Shot 5 times, a sergeant reflects on lessons learned

Sgt. Mark Chesnut was awarded Nashville Metro’s Distinguished Service Medal, its highest honor, for “demonstrating great personal bravery in an extremely dangerous situation"

The shooting that might have killed a drug-interdiction sergeant in Nashville (Tenn.) except for a tin of smokeless tobacco, had its origin 300 miles away in a medium security prison, where a desperate and violent convict spun a plot to escape. Complaining that his eyes hurt, Joseph Jackson Jr. — serving life for shooting a store clerk during a robbery — finagled a visit outside the walls of the Delta Correctional Facility to an optometrist in Greenwood, Mississippi.

Under prison rules, he shouldn’t have known in advance when the appointment was scheduled, but he found out. Then, using a contraband cell phone he shouldn’t have had, he called a cousin out of state, and persuaded him under threat of reprisal to stage an armed liberation.

With a car he’d rented idling outside, cousin Courtney Logan burst into the eye clinic at 0800 on a Thursday in June, 2009, waving a semiautomatic pistol. Jackson was in the waiting room with another prisoner and three guards, only one of whom was armed. Logan fired two shots into the ceiling and ordered everyone down on the floor. Jackson disarmed the guard and forced her to remove his handcuffs and shackles. Then they were off.

Red Flags Surface
Within 90 minutes, a BOLO with descriptions of the car and the fugitives was transmitted throughout Mississippi and to key agencies in neighboring states, including the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. The Bureau, in turn, was supposed to blanket Tennessee with the lookout, but through “human error” certain sectors of the state were omitted from the relay.

Among the agencies that never got the warning was the Metropolitan Nashville PD...

Sgt. Mark Chesnut, approaching his 45th birthday with more than two decades on Metro, was working highway interdiction in uniform but in an unmarked Dodge Charger that afternoon. At about 1315 in a busy rural stretch of I-40 outside Nashville’s southwestern limits, he spotted a black male without a seatbelt behind the wheel of an eastbound dark blue Dodge Magnum station wagon with Georgia plates.

Chesnut pulled him over and approached on the passenger side. When the driver, “a huge guy,” lowered the tinted window and Chesnut had a better view inside, he was surprised to see a second occupant, another large black male, in the backseat.

He told the driver to “grab your papers and meet me at the back of your car.” There, in the fashion of a skilled criminal patrol specialist, he began cordially chatting the subject up in an effort to develop sufficient suspicion of wrongdoing and ask for consent to search the vehicle.

It didn’t take long for him to surface red flags. The car’s renter was a third party (the driver’s mother, in this case), a common cue in drug transports. The driver, identified as Courtney Logan, couldn’t sensibly articulate where they’d been, where they were going, or why they were on the road. He said his passenger’s name was James Gibbs, but when Chesnut talked separately to the passenger, he readily identified himself as Joseph Jackson, although he could produce no ID. He also provided other responses inconsistent with answers Logan had given.

I’ve Got a Good One
While Chesnut talked to Jackson, he noticed a set of shackles and handcuffs on the rear floorboard. To his eventual regret, he misinterpreted their significance. “I thought these guys must be a couple of rogue bounty hunters as well as drug mules,” he told Police1. Absent the BOLO alert from Mississippi, “it never entered my mind that one of them was an escaped prisoner. That’s not something you run across on the interstate every day.”

About six minutes into the stop, Chesnut instructed Logan to wait by a guardrail. Back in his unit, he radioed K-9 Officer Bill Morgan, a fellow interdictor who was on a stop about half a mile down the road. “I’ve got a good one,” Chesnut said. Morgan said he’d cut his detainee loose and “get right to you” as backup.

With Logan’s driver’s license in hand, Chesnut was on his cellphone with the Blue Lightning Operations Center (BLOC) in Gulfport (Miss.), a national clearinghouse for criminal records and intelligence, when he noticed Jackson get out of the Magnum and start back toward his unit. “He had his hands up and motioned that he wanted to talk. I let him come back” — another soon-to-be-regretted decision.

