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One city cop's close encounter with death

Richie De Coatsworth was riding solo that morning. Driving south on 51st Street, he saw a blue sedan, and as it passed, he sensed something wrong. The driver and three passengers looked as if they should have been in school.


Richie De Coatsworth was riding solo that morning. Driving south on 51st Street, he saw a blue sedan, and as it passed, he sensed something wrong. The driver and three passengers looked as if they should have been in school.

The car might have been stolen, so he made a U-turn, but the car was already out of sight. "So I began to survey the area to see where they went."

De Coatsworth was 21, only six months out of the Police Academy. He had recently moved to a spartan Korman Suites apartment in the 16th District, where he worked. Running late this Monday, Sept. 24, 2007, he had downed a multivitamin, put on his uniform, and slipped the card of St. Michael, a gift from his Aunt Connie, into his chest pocket. Supposedly it protected cops.

Now, at 9 a.m., he was turning onto Farson Street, a treeless street of rowhouses. There he found the blue car, an old Buick LeSabre with the Pennsylvania license tag GRP1729, parked haphazardly.

He pulled up to block the Buick. Three boys tumbled out and sprinted away in a blur of fear and adrenaline.

De Coatsworth ran after them and yelled, "Stop!" They turned to face him. They were just kids, teenagers in school uniforms.

"You need to get back inside your car," he said.

Following his lead, they walked slowly toward the Buick and De Coatsworth, a lean 6-foot-1 with deep brown eyes and dark buzz-cut hair. He stayed in the road, walking backward, keeping an eye out in case they tried to throw drugs under a parked car or reach for a gun.

Alert, poised, anticipating, he took another step back. And another, reaching the car. Now, he told himself, pay attention. Where is that driver?

He turned his head, looked over his shoulder.

Meenhard Herlyn, a fit 65-year-old scientist with piercing blue eyes and thinning white hair, put his computer and office clothes in a backpack, checked the air in his tires, snapped on his helmet, and mounted his red Trek mountain bike.

He left his Wynnewood home and 10 minutes later crossed into Overbrook. As he enjoyed the peaceful ride past stone mansions with wide lawns, his mind wandered.

Herlyn leads a Wistar Institute team of molecular biologists who look for clues to understand, and possibly cure, melanoma. At 11 a.m., he was to meet a colleague from New York. He thought about the issues he wanted to discuss, his appointments later in the day.

Past the Cobbs Creek golf course, he began watching traffic. City drivers could be unpredictable. Heading east on Vine, he recognized residents walking to work, coming out of corner delis carrying cigarettes and coffee.

Suddenly, he saw someone running toward him and heard popping sounds.

"Why," Herlyn wondered, "would someone use firecrackers so early in the morning?"

M.J. Black had seen Antonio Coulter move into 45 N. Farson St. in the summer of 2007. Black, 50, a broad-shouldered Army veteran, lived across the street in the working-class neighborhood of Dominican and African American families. He noticed the stocky kid come and go in his 18-year-old Buick, but they never spoke.

"Nobody knew him," said Black, didn't know he'd spent time in a youth-offender program before graduating from high school or that at 20 he had already built a criminal record. "He basically was to himself."

That's not so unusual in a community where people fear both criminals and cops. Trusting is risky, and snitching can get you killed.

"Some people speak to you," Black said. "The kind that don't, you stay away from."

Having served some time in prison in his youth, Black understands the "us versus them" mentality, but believes the city was a more rational place 20 years ago. "Back then, we used to look at police as protectors." Even thugs had more respect for authority. "We would have run from the cops. We never would have shot them."

But he also thinks police are more aggressive and less respectful today, making both sides twitchier on the trigger.

"The cops are scared," Black said. "Trust me. They're scared."

The morning of Sept. 24, Coulter was driving his blue sedan around the neighborhood when he passed a friend. The boy, a student locked out of University City High School because he had arrived late, was walking with two classmates. Coulter offered them a ride and suggested they all go to his apartment to play video games. That was when they passed the police car. Coulter recognized the officer. De Coatsworth had stopped him once for loitering.

