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Friday, July 08, 2016

Ex Philly Cop on surviving a shooting

Ex-Police  Commissioner and Mayor  Frank Rizzo

Ex-cop: I know the pain of Dallas - I was shot in 1970 amid racial turmoil

EDITOR'S NOTE: Thomas J. Gibbons Jr. is a retired Inquirer reporter, whose late father was Philadelphia police commissioner from 1952 to 1960. Here he writes about having survived a shooting 46 years ago when he was a Philadelphia policeman.

Thomas Gibbons Jr. in the hospital on Aug. 30, 1970.
A street-level ambush.
Occasionally I worried about that scenario, but I didn't dwell on it. As a 25-year-old Philadelphia Highway Patrol officer in the summer of 1970, I believed I was indestructible. And on the August night I was nearly shot to death, I learned I was wrong.

But a deliberate attack on uniformed police by a sniper from an elevated, planned position such as the one that occurred Thursday night during protests in Dallas, leaving five officers dead, would never have entered my mind.

So when I heard an early TV news report from Dallas on Friday morning, I was beyond stunned. After all, this is America. That kind of violence against police happens in third-world countries. Now, the playbook seems changed.

In my case, I was one of six officers shot in one of the bloodiest weekends for Philadelphia police.

At 8:25 p.m. on the hot Sunday evening of Aug. 30, 1970, Philadelphia's inner-city neighborhoods were already tense. Almost exactly 24 hours earlier, Fairmount Park Police Sgt. Frank Von Colln had been ambushed and shot dead at his desk in the guardhouse headquarters near Cobbs Creek Parkway in West Philadelphia. A short while later, Park Guard Officer James Harrington was shot in the face when he and his partner drove up to the same guardhouse to get fuel for their emergency patrol wagon.

A manhunt for the killers was ordered by then-Police Commissioner Frank L. Rizzo, who took charge at the scene. Officers from all over the city, including the Highway Patrol and Stakeout (now SWAT) raced into the area searching for the gunmen.

In our unmarked Ford sedan, my police partner, John Nolen, and I raced in from South Philadelphia. Searchers soon turned up grenades with trip wires near the guardhouse. Rizzo declared it a plot to kill police. Nolan and I gingerly searched behind the guardhouse down to Cobbs Creek.

By midnight, as suspects were being questioned, things began to calm and we were ordered to return to our headquarters in Bustleton. At 30th and Market Streets, we got a Sunday Bulletin, and the front page alarmed us. It carried a graphic picture of Von Colln dead on the guardhouse floor. Rizzo had permitted photographers to take the photo to show the radical, organized violence then fomenting against police.

On Sunday night, Nolen and I were teamed again. Because we had been practicing on our police motorcycles for the annual Thrill Show, then at John F. Kennedy Stadium, the drill team officers’ scheduled weekend off was cancelled because of simmering racial violence in the city and an upcoming convention at Temple University involving the Black Panthers.

Our tour of duty began with a car chase in West Philadelphia, started by district officers. Around 8, following a fast-food dinner, we resumed our patrol. Meanwhile, two men were driving through the neighborhood in a stolen Cadillac. The pair had burglarized a motel room in Washington, D.C., but were surprised by detectives summoned to the room by the manager. The detectives were bound and beaten. The pair took their police service revolvers, escaped, and headed to Philadelphia, their hometown. They had those guns in the Caddy.
Nolen and I were cruising Walnut Street when we spotted the shiny, new Eldorado. The trunk lock was punched out, odd for a new vehicle. The men turned onto southbound 59th Street. We pulled them over at Cedar Avenue.
Because I was driving, I walked up to the driver still behind the steering wheel. Nolen went to the passenger side. I asked for the driver's license and registration. Meanwhile, I scanned the car's interior. Suddenly, Nolan yelled to me over the car's roof.

“Look out, Tom, he's got a ..........."

Nolen never finished the sentence. I heard a gunshot and looked over the roof at Nolen staggering back, blood gushing from his face from a shot fired by the passenger through a folded newspaper. I was trying to absorb everything. My eyes turned to the driver. Now he had a revolver pointed at me. I began to draw my .38-caliber revolver, but as I brought it up from the holster, he shot me in the right elbow.

The bullet broke my right arm and severed the ulnar nerve. The impact threw me to the street. My spit-shined black motorcycle boots scraped hard on the macadam. Before I could get my weapon in my left hand, the driver leaned out the window and fired at me. Another slug grazed my right wrist. I needed to get cover and started to crawl across 59th Street to a parked truck.

