The story so far: A fall day in 2009 shattered for Sarah Etheridge when she learns her husband, Brian, Sedgwick County Sheriff's deputy, is shot and killed while on duty. Sarah finds herself living the nightmare all spouses of law enforcement dread.
* * *
At least 2,000 people packed into St. Peter's Catholic Church in Schulte for her husband's funeral, but Sarah Etheridge barely noticed them.
"I was just numb," she recalled.
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Sedgwick County Sheriff's Deputy Brian Etheridge had been gunned down Sept. 28, 2009, in what authorities described as an ambush at a house on South Rock Road across from McConnell Air Force Base.
He was 26, had been on patrol duty for less than a year and left behind Sarah and Natalie, the 2-year-old daughter whom he adored.
Sarah always prided herself on being able to stay in control no matter what life threw at her, but her resolve cracked in the moments before the rosary and wake the night before the funeral.
"I didn't think I was going to make it through that," she said. "I was a mess."
But she was able to compose herself before entering the church for the rosary, and she vowed to stay strong. Brian would have wanted that.
As mourners left the church following the funeral Mass the next day, they passed schoolchildren and Patriot Guard members holding American flags that fluttered fiercely in an autumn breeze.
Dozens of people lined the streets as the funeral procession moved slowly from Schulte toward Resthaven Cemetery on the western edge of Wichita.
Firefighters stood with a large American flag at Kellogg and 119th Street West. K-9 unit dogs and their handlers lined up on the south lawn of Resthaven.
Rows of law enforcement officers from across the Midwest stood at attention, their badges gleaming in the October sun.
Seeing it all, Sarah found herself overwhelmed with an emotion she hadn't expected: pride.
"All of this — everything — is in honor of Brian," she thought.
Part of her wanted to believe it was all part of a terrible dream — until she was handed the American flag that draped her husband's coffin, and heard the jolting shots of a 21-gun salute.
"That," she said, "made it real."
* * *
It was all too real for one of the Wichita police officers there.
The overflowing church, the people lining the streets, the American flags and scores of law enforcement officers in dress uniform left Derek Purcell thinking, "This is what my funeral would have been like."
He was shot and gravely wounded by a man walking in a west Wichita neighborhood on July 11, 2008.
The man fit the description of a suspicious-character report in the neighborhood just east of Maple and Meridian. Purcell pulled over, walked to the back of his patrol car and said "Hey" to get the man's attention.
The man pulled a gun from his jeans, spun around and fired twice. The first shot struck Purcell in the left hip. The second hit him just below his pelvis on the right side, shredding his femoral artery.
The force of the blow doubled Purcell over for a split second. He rose and shot back at the fleeing shooter.
Purcell ran toward the backyard of a house facing Maple in pursuit before he realized he was losing strength in his right leg.
Sensing he may be seriously wounded, Purcell hobbled toward the street and radioed for help. One of the first officers to arrive on the scene was Brad Crouch, a former combat medic. Purcell was godfather to Crouch's son.
Seeing Purcell's right pants leg soaked in blood, Crouch immediately recognized the femoral artery had been hit. He used a belt and a shirt to fashion a tourniquet.
Officers then took turns applying as much pressure as they could — at times standing on Purcell's groin in an attempt to stop the bleeding.
Purcell remembered the plaque at the police academy paying tribute to officers who died in the line of duty.
"I don't want to be on that plaque! I don't want to be on that plaque! I don't want to be on that plaque!" he thought.
"'Just keep your eyes open.' ... That was my goal," he said. "That was all I really could do.
"I had no control over getting me to the hospital. I couldn't keep the blood in me. I had to rely on everyone else around me to keep me alive. The only thing I could do was to stay conscious."
The first officer on the scene rode with him to the hospital, peppering him for details about the man who shot him. A firefighter stood on the tourniquet inside the ambulance, still trying to slow the bleeding.
"My vision was so bad, I couldn't see much of anything," Purcell said. "I could see blurs — sounds were becoming distant. I could hear kind of what was being said if I focused on it.
"All my fingers and my hands were numb. My toes were numb. It was getting harder to move."
He kept fighting to stay awake even as the ambulance arrived at the hospital.
"One of the nurses said, 'We're going to put you to sleep for surgery.'
"I don't want to go to sleep for surgery," Purcell responded. "I want to stay awake.''
"Honey, it's going to hurt really bad. We have to put you to sleep.''
* * *
As elated as he was to survive, it didn't take Purcell long to realize that life as he had known it was over.
Before he was shot, his routine had been pretty simple: wake up, work out, drink a protein shake and head to work.
He worked out to build strength, he said. He had grown tired of being so small that he was the one suspects came after in a group of cops if they didn't want to surrender quietly.