"There goes the boy," Coulter said, according to court testimony. He had a 12-gauge sawed-off shotgun in the car and knew if he was caught with it, he'd be back behind bars.

Coulter drove away. Parking on North Farson, across from his apartment, he saw the police car turn into the street.

"Here comes this [expletive] cop," Coulter said. He told the boys to get out of the car. They bolted.

The week before, Coulter had told a friend he would never let himself be arrested again. He watched De Coatsworth backing up toward him, opened the driver's door, stepped out, and waited until the officer reached the Buick. Without a word, Coulter raised the shotgun over the car roof and pulled the trigger.

"I need to focus on the driver now," De Coatsworth thought. He turned his head. A bolt of lightning struck his left cheek as a fiery cluster of lead pellets ripped through his face, tearing off his lip and drilling into his flesh.

As if he were thrown into some hokey sci-fi movie, an explosion of white light obliterated the cars and houses; a pounding silence extinguished the sounds of shouts and feet hitting pavement and his heart slamming like a speed bag in his chest.

He doesn't remember racing for cover behind a parked car, but that's where he found himself seconds after the shot.

He surveyed his body. His uniform was drenched in blood. When he touched his cheek, his hand came away wet.

"But I'm still functioning," he thought. "I'm OK. It's time to act." He pulled out his Glock and looked up to see the shooter running north, moving so fast he flew out of his flip-flops. De Coatsworth took off after him, calling for help on the radio strapped to his shoulder. "Priority!" he shouted, giving his car number. "I'm shot, 100 block of Farson Street. Black male, black hoodie."

Herlyn thought the shoeless runner charging toward him hesitated. "He was looking at me intently," Herlyn said. "I realized later he was probably thinking should he take my bike?"

Veering his mountain bike onto the sidewalk, Herlyn saw a police officer round the corner, running, stumbling, and firing his gun at "the bad guy."

"I'd better get out of the way," he thought, worried he'd be shot.

The officer was in front of him now, running, faltering, still shooting. "He was bleeding," Herlyn recalls. "Everyone on the street had suddenly disappeared. I thought, 'I have to help him.' " He jumped on his bike and overtook the officer.

"Where did he go?" De Coatsworth said.

"Let me go look," Herlyn told him. He rode half a block up the empty street before his better judgment caught up with him.

The blood loss worried De Coatsworth. "If I'm going to die," he thought, "it will be trying to catch him."

He felt weak, but told himself: "He's going to get away. He's going to get away. He's going to get away. Keep running. Keep running. Keep running."

One block. Two. On Arch Street, he drew close enough to aim for the man's back. He had to be careful. "I wanted to make sure no one was around. I know there were some witnesses, but where they were at the time, I don't know."

The shooter held the shotgun in his right hand. Three times, four, five, six, he looked back, extending his arm and aiming. Each time, De Coatsworth fired before the guy could get off a shot. "I'm not going to give him another chance," he thought.

With each shot, the stocky man flinched, and De Coatsworth expected him to fall. The officer fired a seventh round, thinking, "He's not going down." It didn't make sense.

The shooter turned onto Paxon and vanished.

Out of breath, his face burning, De Coatsworth stopped in the shadow of a leafy tree in front of 118 Paxon.

"I think it's a good idea if I sit down now," he thought, slumping onto the rowhouse's gray concrete step and pressing his cheek to stop the bleeding. A squad car appeared. Paul Haye, a laconic 33-year-old former Marine, got out.

De Coatsworth remembers Haye's shocked expression, his wide eyes.

"Now I know it's bad," he thought.

"You OK?" Haye asked.

"I'm fine. He went that way. Go! Go! Go!"

"You sure?"

"Yes. Go get him!"

Responding to a burglar alarm in a corner bar under the Market Street El at 8:55 that morning, Officer Paul Haye passed De Coatsworth, an eager, earnest rookie who'd joined the district three months before he did.