Just as I got alongside the truck, another shot hit, entering my back near the spine, glancing off my pelvis and traveling upward, ripping through my liver, intestines, and stomach, before deflating my right lung and coming to a stop in the chest wall. I couldn’t breathe too well!

But I rolled under the truck and into the filthy gutter in my well-pressed motorcycle breeches and gray shirt.

I took stock. I couldn't believe what had just happened. I didn't know where the gunmen or Nolen were. But I still had my gun and pointed it with my left hand.
Suddenly I heard a volley of gunshots, then the sounds of what I suspected was the Caddy speeding away. I thought they had killed Nolen. What I didn't know was that both men began to exit the car from the passenger side. Nolan, who lived down the block from me and was almost the best shot in our police academy class, regained consciousness on the sidewalk and opened fire on the pair, forcing the driver back into the car and wounding the passenger in the heel, a wound that left a blood trail as he ran away.

As the driver sped off, Nolen crawled to our car and got on the radio, but had trouble with our location. He crawled to a street sign, then told dispatchers where we were. I heard the blessed sounds of the sirens coming. An officer scooped me up and threw me in the back of his car. Gasping for air, I told him what happened and gave a description of the Caddy and the driver. I also asked him to get me a Catholic priest.

Misericordia, a Catholic hospital now called Mercy Philadelphia Hospital, was just several blocks away at 54th and Cedar. We were there in moments. Attendants got me on a gurney and into the emergency room, stripped me and began tracing the paths of the bullets, seemingly playing tic-tac-toe with their pens on my torso. Nolan arrived via a police wagon and was put on a gurney next to me, stunning doctors when they discovered that the bullet that hit his cheek had exited out his ear, sparing life-threatening problems.

Meanwhile, police found the unoccupied Cadillac, abandoned not far from the shooting scene, a bullet hole in the windshield. Police traced the blood trail to a house a short distance away, where the passenger was captured. The driver was arrested six weeks later in West Oak Lane, still armed with the gun used to shoot me.

Rizzo brought Daily News columnist Tom Fox into the emergency room to see us, along with photographers. Fox took notes as we tried hard to brief the commissioner.

I would undergo multiple surgeries, battle a serious infection, come down with Hep B from blood transfusions and spend months in the hospital from the injuries. Nolan, because the trajectory of the bullet missed his brain and went out his ear, was discharged in a week.

Both assailants were convicted and sentenced to prison.

The weekend of Aug. 29, 1970, I was one of six officers shot in what turned out to be the bloodiest weekend for city police in recent memory.

Nolen and I both left the department on disability. He worked decades as an auto damage appraiser and then as a charter boat captain in Ocean City, N.J. He died in 2014.

I became a reporter for the Evening Bulletin and then for the Inquirer, retiring in 2005.

In my 32 years as a reporter in the city, I covered a number of stories about officers being killed, fatally shot or wounded in the line of duty. I stood outside countless hospitals waiting for the news conference that would tell me whether the victim was dead or alive. I forced myself to suppress any feelings during the briefing and then again when I wrote the piece.

I did the same thing when I went to the homes of police in the days after a horrible incident involving them. That was even tougher for me, because I was interacting with a direct relative, not the mayor or police commissioner.

But in retirement, it hits home at a higher level. I attend a service every month for officers who have died in the line of duty, some of whom I knew, have written about, or were friends of my dad's. Sometimes I'm called on to read their names. That's another mountain I climb. I try to get through it with tight lips.

In the next few days, I'll watch the televised Dallas funerals. I'll hear the bagpipes. And it will all become real for me again. The families of the slain officers, the wounded cops facing years of uncertainty.
I stand with them.

Published:  The Philadelphia Inquirer


  1. Antique SKS rifle used by Dallas Killer

    Initial reports from Dallas described multiple snipers with AR-15s #weaponsofwar. The ongoing propaganda theme among the tabloids is that the AR-15 has become the weapon of choice for terrorists and mass shooters. It turns out that the terrorist in Dallas question used an antique, the SKS, (according to CBS News) but the facts never keep the press from a good propaganda theme.