But he had to learn to walk again, and when he returned to the gym he quickly discovered how much strength he had lost.
"It was like starting over at zero," he said. "I'd go running and fall down. I couldn't do anything like I used to."
Recovering in his parents' house, he would lie in bed late at night, desperately wanting to talk to someone. But who could possibly understand the helplessness, the anger, the frustration he felt?
"If it wasn't for a few people coming over and going, 'Hey, let's go to a baseball game,' I wouldn't have gotten out of the house,'' he said.
To Purcell, his rehabilitation moved at a glacial pace. But he was back on light desk duty in a couple of months and returned to patrol duty early the following year.
He was back — but he was different.
"Before I was shot, I was pretty selfish," he said. "It was about what I wanted to do. Just go out and have a good time.
"But now, I'd much rather stay home with family or friends. What matters is the relationships you have with people."
Those close to him say he also has become warmer and more open since nearly dying.
"When there are 100 people standing around you and you're buck naked and you can't cover up, you kind of open up pretty quick," he said with a laugh.
Purcell grew up in a strong Catholic family, and his faith has always been a cornerstone of his life. He even attended a seminary to see whether he was meant to be a priest.
When he realized that wasn't his calling, Purcell said, he wanted to find a profession in which he could help people. He migrated to law enforcement, a job he always had found fascinating.
As a child, he would walk from his house to the Patrol West substation just to be around the officers.
His desire to help others only grew after he was shot, he said. That's why he jumped in the car and headed for the hospital when he learned another law enforcement officer had been shot on that late September day.
And it's why he called Sarah a couple of weeks before Thanksgiving. Maybe, he thought, he could help her.
* * *
They had met earlier that year at On the Border.
Tuesdays were part of Brian's weekends, and get-togethers with friends in law enforcement were common.
Invited by an acquaintance of the Etheridges, Purcell arrived late.
When Sarah told him she was a nurse, Purcell asked where.
"Wesley," she said.
"Oh, good . . . so you haven't seen me naked," Purcell replied.
How rude, she thought.
"I thought he was just some cocky, stuck-up jerk that had slept with so many girls he couldn't even remember what they looked like."
But everyone else was laughing because they knew it was because of what happened the night he was shot.
On the drive home, Sarah told Brian how rude that one guy had been.
"Don't you know who that was?" he asked. "He's the officer who got shot."
They met a couple more times over the next few months in that group of friends.
On a Sunday morning in July, Brian brought home a copy of The Eagle after completing his shift.
"Purcell's in the paper," he told Sarah, then added, teasingly, "You probably will read it ... you think he's cute."
"Whatever," she answered, rolling her eyes.
Brian enjoyed doing things to Sarah just to get a reaction out of her — like taking gum he had been chewing and trying to put it in her hand.
When Purcell left a phone message for her a few weeks before Thanksgiving, Sarah recognized his name. She didn't call back.
So many people reached out after Brian was killed and said, "Call me." But she wasn't sure who was simply being nice and who really meant it.
And she wasn't sure how many people she wanted to talk to about how devastated she felt.
She stayed at the house she and Brian had shared in southwest Wichita only for a couple of nights after the shooting before she moved with Natalie to her parents' house in Derby.
"It was just too much," she said of staying in that house without Brian. "I couldn't take it."
How could Sarah tell her friends that on some days it was a victory just dragging herself out of bed to the couch?
"I felt like I was pretty depressing to talk to," she said. "It was hard for me to talk to people, except for a group of five good, close friends."
When Purcell didn't hear back from Sarah in a week, he called and left another message: "You really can call me. I know what it's like."
She remembered the comfort she felt when Julie Easter, whose husband, Kevin, also a sheriff's deputy shot to death in the line of duty, shared a few words with her the night of Brian's rosary. So she responded to Purcell — with a text message.
"I knew he'd been in such a similar situation" as her husband, Sarah said.
Except Purcell had survived.
She finally called him as Thanksgiving neared. As she talked, he didn't try to make her feel better. He simply listened.
She felt better afterward — a glimpse of warmth during the darkest days of her life.
She found solace, too, in spending time at Brian's grave.
"It was where I felt closest to him," she said.
There, she didn't have to try to be cheerful. She didn't have to explain her pain. She could just ... be.
She went there several times a week for a while, then whenever she would spend time with friends who lived in west Wichita.
Or when the grief seemed like it would swallow her, like on that December night not long before Christmas.
She sat on the ground next to Brian's grave, alone in the cemetery, alone in her pain.
She wanted to talk, but who could she call at this time of night?
Who wouldn't judge her for being at a cemetery after midnight, without a coat, in the middle of December?