In his rearview mirror, Haye saw him make a U-turn and figured now he'd have backup. But when he got to the bar, De Coatsworth was nowhere to be seen.

Haye went into the bar, was told it was a false alarm, and got back into his car. Over the radio came muffled yelling, "Paxon!" He thought he heard gunshots, too, but with the El thundering above him, he couldn't be sure. As he approached Paxon and Arch, people pointed frantically, "There!"

He saw De Coatsworth on the step.

"The whole bottom of his face was all blood. His uniform was soaked," Haye recalled. He was concerned, but he'd witnessed far worse during two tours in Iraq. "You can't believe what human beings can do to each other. What one weapon can do."

Dazed, De Coatsworth mumbled, "Dark hoodie. Dark hoodie," pointing south.

"He's not incapacitated," Haye thought. "He's coherent." Should he help De Coatsworth or pursue the shooter?

He ran and to this day wonders if he made the right choice.

Haye reached the end of the block, but the narrow street was empty. Searching for the suspect by himself would waste time. He returned and found an officer dragging De Coatsworth into a patrol car.

Haye stepped into the street to clear traffic, then watched as they sped away.

Meenhard Herlyn rode his bike back to help the wounded officer.

"I can't stand anymore," the policeman said and slumped to the house's step.

Herlyn was used to seeing blood, having worked in a slaughterhouse while attending veterinary school in West Germany. But the officer's injuries shocked him nonetheless.

"His whole cheek came flopping down like rags," said Herlyn.

The first in a storm of patrol cars arrived, and he watched as a reassuring officer picked De Coatsworth up, helped him into the car. As they sped off, another officer approached Herlyn.

"Were you a witness?" he asked.

Police were pouring into the streets, searching bushes and homes for the shooter. Herlyn's bike was put in a van, and he was taken to Southwest Division headquarters at 3900 Lancaster Ave.

As they passed through the kaleidoscope of West Philadelphia neighborhoods, the officers spoke candidly about their work and families.

"They knew every inch of these streets," Herlyn recalled. Until that morning, he said, "all I had ever seen of police were their power and authority and guns." Now he was getting an inside view of their camaraderie and the job's challenges, "never knowing who is a good or bad guy."

At the bustling police station, Herlyn was introduced to detectives as "someone who wants to help." Repeatedly, officers said how much they appreciated his cooperation and how rarely people came forward.

Within an hour, Antonio Coulter was found hiding in an alley behind 119 Paxon St. When police brought Herlyn his bike, he was warned that as a witness, he might be in danger.

"If I were you," one officer said, "I wouldn't ride through this area anymore."

De Coatsworth, shaky now, juggled two ragged thoughts. First: how brave his colleague Haye had been to see his bloody face and still pursue the shooter without hesitation. And second: "I'd better start getting myself to the hospital."

Somehow, a door to the police car opened. He dived in and said, "Let's go."

A police cruiser's backseat is hard molded plastic. Careering through West Philadelphia, the car lurched, sending De Coatsworth sliding in the slick of his own blood. Dizzy with exertion, exhausted from pain, he wished he would pass out. He thought, "I'm going to die."

Then he'd bargain: "If I get to the hospital, I'll be all right."

"Go faster!" he remembers saying.

When the car stopped, De Coatsworth got out and ran. The emergency-room doors opened. Before him stretched an endless, blinding white hallway. In reality, it was only 12 paces to the doctors and nurses waiting beside a padded gurney. He threw himself onto it.

The last voice he heard said, "Everything's going to be fine."

At 9:11 a.m., De Coatsworth was rolled into Trauma Bay One at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. Blood was pooling in the back of his throat.

The trauma team, led by surgeon Patrick Reilly, cut off his uniform, revealing five tattooed angels spreading their wings across his left bicep. The clothes and a bloodied card of St. Michael were given to detectives.

Doctors helped De Coatsworth, disoriented and gagging, sit up so he could spit into a basin. His heart was racing, 125 beats a minute. No major arteries or vessels were damaged.

