mention of a gun. So, as Officer Robert Vargas walked from his patrol car to the apartment building, he wasn't expecting the worst.

He couldn't have known he was being watched by gunmen who were waiting for him inside.

As he had done on so many B&E calls before, he checked the door, the door facing and the windows for sign of forced entry. There was none. Then, he heard a woman screaming, as if she were screaming for her life.

Officer Vargas, a nine-year veteran of the department, pushed the door open and saw a woman laying face down in the floor, her hands bound behind her back, only partially clothed. A man wearing a mask, which revealed part of his face, stood in the kitchen and stared at the officer. Holding nothing in his hands, the man began walking slowly and quietly into the living room, appearing to make his way toward another door. Officer Vargas followed him for a couple of steps and stopped.

"Something just didn't feel right," he said. "He never said a word while I was talking to him, and kept walking away from me. So, I decided to leave and wait for backup."

When Officer Vargas turned to his left to make his way back to the front door, there was a gun pointed at his face from behind a half-wall on the staircase. The gunman wore a mask. Officer Vargas bent down to his left to get his face away from the gun, and the man lunged toward him and fired one shot to his left chest.

"I crawled as fast as I could to the front door that I left open. Then, I heard a second shot," he said.

The second bullet from the 9 mm gun grazed his right pinky finger before coming to rest in his left arm and shattering the ulna. Officer Vargas said he saw his forearm "explode."

Desperately trying to reach the door, thinking that if he kept his head down they couldn't kill him, he heard another shot and cringed in anticipation of the impact. The bullet struck him in the back "I remember saying out loud, 'I ain't f------ dying in here!' Then, I heard another shot," he said.

The last round struck him in the buttocks as he was clearing the door.

With his adrenaline soaring, Officer Vargas turned the corner outside the apartment and was able to run into a field. He positioned himself so he could see the front and back doors of the apartment. He radioed dispatch that he had been shot, he drew his weapon, and about 11 seconds later, his attackers came out the back door. One man ran away, and the other walked directly toward the officer carrying a stun gun.

Officer Vargas ordered him to drop the weapon, but he kept moving toward him.

"I was prepared to die, but I knew at that point that if I died, they would get away, and that was not an option," he said.

The officer fired one shot striking his attacker in the right shoulder, turning him slightly. Then, he fired another round that struck him in the left side of the head and he watched him fall to the ground.

"I fell to my knees, but I kept my gun drawn. I didn't believe he was down. I thought he was just faking it, waiting on me to come toward him," he said. The officer was about 38 feet from his attacker.

Officer Vargas didn't move. A light mist began to fall as he waited there in the dark, trying to keep himself calm.

"I remember talking to myself, out loud, telling myself to 'calm down. I've got to do this. I've got to stay alive.' I told myself that over and over. It was absolute terror. And I'm not too old to admit that instinctively, I wanted my mother," he said.

As he knelt bleeding in the dark field, the 11-year-old girl who had called 911, jumped from the second-story balcony. She ran to the officer, saw him bleeding and ran away. Neither of them said a word to each other.

When his backup arrived shortly thereafter, he was still convinced his attacker wasn't down, that he was laying in wait for him. It took five officers to convince him he was safe, that the man he had shot was dead.

"The whole thing was so surreal," he said.

In 2.18 minutes, his life changed forever

In late May, Officer Vargas contacted Newsline, prompted by an article in Newsline #750 about two officers in different parts of the country who had been shot and killed during the same week while conducting traffic stops that their departments and the local media labeled "routine." He said the story hit too close to home and he felt compelled to write, urging young officers to avoid complacency by staying "uncomfortable" and alert.

Since the shooting, Officer Vargas says he is a better police officer because he is more aware of the potential threats to his safety.

"I expect people to be violent now," he said. "I look at everyone as a potential threat and I don't give people time to plan. I don't give them time to figure out how to hurt me. For my own safety, I need to keep them off balance."