    The SKS was designed in the 40’s in Russia. It is such a basic rifle that it is legal in California with no modification. With its fixed ten round magazine, the SKS is everything that the gun haters in California say a rifle must be. It is not black, no pistol grip, no flash hider or folding stock. It even shoots a intermediate power cartridge, 7.63 X 39. It is used as a cheap hunting gun across the US. I am sure that at this moment, some law maker in California is writing new legislation to close the mad man with an antique rifle loophole.


  2. Originally they reported multiple snipers triangulating and now they seem to be saying just one shooter. I will wait to see what evolves regarding the gun used.

  3. The world is collapsing into chaos. Britain is leaderless, and no one has the faintest idea what’s going to happen next. The European Union might crumble. Islamic State is executing fresh terrorist attacks every week. Vladimir Putin is rattling his sword, and things are getting ugly in the South China Sea.

    Of course you’d never know these things from the U.S. election campaign, where the main issues have been whether one candidate would escape criminal indictment, and whether the other could be deposed at the upcoming convention because he’s clearly unfit for office.

    How I long for the days when the United States, if not liked, was at least respected for providing an anchor of stability in the world.

    No more. Now all that stands between us and the abyss is Hillary Clinton, perhaps the most flawed and least likeable presidential candidate of recent times, except for the other one.

    Watching Barack Obama endorse Hillary this week was painful. It reminded me of how good a politician he is and how awful she is. He is loose and jokey in front of a crowd; she is stiff and robotic, with a fake exaggerated enthusiasm that makes me want to cringe. He obviously can’t stand her. He barely looked at her the entire time.

    His words were warm but his body language was barely above freezing. “The fact is that Hillary is steady. And Hillary is true,” he said. All the while she sat beside him with that big phony smile plastered on her face.

    Hillary was having a bad day. The head of the FBI had just issued a damning statement on her mishandling of sensitive e-mails. He said that Ms. Clinton and her team were “extremely careless,” and that any “reasonable person” would have known better.

    The good news was that she escaped a criminal investigation. The bad news was that the negative campaign ads pretty much wrote themselves.

    Honest? Trustworthy? Not so much.

    Ms. Clinton has always stoutly maintained that the e-mail furor was a vast right-wing conspiracy to discredit her.

    But now, it’s clear she shaved the truth. “There were no security breaches,” she once insisted. But there were. None of the e-mails contained classified information, she maintained. But many of them did, and she must have known it.

    Even the Hillary-friendly media came down on her like a sack of cement. “The FBI director, James Comey, all but indicted her judgment and competence … in the kind of terms that would be politically devastating in a normal election year,” said The New York Times. The Washington Post’s fact-checker gave her four Pinocchios.


    1. So let us praise the Lord for Donald Trump. Ms. Clinton had a bad week, but his was worse. Someone on his campaign team tweeted an image of Hillary with a pile of money and a six-pointed star that said “Most Corrupt Candidate Ever!” This star either was or wasn’t meant to be a Star of David, but at any rate it was a colossal blunder, and it set off a predictable kerfuffle. (Personally, I’m pretty sure it was a blunder). Accusations of anti-Semitism filled the air.

      Mr. Trump could have changed the channel to the FBI. Instead, he doubled down. He claimed the star was copied from a U.S. sheriff’s star and not a Star of David. He invoked his Jewish in-laws, and accused the media of racial profiling. On Wednesday, he tweeted out a picture of a Disney Frozen book with a six-pointed star on the cover. “Where is the outrage for this Disney book?” he fumed. To cap it off, he praised Saddam Hussein for being the kind of man who knew how to handle terrorists.

      The trouble with Mr. Trump is that he’s unglued. A Trump speech is among the more bizarre of life’s experiences – a series of non sequiturs, laced with bitter complaints about the unfairness of the media.

      This week he spent more time attacking the media than he did attacking Hillary. The only thing that matters in Trumpworld is what other people think of him.

      If you’re dismayed by this deeply dispiriting display of democracy at its worst, take heart. Although Hillary Clinton is among the most disagreeable and morally compromised presidential candidates in modern times, she is well within the normal parameters of bad. Mr. Trump would be a disaster of world-historic scale – worse than Brexit, worse than Islamic State, worse than an asteroid crashing into Earth and creating a nuclear winter for a generation to come.

      Fortunately, his monumental narcissism practically guarantees that she will beat him. Failing that, I have stocked up on canned goods just in case.

    2. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/all-that-stands-between-us-and-the-abyss-is---help-us--hillary-clinton/article30821712/