At Chesnut’s passenger window, Jackson said the sergeant could telephone his father to verify his identity and offered a number, which Chesnut jotted down. Jackson then headed back toward the station wagon, having completed what in reality was a recon mission. Interrogation later would reveal that he wanted to confirm that Chesnut was alone.

“I was looking down at Logan’s driver’s license, starting to give that information to BLOC,” Chesnut says. “The next thing I see, the passenger is coming back to my car again. He’s about five feet from my bumper.

“I told BLOC, ‘Hold on, he’s coming back again.’ He said something when he got to my window, I’m not sure what. Then he raised up his t-shirt.”

“Die, you white motherfucker!” Jackson screamed. From his waistband, he yanked a .38-cal. revolver — the gun he’d stolen from the corrections officer — and started shooting.

With relentless determination, he pulled the trigger six times. Bullets tore through Chesnut’s right arm, through his left wrist and hand, and into his right side between his vest panels, angling down into his abdomen. Two drilled into the back of his armor as he scrambled to get below his steering wheel to escape the hellfire. The sixth time, the firing pin hit the primer but the round failed to detonate.

Jackson dropped the revolver into the police car and started toward Logan and their vehicle. Then he turned once again toward Chesnut’s Charger. “He started back, cocky, strutting like a gangbanger,” Chesnut recalls. “I thought he was going to shoot me more, to be sure I was dead.

“My hands were so cramped and numb I could hardly move them. I thought, ‘Don’t be paralyzed!’ I was able to get my right hand on the gear shift and my left hand on the wheel.” Just as Jackson reached his window, he gunned his unit backwards.

Caught on Video
Jackson and Logan ran to the Magnum. Chesnut’s dash-cam would later show Logan looking back toward the Charger and “smiling, almost laughing.” Then the two jumped in the car and sped away, nearly colliding with other vehicles as they disappeared in the interstate’s heavy traffic.

Life-Saving Heroics
“I felt like I’d been beaten with a baseball bat,” Chesnut remembers, but he was able to radio Bill Morgan: “I’ve been shot! I’ve been shot!” Morgan broadcast a general alarm.

When he pulled up to Chesnut’s unit moments later, the sergeant was slumped so low in the front seat that Morgan initially couldn’t see him and thought he might have been kidnapped. But Chesnut was fighting to stay alive.

“I looked down and saw blood squirting out of my side, eight to ten inches,” he says. “I’ll never forget it, just pumping out. I could barely breathe. I thought, Shit, this ain’t good!”

When Morgan opened the unit’s door, “I wanted him to give me mouth-to-mouth, put a big gulp of air in me,” Chesnut says. Repeatedly, he rasped, “I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe!” But Morgan, urging Chesnut to stay calm and slow down his breathing, was focused on trying to get the profusive bleeding stopped.

The second responder to reach the scene was Sgt. Robert Haught, an Iraq veteran with medic training. He recognized that the bullet into Chestnut’s side had produced a sucking chest wound, a life-threatening condition that causes lung collapse and requires immediate treatment.

In the absence of a first-aid kit, Haught, Morgan, and a third officer who’d arrived, Sammy Johnson, scrambled to find some air-tight material that could be pressed against the wound to seal it. Haught found an unlikely tool.

Inside the Charger was a container of Skoal smokeless tobacco, from which Chesnut liked to dip during the day. As part of the packaging inside they discovered a piece of plastic that in the crunch provided a makeshift seal that sufficed until a fire department paramedic arrived eight minutes after the shooting.

Eleven minutes later an ambulance transported Chesnut to Vanderbilt Hospital, a Level 1 trauma center in Nashville. By then, he says, blood was an inch deep on the Charger’s floorboard. Miraculously he was still alive.

“I didn’t know if I was going to die or not, but I absolutely wouldn’t close my eyes on that ambulance ride,” he says. A fellow sergeant, Gene Donegan, rode with him and Chesnut gave him additional details of what happened to supplement his descriptions of the suspects and their vehicle that Bill Morgan had already broadcast to units in the metro region.