Reilly worried the injuries would swell, blocking the airway. The 48-year-old surgeon had seen it happen before, so De Coatsworth would need an immediate tracheotomy. Though groggy from pain medication, the officer was able to answer questions - his name, his allergy to amoxicillin - and give his consent for surgery.

Richard Gavin De Coatsworth came from Fairmount. His parents divorced when he was 10. Unlike his studious younger sister, he could never buckle down in school. "I was focused on hanging out and having fun with friends."

At 16, he moved in with his high school sweetheart, who was older and had her own apartment. A year later, he moved back in with his mother.

During senior year, Richie worked a few afternoons a week at an agency that steered young people in the right direction.

"I needed some steering myself," he said.

He tried college twice and worked a series of minimum-wage jobs, including a stint at his dad's cleaning company, delivering janitorial supplies.

Then a friend told him he could apply for the Police Academy online.

"I think every young kid at one point in their life dreams of being a cop," De Coatsworth said. "You watch TV shows and read comic books and hear about superheroes. I guess from a child's perspective, you're looking at a real-life superhero, and I think that's appealing."

Once he applied, "it happened almost like it was meant to be."

From the beginning, De Coatsworth knew what kind of officer he wanted to be.

"You can come to work and do the bare minimum and not make a difference. Or you can be a real cop and understand that you are what stands between the good people in this city and the bad people in this city. You don't have to wait for your radio to go off."

While the airway team put a tube into the officer's throat, the terse Reilly paged Lee Carrasco, a maxillofacial surgeon, to say he was sending him a police officer who'd been shot in the face.

"There are significant soft-tissue injuries," Reilly said. "The airway is controlled."

X-rays showed more than 50 white dots of bird shot strewed across the lower left quadrant of De Coatsworth's face. Most were concentrated above his lower jaw, along his tongue, and in his cheek.

Against the film's black background, the pellets lit up in a pattern eerily similar to maps marking the city's most violent neighborhoods. They clustered in the southwest and near north.

Since Reilly began working at HUP in 1993, he said, not a single day had gone by without a gunshot wound coming through the door. The only change is that more victims are arriving with multiple wounds.

"The lethality," he said, "you never get used to."

In the bizarre calculus of trauma care, De Coatsworth was fortunate. If the weapon had been a handgun instead of a shotgun or if the shotgun shell had struck him three inches to the right or if the bird shot had penetrated his spinal cord, De Coatsworth would be paralyzed or dead.

But Reilly has seen too much to buy into that equation, too much agony, sadness, and blood to believe in the relative blessings of violence.

"I tend to think I'm lucky that I've never been shot."

Lee Carrasco, whose callow face at 41 belies years of experience, knew it was going to be a long day. De Coatsworth looked "as if a Nightmare on Elm Street claw ripped across his face."

For more than six hours, Carrasco operated, removing countless fragments of lead pellets and trying to piece together salvageable scraps of cheek, lip, chin, gums.

"Richie is unique," he said. "A shotgun blast at close range to the face, people usually don't survive."

He showed a photograph of his patient's ravaged face, pointing out the exposed jawbone, missing teeth, and lacerated tongue, then explained the ballistics.

Hunters don't shoot birds with bullets, he said. "All you'd get is feathers and dust." Instead, they use bird shot, which fans out over time and space. Since De Coatsworth stood only four feet from the gun, he was hit with the full load.

Reconstructing the officer's mutilated face was like assembling a jigsaw puzzle and required all of Carrasco's considerable skill. When he was done, De Coatsworth looked substantially better, although any success was still precarious.

Calm and confident, Carrasco had wanted to be an oral surgeon since he was a teenager in Grosse Pointe, Mich., and had become one of the most meticulous in his field. He could not tell how much tissue would survive, and he didn't want to give the vulnerable young officer unrealistic expectations.

"The wound," he said, "has to declare itself."

