CEDAR CITY — When Jason Thomas heard Thursday that two officers had been shot in Utah County, the reports sounded terrifyingly familiar.
A car on the side of the road. An officer stopping to help. Out of nowhere, gunfire.
Every day he reports to work, Thomas, a K-9 officer with the Cedar City Police Department, remembers the night he was shot.
"January 5, 2007, at 7:02 in the evening," he said. "You remember the time, you remember what you were doing, you remember the smell, you remember the environment."
Thomas was saved by the bulletproof vest he was wearing, part of the department's mandatory procedures for patrols.
Memories from Thomas' shooting are fresh and painful as law enforcers across the state mourn the death of Utah County Sheriff's Sgt. Cory Wride, who was shot twice while sitting in his patrol car Thursday after stopping to help a man he believed was a stranded motorist.
The gunman, 27-year-old Jose Angel Garcia-Juaregui, fled south in a 50-mile run from the law, shooting and wounding Utah County sheriff's deputy Greg Sherwood in Santaquin and eventually starting a gunfight with officers south of Nephi, where he was fatally wounded.
In a tragically similar scenario, Draper Police Sgt. Derek Johnson was killed in September when he came across a car parked in a Draper neighborhood and was shot multiple times.
Timothy Troy Walker, 35, who is also accused of shooting and wounding the woman who was with him before turning the gun on himself, faces charges of aggravated murder.
Traffic stops and motorist assists can be some of the most dangerous things an officer can do, but they're also one of their most common tasks, Thomas said.
"All the officers out there are doing the same things those officers were doing," he said. "It hits pretty close to us, so we really have the mentality of, 'It could be me.' In my case, it was me."
Like Wride and Johnson, Thomas had pulled over on that January night seven years ago to try to help a driver in trouble. A pickup truck, driven by Bryan Featherhat, now 37, was stuck in a snow bank on the wrong side of the road, and drivers in a second vehicle were trying to help push it out.
Thomas asked for identification from Featherhat and another man who was in the truck with him. But when Featherhat reached into the truck, he pulled out a shotgun and blasted the officer in the chest.
When the first shot rang out, Thomas' mind turned to years of training. He remembers the next moments clearly and methodically.
He couldn't return fire, surrounded by homes in the Cedar City neighborhood and with bystanders standing near the truck. Instead, he fell back toward his vehicle.
Featherhat shot again, this time hitting him in the side where the vest wasn't protecting him, and taking out the mirror and windshield on the police vehicle. Thomas dived behind a snow bank, where Featherhat shot again, peppering him and the house across the street before stealing a bystander's car at gunpoint and fleeing.
Featherhat was found and arrested the next day. In 2009, he was convicted of attempted aggravated murder. He is currently serving a sentence in the Utah State Prison.
The best chance of survival
Seven years later, Thomas continues to emphasize the importance of wearing a protective vest.
"I look at a vest almost like a seat belt. A seat belt isn't going to save you every single time, but it's the one thing we have that gives us the best chance of survival," he said, praising the Cedar City Police Department's vest policy and similar requirements at other departments. "
With every stop there is a risk that something unpredictable, unprovoked and dangerous could happen. It's a balance, Thomas said, between taking necessary precautions and respecting the public's trust.
"We can't walk up to every traffic stop with a SWAT vest, a helmet, your gun out, with a rifle. That's not what we want to portray," he said. "But with a traffic stop or a motorist assist, we don't know what their motives are. We need to keep ourselves safe."
Protective vest policies in Utah are set by individual departments, and there is no statewide mandate, according to Utah Department of Public Safety spokesman Dwayne Baird.
Going back to work
Thomas calls himself fortunate as he recalls his injuries: broken ribs, a bruised lung and a number of penetration wounds from shotgun pellets.
"Every one of us know, and my family and families of a lot of other officers out there unfortunately know, that there's a chance we might not come home that night," he said. "But we choose to come to work every day. We're here for our communities and to protect our communities. That's what we're invested in."
When he recovered, Thomas credited his relationship with his K-9 partner for getting him back on the job.
"I didn't think it was fair for me to quit and him to stay," said Thomas, who feels a similar bond with other K-9 officers. "We all have a love for what we do. It's a camaraderie between us. It puts us into kind of a unique group. We love to use these dogs to catch criminals, or to help find people who are lost. We have a common bond."
As a K-9 officer, Thomas met Wride in 2004 when he began training with his police dog in Utah County. They would reconnect at regular trainings for the dogs and their officers.
"He spent a lot of time in our class working with us. I remember him being a funny guy but serious in what he did," Thomas said. "He was a great dog handler."
When Thomas learned it was Wride who had been shot, his first thought was for Wride's family. It's the pain of survivor's guilt, he said, something he has struggled with for seven years.
"That's something I thought of during this incident. How did I survive a shotgun blast to the chest from 5 feet away, and this guy was successful with a handgun from somewhat of a distance away?" Thomas asked. "It came out again in this, too. Why did this have to happen to them? Why did I survive but others don't? It's a hard reality to grasp when we're all doing the same job."
He now trains other officers across the state about his experience and life on the other side. Like so many others, Thomas said he will continue working in law enforcement as a tribute to officers such as Wride, Johnson and others who have lost their lives on the job.
"We come to work the next day, whether it be the day shift, the swing shift or the graveyard shift. That's what we do," he said. "We overcome our fears. We overcome any hesitations we have, and we go to work doing the same thing we did before this happened. We rely on our training, good luck and good support systems."
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