On July 14, 2023, four Fargo (N.D.) Police Department officers were responding to a traffic crash when gunfire erupted nearby. The gunman, who was shooting rapid fire from a .223-caliber rifle, modified with a binary trigger, struck three Fargo officers before Officer Zach Robinson fatally wounded him.
The ambush lasted nearly two minutes, taking the life of 23-year-old Officer Jake Wallin and wounded Officers Andrew Dotas and Tyler Hawes, as well as a bystander.
After the shooting, police found numerous guns, 1,800 rounds of ammunition, a homemade grenade and explosives in the gunman’s vehicle. Investigators determined the gunman likely planned a larger attack due to the number of guns and explosives found.
Below is a statement from Fargo Police Chief Dave Zibolski, who commends Officer Robinson’s bravery during this tragic incident:
“Our entire department continues to mourn the loss of Officer Jake Wallin, while we pray for the recovery of officers Tyler Hawkes and Andrew Dotas. This was an unforeseen horrific act of pure evil. Yet, we recognize if not for the courageous efforts of Officer Zach Robinson, our community would have been further devastated. He saved many lives. We are extremely proud of Zach! His reaction was immediate, without hesitation and without regard for his own safety – true bravery. It was also effective in stopping the threat and allowing for expeditious medical attention to occur. It Is an honor to lead men and women of this caliber.”
Here is the story of the ambush from Officer Robinson’s point of view as told to Police1 columnist Dan Marcou.
Zach Robinson always knew he wanted a career in law enforcement. The career choice, he said, was “always in the back of my mind because my father was with Border Patrol.” This career path was reinforced when Zach enlisted in the Air National Guard and found that the law enforcement training, which he received as a part of a security forces squadron, appealed to him.
He went on to study criminal justice as a student at North Dakota State University. It was here that Zach attended a career day and spoke at length to representatives from the Fargo (N.D.) Police Department.
The die was cast when the Fargo PD later followed up this conversation by encouraging him to take an upcoming employment exam. Zach completed the hiring process and enthusiastically launched his police career with Fargo PD in early 2016.
He knew he had made the right career choice when working the night shift gave him a feeling of being part of a “great team.” The profession also allowed Zach to feel as if he was saving lives by taking impaired drivers off the road and protecting victims of domestic violence.
Then July 14, 2023, happened.
The day shift started with Zach’s partner, Jake Wallin, who was in field training, occupied with writing reports from the prior day.
When the two officers cleared, Zach stood as an FTO overwatch as Jake navigated through a unique traffic accident investigation. It proved “challenging” because the driver was Nepali and did not speak English.
“Jake contacted the language interpretation line so that he could complete his investigation,” Zach explained, saying, “Jake did a great job on this one.”
At 2:45 p.m., just as this quiet shift was winding down, fellow officers Andrew Dotas and Tyler Hawes were working a motor vehicle accident with minor injuries. Six witnesses needed to be interviewed so they requested assistance since the end of shift was looming.
Upon arriving, Jake assisted Dotas and Hawes with the interviews, while Zach inspected a damaged vehicle still sitting in the turn lane, splitting the four-lane road. The firefighters in the fire truck, who were protecting the scene, were about to leave. Zach called out “Dotas!” Zach planned on communicating to Dotas about his intent to re-position his squad to protect the scene.
At that moment, what sounded like automatic gunfire erupted.
Zach drew his Glock 45 9mm, moved to the cover, provided by the damaged car’s engine block, while radioing in, “Central, we got shots fired! Central, we got shots fired!”
By looking through the damaged car’s window glass, he spotted a man armed with what he thought was an AK-47. He leaned out and fired four times at the armed man.
After those initial shots, Zach radioed, “Central, we got a man with an AK-47. He’s shooting at us!”
As the suspect was approximately 75’ away initially, I asked Zach if he used his sights.
“I did use my sights during my second round of shots while I was kneeling behind the vehicle as cover. I was specifically focusing on them due to the long distance,” he said.
The gunman reacted to these shots by moving behind a nearby parked vehicle. During the ensuing gun battle, Zach fired 12 more rounds at the ambusher, who finally dropped to the ground. He later discovered that he not only hit the suspect during these exchanges, but he disabled the long gun.
The last man standing
With the suspect down, Zach recalled, “I got off the X.”
Zach maneuvered around the damaged vehicle and advanced toward the suspect. During this movement, Zach discovered the horrible truth. He was the last man standing, causing him to radio in, “Central, we got shots fired! Shots fired! Three officers down! Send everybody!”
Zach, with contained but heavy emotion, shared his thoughts as he saw Officer Wallin lying motionless on the ground: “I could see his wounds were fatal, but there was still a threat and I had to push past it.”