“Donegan was instrumental in keeping me alive,” Chesnut says. “He kept me focused on fighting to live and on helping to catch the suspects.”

Before Chesnut reached the ER, Jackson and Logan were captured in a felony takedown about 10 miles from the shooting scene. The gun Logan had used in the Mississippi escape was resting on the console, with extra magazines in Logan’s pockets.

Multiple surgeries were required to repair the “terrible, terrible” internal damage Chesnut suffered that day. Bullets had fractured two ribs, his elbow, and his spine and had damaged his stomach, intestines, gallbladder, liver, and pancreas — “almost every major organ,” he says. He spent nine weeks in the hospital, including eight days on life-support in a medically induced coma, and underwent a long ordeal of rehabilitation. Shortly after our interview, he was scheduled to undergo yet another operation.

Lessons Learned
Of the shooting that nearly claimed and forever changed his life, he offers these observations on lessons learned:

1.) Expect the unexpected. Chesnut’s first mistake, he acknowledges, was misreading his sighting of the shackles and cuffs in the suspect vehicle. He locked into a relatively benign assumption (bounty hunters up to no good) rather than considering darker possibilities. “I was so focused on thinking they might have a load of dope,” he says. “I wasn’t even considering an escapee and guns.”

2.) Control your suspects. Any approach or contact should be on your terms, not theirs. “I wish I hadn’t let Jackson come back to my car,” Chesnut says. “Of course, you can order someone to do something but that doesn’t mean they’ll do it. At the very least, I wish I had backed up a significant distance when I first saw him coming. It might have bought me more time until my backup got there.”

3.) Maintain ready access to your sidearm. It’s hard to draw when you’re sitting behind a steering wheel. “I should have kept my pistol in my lap while I was seated,” Chesnut says. “I might have been able to shoot him before he shot me.”

4.) Learn the red flags that signal a hidden weapon. Suspects who are covertly armed often glance nervously at where their gun is carried or touch it for reassurance that it’s still there. Replaying videotape of the stop, Chesnut has seen evidence of Jackson doing both these things as he walked toward the police unit but he didn’t recognize them as cues at the time because he had not had training on detecting hidden weapons, which he believes should be mandatory for all officers. Nashville trainers now teach concealed carry indicators. 

5.) Keep first-aid close at hand. Because of Chesnut’s close call, the department now issues trauma kits to all its officers, with instruction on emergency buddy care and self-care. The first three kits were distributed in a special ceremony of appreciation to
Sgt. Haught and Ofcrs. Morgan and Johnson. “I owe them and Gene Donegan my life,” Chesnut says.

6.) Don’t panic. “If you are shot, stay calm,” Chesnut stresses. “Above all, don’t give up.”

Distinguished Service Medal
Chesnut was awarded Metro’s Distinguished Service Medal, its highest honor, for “demonstrating great personal bravery in an extremely dangerous situation." Today, he is medically retired from law enforcement. He busies himself with real estate investments and makes presentations to law enforcement and civic groups about his shooting. Despite lingering effects of his wounds, he says he is able to lead a “functional” life.

His assailant, Jackson, an alleged member of the Gangster Disciples, pled guilty just before trial to a charge of attempted first-degree murder. He was sentenced to 45 years in prison. He shot Chesnut, he said, because he “didn’t want to go back to jail.”

His accomplice, Logan, who had a previous robbery conviction on his record, attempted unsuccessfully to hang himself while in jail for Chesnut’s shooting. He was found guilty of attempted murder and of using a firearm in a felony. Sentenced to 31 years, he is appealing his conviction.

The clerk at TBI whose oversight kept Nashville officers from learning that the fugitives were at large, a warning Chesnut likely would otherwise have received, was punished with a work suspension. One day.

Our thanks to Nashville trainer Greg Lee for alerting us to Sgt. Chesnut’s shooting.

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