The paralyzed man forces balky fingers to guide his electric wheelchair slowly across the room. He stops before a photo on the wall of a posed baseball player. The athlete in the picture is fit and vital, filled with the certainty of his prowess and the pride of being one of the elite, awesome in the eyes of thousands.
The man stares at the picture, which he has done a thousand times. He says, “That was me when I looked like that.” Then he wills his fingers to guide him away, and turns his back to the picture.
Ten years ago, Dan Walters was loving his life as a San Diego police officer, five years in. He was strong, vigorous and dedicated to his career, which, at age 37, was his second, following 13 years in professional baseball. He had been a catcher who labored long in the minor leagues and then gloried in two seasons with the Padres, in ’92 and ’ 93.
But then, Nov. 12, 2003 happened. It was late at night that life turned mean on the cold concrete of 43rd Street in southeastern San Diego.
Dan, talk about Nov. 12.
“The day I was shot. It’s hard to believe it’s been 10 years. I didn’t expect to be around this long.”
Do you relive that incident at all?
“Unfortunately, throughout the day. Every day. Some days a lot worse than others.”
How did it happen?
“I was working second watch, two to midnight. I was a with a rookie officer, Aaron Hildreth. It was about 10:30. I started to catch up on some paperwork, and we were covering (backing up other officers) on stops. We were driving on 43rd Street. About a block ahead, I saw a unit with its overhead lights on.
“I later learned officer Henry Ingram had noticed a car impeding traffic, so he got out and approached the driver. He didn’t know the guy had been chasing his wife and kids around town with a gun threatening to kill them. The man had caught up with them, and double parked, blocking them.”
(The man was later identified as Jaime Contreras, 26, of National City.)
“As soon as Ingram got near, the man produced a pistol (a .38 Special) and opened fire on him. As he started taking fire, Ingram turned and hit the ground and was crawling for cover, and lo and behold, here we come.”
Had you heard the shots?
“No. We heard nothing. As we rolled up, I saw this officer on his hands and knees, desperately crawling for cover with this frightened look on his face and with his gun drawn. I immediately thought, ‘Oh, s---!’ and jumped out of the car. Once out, I looked left, then looked back right, and here’s this gunman coming directly at me from about 12 to 15 feet with a gun pointed directly at my face. He didn’t shoot immediately. He kept advancing and stopped at about arm’s length.”
Did he say anything?
“No. And I immediately thought, ‘Oh, God! What are my options here?’ In that moment, I decided I wasn’t going to let him just stand there and shoot me in the face, so I lunged for the gun, missed, then grabbed him, attempting to get him to the ground and wait for help. He put the gun to the back of my neck and fired.
“I heard a bang, and I’m falling to the ground, looking up at this guy, thinking, ‘Oh, God! I can’t believe it: I’m dead.’ I felt nothing. I was looking straight up and I again thought: ‘I can’t believe I’m dead. Then, it all went black.’
“Just then my partner opened fire on (Contreras) and killed him. Put a full magazine into him. I was unconscious at the time, lying in 43rd Street and a car drove by and ran over me. I wasn’t aware of that until afterward when my face was all gouged out; my fingers were all gouged out, and they found me with my feet sticking out from under the car.
“When I came to, for all I knew, I was dead. I guess I’d been out a few minutes, and then I woke up and there’s chaos in the street: fire engines, red lights flashing, cops running all over the place and I woke up and it’s like, ‘Oh, s---! I can’t move.’ There’s a female officer leaning down holding my hand and I was, ‘Oh, no! I can’t move. Please let it be temporary.’ And I remember them putting me in the ambulance, and I thinking if I can survive this, do I want to live being paralyzed? I was breathing OK, but I couldn’t feel anything below my neck. I couldn’t move a muscle.”
Were you left with questions about the incident?
“Yes. It’s been hard to reconcile. I feel like I should have had my gun drawn. I didn’t. That’s one of the things I think about every day as well. I was a stickler for officer safety, and on this particular night I didn’t immediately draw my weapon.
“When you sense danger, you draw your weapon in what they call anticipation of an event. This night I waited for some sort of visual threat and once I looked left and then looked right, it was just too late. He was advancing on me with the gun drawn.”
Walters spent four months in rehabilitation, and then returned home to the thanks and good wishes of police and public. He gradually receded from view, mainly visited from time to time by police officers he knew, and cared for by his parents. He was never married and is childless.
The Padres, for whom he played, wheeled him out on the field a “couple of years” after the shooting, but nothing since.
He believes he’s been treated fairly by the police department. He lives in a pleasant College Area three-bedroom home supplied by the city, has round-the-clock attendants and a pension income that’s sufficient to live on.
Events have moved on, but time lingers at his side every day, creeping slowly around the clock face.