As Zach returned his focus to the shooter, he saw the killer was still moving. He shouted, “Put your hands up! Hands up! Hands up!”
The shooter did not comply.
Zach cautiously continued his approach, as he kept the parked vehicle between himself and the shooter. While covering the shooter with his Glock in his right hand, he keyed the mic with his left, reporting: “Fargo 534. Three officers down!”
During this transmission, Zach recalled seeing the suspect “brandishing a handgun.”
Zach reacquired a two-hand grip on his Glock Model 45, obtained a sight-picture and fired three more times. The action locked open and, while still on the move, Zach smoothly performed an out-of-battery reload and continued to fire. After firing several rounds, he paused to assess, while repeatedly ordering the suspect to “drop the gun!”
The shooter still did not comply.
Zach moved around the parked vehicle that the suspect was next to, flanking him. As Zach tactically cut the pie slowly, the suspect came into view and was still moving the handgun about as if there was more killing yet to be done.
Zach fired again, finally stopping the imminent deadly threat posed by this highly motivated killer.
Triaging the officers down
Officer Mike Clower arrived at this moment, asking: “Is he the only one?”
“The only one,” Zach replied.
Clower approached the downed suspect and kicked the suspect’s weapon out of reach, while Zach covered him. With that done, Zach holstered his weapon, rolled the suspect over and handcuffed him.
With the threat neutralized, Zach moved on to “triage the injured.”
However, he quickly realized that three brave firefighters had remained on scene throughout the shootout, even though their vehicle had been hit by the killer’s gunfire. The moment the shooting stopped, these firefighters sprang into lifesaving mode.
There were now plenty of officers on scene so Zach went over and held Officer Dotas’ hand as rescue workers cut his uniform away, desperately trying to locate and treat his wounds. Zach’s second to last official act at the scene was to assist with the stretchers bearing his fellow officers.
“I realized I should no longer be at this scene,” Zach recalled.
After he gave his initial “public safety statement,” he paired up with another officer, who transported him to the station.
By this time, all would agree, that the last man standing had done all that he could do.
He had done all that anyone could have done.
The “who” and “why” of this ambush
In a news conference shortly after the event, North Dakota Attorney General Drew Wrigley declared that Zach’s use of deadly force was “reasonable and necessary, it was justified and in all ways, it was lawful.”
“Even though I did what I knew I had to do, I found great relief when the attorney general announced that my use of deadly force was justified,” Zach said.
The investigation also revealed the shooter’s identity: Mohamad Barakat, a Syrian who came to this country in 2012. He was armed with a .223 rifle, equipped with a modified binary trigger. This trigger doubles the firing speed by enabling the weapon to fire once as the trigger is pressed and a second time as the trigger is released. Barakat loaded his car with 1,800 rounds of ammunition, a rifle and two handguns. He was also carrying a grenade and a quantity of deadly explosives in his vehicle.
Investigators discovered Barakat’s recent internet searches included “mass shooting events,” “kill fast,” “explosive ammunition,” and “area events.”
Barakat’s ominous final query the day before the shooting revealed a story, whose headline was “Thousands enjoy the first day of downtown Fargo street event.”
Katy Ettish, Deputy Chief Communication Officer for the City of Fargo, confirmed that on the day of the ambush both the Fargo Street Fair and Red River Valley Fair were in progress and would be attended by thousands.
It’s safe to say that countless lives were saved by Zach’s response.
Preparing for the unthinkable
When asked how he prepared for the incident, Zach said: “No one wants something like this to happen, but we have to prepare for it.”
Zach believes what helped him and, in turn, might help other officers whose challenges still lie ahead for them, including these nine tips:
1. Physical training: To keep in top physical condition, Zach weight trains every day before work and regularly runs.
2. Skills training: Zach’s department schedules training in physical skills, firearms, patrol rifles and tactical skills regularly, keeping their survival skills sharp and at the ready.
3. Scenario training: This type of training, done often by Fargo PD, allows practical re-enforcement through realistic application of his skills training and develops decision-making ability under stress.
4. Realistic when-then-self-training: Zach strongly endorsed what could be called technologically-enhanced-when-then-self-training. He regularly watches body-worn camera recordings of incidents from all over the country with a critical eye, thinking: “When this happens to me, this is what I would do the same, and this is what I would do differently.”
Zach encouraged other officers to watch his incident and critically decide how they would handle it if it happened to them.
5. Get your heart rate up before you shoot during training: The Fargo PD routinely gets the heart rate up on officers before they shoot by making them run in place. This proved to be a realistic exercise because Zach checked his Apple Watch after the incident and discovered his heart rate reached 169 bpm during the gunfight.