Officer Vargas said despite his years of police experience and extensive training, he never believed he would ever be shot. For years, he has worked the night shift in Lansing's District 17 and has been summoned to hundreds of calls in the same public housing complex. That night, he made the mistake of thinking that call would be like all the rest.

"Even when I saw that woman lying in the floor and the man staring at me from the kitchen, I still thought it was a domestic," he said. "I think every cop who has been on the job long enough develops pre-conceived notions about calls. We do it without thinking and that's dangerous. Fortunately for me, my instinct told me that something wasn't right and I needed to get out."

A second's hesitation on that feeling, which he says comes from experience, and Officer Vargas would have been killed from a gunshot wound to the head from less than four feet away. He would have left behind two daughters, his mother and a brother.

"I think the hardest thing for me to deal with has been the fact that someone would want to kill me, not for who I am, but because of what I do for a living," he said. "Before that night, that was something that was completely unfathomable to me."

Today, Officer Vargas, 36, still deals with painful physical reminders of the 2.18-minute call that changed his life. Left with only 80 percent of the feeling in his left hand, he remembers using tweezers to pick out of his left wrist more than 40 bone fragments that were pushed out when the bullet shattered his forearm. At times, he also still has some pain in his chest, and in his back where a bullet bruised his lung. His body armor stopped the bullet from entering his back. The round that entered his buttocks exited through his groin.

Officer's survival inspires Lansing police veterans and new recruits

Officer Vargas returned to duty 10 months after his harrowing ordeal, and today he works the same shift in the same district where in April 2004, criminals intended him to die. He realizes they would have been successful had he not had a winning mindset.

"Every night, I go back into the same complex, but I go in there with a vengeance - not to extract my own justice - but to show people that the cops are always going to come back," he said. "I want them to get the message that they aren't going to stop us."

Officer Vargas says Lansing public housing areas are becoming increasingly violent, crime-ridden neighborhoods where even pizza delivery is no longer an option. The local public housing authority has no security officers to help discourage crime, and city police on every shift are spending more and more time responding to calls there.

Officer Vargas, concerned for the safety of his fellow officers after his ordeal, is helping the department train new officers by sharing his story with Academy cadets. Sgt. Darin Southworth, a subject control trainer with Lansing PD and a longtime friend of Officer Vargas, says new recruits are working safer today as a result.

"His experience has dramatically changed the impact on our survival mindset. We all had a wake-up call at Rob's expense," Sgt. Southworth said.

Sgt. Southworth told Newsline he will never forget the night his friend was shot. He and some co-workers were attending a social function when their pagers and cell phones alerted them to the shooting. "We all felt extremely helpless," he said.

At the time, Sgt. Southworth was assigned to the unit charged with investigating the incident and was especially concerned for Officer Vargas' well-being in the aftermath of the shooting.

"Rob seemed to go into hiding, which was understandable, but at the same time troubling for me because I wanted so badly to help him," he said.

Officer Vargas admits he was angry for a long time. "For months, I looked at people with contempt. I kept the blinds closed in my house, and if you weren't a cop, I wouldn't talk to you," he said.

Officer Vargas said time and unwavering support from his family, the police department and its administration contributed to his recovery. Today, he believes he is a better police officer, and a better father and son for having been through it all.

His daughters, now ages 16 and 8, were shaken by how close they came to losing their father and didn't want him to go back to police work. Although divorced from their mother, Officer Vargas has joint custody of his daughters and spends time with them every day. He constantly looks for opportunities to be a part of their lives.

In the coming weeks, Officer Vargas will undergo testing to determine if he would be a suitable kidney donor for his mother who has diabetes and has recently suffered kidney failure. Without a transplant, doctors say she might lose her life within a year.

For Officer Vargas, who works daily to keep his winning mindset, the procedure is another opportunity to repay a mother's love.

"I took a lot of things for granted before this happened, but today, I have a new lease on life," he said.

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