In the hours after a deadly workplace shooting in this small town in the middle of the state, authorities wouldn’t say the name of the officer who saved lives.
Harvey County Sheriff T. Walton declined, and so did Hesston Police Sgt. Chris Carter, who rushed to the shooting scene and helped any victim he could and even put one injured person in his pickup bed to get him to a nearby ambulance.
Silence also from the woman working the front desk at the city police department, who took calls and cards from people just wanting to say thanks.
As Walton explained it, shootings by officers in Kansas were always investigated. That had to come first before they identified the officer who entered Excel Industries as gunfire rang out Thursday just after 5 p.m. All the sheriff would say is the officer’s actions kept the death toll at three and the injured at 14.
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“This man wasn’t going to stop shooting,” Walton said, referring to gunman Cedric Larry Ford, 38, who worked at the plant and had been served a protection order earlier in the day. “The only reason he stopped shooting is the officer stopped the shooter.”
For several hours Friday morning, as residents across the area heaped praise and used words like hero and courageous and brave, authorities kept secret the name many in the town of 4,000 had already pretty much figured out. But just before noon, Gov. Sam Brownback’s office confirmed suspicions in a statement applauding law enforcement for responding “so aggressively and rapidly to this situation.”
“The Hesston police chief, in particular, went in immediately,” Brownback said, referring to Doug Schroeder. “Rather than even waiting on backup, he went right in and did heroic duty and service.”
That’s exactly what locals like Mick Petrocci thought.
“We had a pretty good feeling last night it was Doug (Schroeder); we just didn’t know for sure,” said Petrocci, co-owner of Hesston True Value. “We heard it was a bald-headed officer, and there aren’t too many bald-headed officers in town.”
Petrocci said Hesston officers train well and instincts kicked in Thursday evening.
“Doug knew what he had to do,” Petrocci said. “The term heroic comes out, but you also think how dangerous it was and how brave it was.”
Brownback’s confirmation made the rounds around town in the early afternoon as people stopped for soda at Casey’s General Store or for a burger-and-fry lunch at Skoops, or drove by Excel Industries to see investigators combing for clues outside and reporters setting up live shots.
One local woman still didn’t know who went in alone and shot Ford but wanted to drop off a card at the police department to that man and others on the police force of six.
“What’s his favorite kind of pizza?” the woman, who wanted to remain anonymous, said to the woman working the front desk at the police department. When she wasn’t sure, the resident said, “How about I send some Meat Lover’s pizzas over from Pizza Hut. Will that do?”
Residents up and down streets like Ridge and Lincoln and Dutch felt that same kind of gratitude for the police department, especially Schroeder.
Some, though, aren’t so sure the police chief would want all that. An unassuming, quiet man who residents say grew up in a town 15 miles over, Schroeder doesn’t much like a lot of fanfare for himself.
“Doug would be really humble in this situation,” said Petrocci as he prepared to help another hardware customer on a busy Friday. “He’d say he was just doing what he should have been doing. He wouldn’t want the attention and think he wouldn’t deserve it. That’s how well I know him.”
Across the street and a few doors down from the hardware store, Troy Vogt and his dad, Lloyd, sat inside Emma Creeks Antiques, which they run together. The two talked about the shooting and the strength of the town, which Carter and the chief and other first responders exemplified.
“This is a town where everybody has each other’s back,” Troy Vogt said. “It has nothing to do with color or creed. We help each other.”
Talk turned to the tornado. Residents here in Hesston can tell you the day (March 13) and year (1990) when the F5 hit.
Nobody died in Hesston, but homes and businesses and livelihoods were ripped apart.
People came together and didn’t look back, residents said.
It’ll be the same thing with Thursday night’s shooting. Once the shock wears off.
“I know,” Troy Vogt said. “Everyone in a small town says, ‘It’s something you never expect here.’ But in this day and age, can you say that? No, you really can’t. It just takes one guy to lose it.”
And if that happens, Vogt added, it’s good to know there’s a police officer who wouldn’t hesitate to go in and stop the bloodshed.
“It’s so wonderful for the town to have somebody who would put their life on the line, not think about it, to save so many other lives.”