6. Distance shooting: He was grateful that his agency practices firing their duty weapons during training at distances up to and including 75 feet. The suspect was 75 feet away when the gunfight ensued.
7. During a critical incident, keep your brain engaged and consciously stay as relaxed as possible: “I never went into black (panic),” Zach said. He attributed this not only to having an innate ability to stay calm and deliberative during crises but also because he willfully calmed himself and thought his way through it.
This tactic was reminiscent of the words of Officer Justin Garner after his active shooter experience in Carthage, N.C., when he said, “I decided to stay calm, so I was calm.”
8. Have a positive attitude toward your survival training: Fargo PD officers get the most out of their training because Zach said they share a positive attitude toward their training.
The fruits of this training could be seen applied throughout this real-world application. For example, Zach:
- Moved to cover and properly used it. He instantly drew his weapon while communicating to Central and the suspect.
- Justifiably fired 31 shots from his duty weapon on the move after choosing to “get off the X.” He hit the suspect from distances as great as 75 feet, 21 times.
- During this gunfight, he broke up his tunnel vision to see three officers down.
- Radioed in accurate updates of the situation.
- While on the move, he expertly performed an out-of-battery reload, reassessed the situation and continued the fight.
- On the final approach, he “cut the pie.”
- Worked as a team with Clower to secure the weapon and handcuff the suspect.
- Transitioned to triage immediately after the scene was made safe.
These skills were all pre-practiced in a very “positive training environment” on his department with fellow officers who felt as strongly about the need to train as he did.
9. In the aftermath of a critical incident, lean on others for support: Zach was able to count on the support of his department, community, friends and family.
“My father, who is retired law enforcement, was very helpful, as well as the many friends and fellow officers who sent me texts and messages of support,” Zach said. “My wife, Ashley, has been very supportive with everything. It was very overwhelming for both of us.”
Recovery of the wounded
Zach went back to work of his own volition after a week. The department assigned him initially to administrative work. Shortly thereafter, he transitioned into a two-officer squad. Now he is on unrestricted patrol. For him, he felt it was better to be working than sitting at home.
Officers Hawes and Dotas, Zach said, are at home recovering.
Karlee Koswick, a college student who was one of the drivers in the accident being investigated, was wounded in the ambush.
“It was my first accident,” Koswick told KARE 11 from her hospital bed after the ambush.
She added that she was on the phone with her dad “when I heard gunfire. I turned and saw the officers down.”
She said that she dropped her cellphone and tried to move behind a tree but was shot and wounded by the killer “once in my right leg and once in my left hip.”
Although she is not yet fully recovered, like Zach, she thought it would be best for her to resume her life. She returned to school. “I am thankful to have survived,” she said, expressing “deep gratification” to the officers who saved her life.
The tragic death of Officer Jake Wallin
Wallin was a young recruit who was still in field training. He could hardly be called a “rookie,” because for he served in Iraq and Afghanistan as a sergeant in the Minnesota National Guard.
Jake once said he became a police officer because “I want a job with meaning and purpose behind it.”
The investigation revealed that as the ambush began, Jake instinctively drew his weapon, advanced on the heavily armed killer and was taking aim at the suspect when he was shot and killed in the line of duty.
Although his life and career were cut short, solace must be taken in the fact that Jake shall always be remembered as courageously advancing on that heavily armed killer to protect the lives of others.
Jake’s last act of devotion gifted his partner desperately needed seconds to assess what was happening, move to cover, engage and defeat this insidious evil in human form before he could kill anyone else.
For an accurate assessment of Zach’s post-ambush response, I asked N.D. Attorney General Drew Wrigley if there was anything he would like to add to this story.
He responded: “Officer Zack Robinson displayed the very highest degree of professionalism, instinct, skill and courage. Every human being can probably imagine how they would conduct themselves ‘when the chips are down,’ but do we really know? Officer Robinson knows and he exemplified courage under deadly fire. He was our last defense on that scene and he held the line. Along with Officer Robinson, Officers Dotas, Hawes and Wallin conducted themselves heroically and we honor each of them, always.”
The only thing I could possibly add is: “When things were at their worst, thank God Officer Zach Robinson was at his best!”
Zach recently joined the SWAT team as a bomb tech and is planning on going to advanced training for this soon. He is also looking forward to an upcoming promotional exam.
At home, he is blessed with his loving and supportive wife, Ashley, and their two sons, one of which was born just two months after the ambush.
The future for Zach Robinson looks bright – even after surviving such a dark day.