Few words are feared more than “quadriplegic.” It’s an ugly word. Even the sound of it is like a curse.
After graduating from Santee’s Santana High School, Walters embarked on a 13-year odyssey through the minor leagues as a catcher until finally arriving in “the show” with the major league San Diego Padres.
Walters was never a star, but he was there, and for the rest of his life he will have been a major leaguer. He remembers his first game in Chicago’s Wrigley Field — the sunshine and the glittering green grass. He got his first hit there, a single off Mike Morgan of the Cubs.
After a couple more years in the minors, his career ended in 1996 when the years of catching, the toughest job in baseball, gradually degenerated his spine and forced him out of the game. Spinal surgery was successful and he resurrected an old dream and turned to police work in 1998.
Sometimes, Walters seemed to sit in his chair and wait for the next death. He lost his father three months ago. A former patrol partner, Rico Borjas, joined the Army Reserve, was called up and then killed in Afghanistan.
And then there was Chris Wilson, an officer and a dear friend. Wilson was shot to death in 2010 in a Skyline gun battle. This was a man who had traveled to the Denver hospital where Walters was taken for treatment after the shooting, and stayed with him during those horrid first days.
“It was brutal. He was such a good man and played such a vital role in helping me survive. He was 17 years on the force; good family man, two wonderful kids … brutal.”
One of the evils of his type of paralysis is that movement is prevented but not pain. Walters spends much of the day in bed, forced there by pains that won’t quit, pains that shoot through his body and limbs like electric current. He has a pain pump that helps, but “helps” is a weak word that often means “not very much.”
“There is rigidity in the muscles (that’s) incredibly painful. Just a touch on the surface of my skin feels like pin pricks or severe sunburn,” Walters says.
“Oh, yes. I’ve been clinically depressed. I’m on a lot of different medications that have helped through the years with the depression, and helped with the spasticity in my muscles. (The medications) try to help these aching urinary-tract infections in my bladder. Those are chronic with me now.”
The paralysis, mercifully, left him with enough movement in his left arm and hand that he can stiffly perform some basic functions: change channels on the remote, manage his wheelchair, shake hands after a fashion, scratch his nose, and …
“That’s about it. It’s all in the left arm. See, if you look at my body, the left arm has a little bit more muscular development. The other arm is completely atrophied. I can just barely move this (left) one. If you look at this (right) wrist, it’s completely limp.”
How have the last 10 years changed you?
“I’m a lot more compassionate toward people, just in general. More compassionate toward the sick and the injured.”
Is religion a factor in your life?
“No. I don’t go to church.”
What were your best moments as a cop?
“Being able to help people who needed help; (for example,) getting women and children to a shelter.”
He recites several other experiences meaningful to him, all involving assisting people in need.
Has your condition in any way made you a stronger person?
“I hope so, with the help of good people. I certainly don’t regret being at the scene that night. Perhaps people were saved because I happened to be there.”
Do you get many visitors?
“A few of my close friends and an occasional cop will stop by, and that’s good enough for me, that they don’t forget me.”
Walters is not a demonstrative man. Shy is probably too strong a word, but reserved is not. He gave a moving testament at Wilson’s services and enjoys addressing recruits at the police academy, but has no desire to otherwise speak publicly.
“I have anxiety, even at home, but it heightens when I’m out in public. I just find I’m more comfortable at home.”
Do you ever sit here and think, how can I find some good out of what happened?
“In the beginning I did: ‘How am I going to get something positive out of all this?’ These days, I just concentrate on trying to stay healthy and as pain-free as possible, and spending as much time as I can with the people who care about me.”
The one who most cares about him is his mother, 69-year-old Roberta Walters of Oceanside. She is a cheerful soul who spends many hours at her son’s side.
When we read of someone whose life has reached depths so tragic that we shudder to imagine, we hopefully look for signs that the victim somehow has made his or her peace and has turned the horrible into something positive.
The positive we get from Dan Walters is the guts it takes to not complain and to face the grimness of his life honestly. “I hate to be negative, but there’s not much hope for me,” he says.
On these November evenings, Dan Walters will sit alone with his sleeping black cat, Fuzz, on his lap and watch the sun go down on another day, unable to escape the pain that courses the length of his body, and often with only the television for company.
Present in every breath he takes is the knowledge of the price he paid for serving us, for challenging a man with a pistol while unarmed, for stopping a man on a death march, who, quite likely, would have turned his gun on others, including his family.
Now a middle-aged man of 47, Walters knows that life moves on for people, but he doesn’t want to be forgotten.
That moment on 43rd Street fades with time. The pain it caused doesn’t.
His good friend Dr. Steve Albrecht welcomes receiving emails for Dan that he can pass on: [email protected]
Fred Dickey’s home page is freddickey.net. He believes every life is an adventure and welcomes your thoughts and ideas at [email protected]