Haunted by 'cop dreams:' An officer's real-life nightmare

When the situation you've always feared and trained for happens, will you be ready?

Without any sense of danger, you and your partner in plainclothes walk right into the middle of a stickup. Three armed men instantly attack you, punching, kicking, trying to drive you to the floor while screaming they’re going to kill you. They’re split-seconds away from discovering you’re a cop.

Your gun is strapped into its holster under a pullover jacket. To save your life, you have to shoot not one, not two, but all three before they can use the weapons they already have in hand against you.

Can you do it?

One Night in Nashville
Detective Justin Fox discovered his answer to that question in the lobby of a high-end hotel in an elite suburb of Nashville when what he thought was an innocuous follow-up on a drug investigation suddenly spun into a heart-stopping test of mental and physical preparation.

In his dreams, Fox had been in life-threatening circumstances many times before. But those recurring nightmares had always followed a chilling pattern common among cops. “People would be shooting at me and I’d shoot back,” he says. “But my bullets would never ever hit them.”

With his life now really on the line, would that foreboding outcome come true?

During the week of his real-life trial by fire, Fox, then a 12-year veteran of the Nashville Metropolitan PD, was spending his days in a classroom to earn POST certification as a police instructor. Nights, he continued to work in casual dress on a caseload he carried as an officer assigned to the DEA on a district drug task force.

Mid-week, he and his partner were tailing a suspected cocaine dealer who, in his travels that evening, visited a Hyatt Place Hotel in the suburb of Brentwood. Fox and his task force partner, Mike Perez of the Tennessee Highway Patrol, decided to ask the desk clerk for a look at registration cards to see if they could figure out who the suspect might be meeting with.

“It was a very light activity,” Fox says. “We weren’t planning on doing any enforcement whatsoever.”

Drunks Acting Up
At 0217 hours, with the lobby seemingly deserted, they weren’t anticipating trouble either.

To their left as they stepped through the hotel’s sliding glass entry doors were a registration counter, a hallway leading to a side entrance of the building, and a small alcove seating area. The female clerk was sitting in one of the alcove chairs. Later, Fox would realize she “looked scared.” As the officers entered, three black males took off running from the alcove down the hallway, one of them shouting, “Go, go, go!”

For a moment, Fox and Perez dismissed them as “just drunks, acting up.”

But as the officers approached the clerk, the three males suddenly reappeared. Now one brandished a long screwdriver, the others flashed pistols. “Before we could react, they were right on us,” Fox says.

The three hit and kicked the officers, ordering them to “give us everything you’ve got” and threatening to kill them. One put a gun to Perez’s head and commanded, “Get down!”

“It took a second to register,” Fox recalls. “Then everything started to slow down. Time started to stand still in my head.

“I’ve always told myself, ‘If I’m ever in a threatening situation, I’m going to fight. I’m not going to be the kind of dude who gets killed with his own weapon.’ But right then I’m wondering, ‘How am I going to get my gun out without them seeing me? If they find my gun and badge, I’m dead!’ ”

Under a rain of blows, Perez went to the floor, but as he did so he managed to toss his credentials wallet under a chair without being detected.

“I wasn’t moving,” Fox says, “and this made one of the suspects mad. He punched me in the face with his pistol.”

Fox said, “Ok, ok, ok, I’m gonna get down and I’ll get my wallet.”

When he turned his back and bent as if to comply, he actually drew his .40-cal. Glock 23 — and spun around shooting. The suspects were standing apart from each other, but all within a four-foot radius of Fox.

“We train a lot in close combat,” he says. “I shot everything that night from the hip. If I’d brought the gun up, it would have taken longer. They would have seen it and they could have grabbed it.”

As Fox cut loose, one suspect was shot twice in the abdomen, the second in an arm and lower torso, the third in both arms and the abdomen. “There was lots of screaming, lots of blood. It surprised me, though, that they didn’t fall down,” Fox says.

Caught Unprepared
But they weren’t exactly thriving, either. They did manage to escape in a get-away van parked outside the hotel’s side entrance, and they led uniformed responders on a brief chase up nearby I-65 before finally stopping and submitting without resistance. But by then the inside of their van was soaked in blood. They were incoherent and fell down when they tried to stand. All were in a precarious condition on arrival at a university medical center.

Earlier that night, the suspects had robbed a group of business travelers in the parking lot of another hotel. Fox and Perez had not heard radio calls about that crime because they monitored a different channel in their undercover car.

The armed robbers, all in their early 20s, had just accosted the Hyatt clerk with the intention of forcing access to her cash drawer and stealing valuables from any guests they might encounter when the officers unwittingly walked in on them.

The confrontation that followed “seemed like it took 30 years,” Fox says. In reality, the action from the moment the officers entered the lobby to its bloody finish lasted just 47 seconds.

Suspects Serving Time
Thanks to expert medical care, the suspects survived, although one was left wearing a colostomy bag. After two years of legal maneuvering, they pleaded guilty to the attack on Fox and Perez and are now serving time in federal prison, with terms ranging up to 25 years. All had previous convictions, and one had been arrested 11 times.

Fox, who was honored by the Tennessee Narcotics Officers Assn. and Metro PD for his quick thinking and decisive action, says the principal lesson from his closest brush with disaster concerns complacency.

“We got in trouble because we let our guard down,” he says. “Normally we work in bad areas, but here we were in one of the nicest communities in the state. We never expected when we walked into a Hyatt hotel at two o’clock in the morning that something like this was going down.

“We weren’t alert to critical signs. Looking back, the desk clerk’s demeanor suggested something was wrong. Why didn’t I see that?

“Normally, we wear vests. But not anticipating any enforcement action, we left them in the car this time. We didn’t have extra magazines either.”

Those mistakes are in the past, Fox insists. So, gratefully, are the disturbing cop nightmares that used to haunt his sleep. He says with relief, “I don’t dream about my bullets not hitting anymore.”

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