A week later, De Coatsworth returned for a follow-up visit, holding a rag to his face. The wounds had all reopened. The skin had disintegrated and couldn't hold the stitches. He looked as bad as the day he was shot.

"There is so much uncertainty," Carrasco said. "Here was this beautifully handsome young man, and he looks like that. A lot of who he saw himself as was gone."

Over the next 18 months, Carrasco would operate five more times, and then refer De Coatsworth to a plastic surgeon for other repairs. By New Year's, the once angry red scars had faded to threadlike lines marking the bird shot's course. By springtime, the wounds looked like a wrinkled patch where a burn had healed. By his 23d birthday, the corner of his lower lip no longer turned down and puckered.

Capt. Christine Coulter, a 21-year veteran on the force (and no relation to Antonio), was vacationing in Florida when she got the call that one of her officers had been shot. She headed for the airport.

Unable to receive updates during the flight back to Philadelphia, she agonized.

"He's still in surgery," said the officer who picked her up at the airport. She waited with De Coatsworth's frightened parents for three hours before the young-looking surgeon came out to say their son was going to survive.

When De Coatsworth awoke, he tried in vain to talk. He was handed a paper and pen.

"Hi, Captain," he wrote. "Did we catch him?"

"Yeah, we caught him."

He gave the thumbs-up. "Did I shoot him?"

"No, you didn't."

"It was hard to see with the blood in my eyes," he wrote.

"You don't have to apologize for anything," she said.

Few of Lee Carrasco's patients have affected him the way De Coatsworth has.

"I root for him," Carrasco said. "I always got the sense that he wants to be a good role model. To do the right thing for his family and for himself. He felt bad that this guy gets the jump on him. He asks, 'How did I let myself get in this situation? I'm smarter than that.' "

Whenever De Coatsworth had to cancel an appointment, invariably it was because another Philadelphia police officer had been injured or murdered, or there was a funeral or a plaque dedication or a hearing for an alleged cop killer.

Seeing the photographs of De Coatsworth, dignified and composed beside Michelle Obama at the president's first address to a joint session of Congress, Carrasco felt proud. De Coatsworth was again a handsome man, and he was being honored for his courage.

But the young man often told Carrasco how ambivalent he felt, being treated like a celebrity. Keenly aware of his inexperience, he shrugs off his hero status like a Maine woods coat on a Mississippi afternoon.

Plenty of other police have been injured and gone back to work with none of this hoopla, De Coatsworth has said. "I work with officers who have been through much worse and demonstrated 10 times the courage."

Carrasco understands. "But a guy who gets shot in the leg," he said, "doesn't carry a badge on his face."

The heroism Carrasco admires is not that De Coatsworth ran after the guy who'd just shot him. "That was amazing, but it was more youth and adrenaline."

What impresses him is the grace De Coatsworth has demonstrated in the waiting room. A stranger will recognize him by his wound and blurt out, "Hey! You're that cop who got shot!"

Then the officer will politely introduce himself. "Hello, sir. I'm Officer Richie De Coatsworth," and shake the man's hand.

On Oct. 31, five weeks after he was shot, De Coatsworth was lying on his living-room couch when he got a call. Officer Chuck Cassidy, a veteran cop with a reputation for fairness and restraint, had been shot in the head during a robbery at a Dunkin' Donuts in West Oak Lane.

De Coatsworth got dressed and drove to the hospital. In the family waiting room, he saw a pale, elderly woman dabbing her eyes. The woman, Cassidy's mother, was surrounded by relatives. When she saw his bandaged face, she knew who he was and whispered to the person sitting next to her, who got up and offered him the chair.

"I'll never forget that," De Coatsworth said. The first thing she said was, "How are you doing?" They began to talk. As she told him stories about her son's childhood, she stopped frequently to ask De Coatsworth about his recovery and say how well he looked.

"In a way," De Coatsworth said, "she taught me how to be stronger."

Cassidy - father of three, husband for more than 30 years of his high school sweetheart, mentor to kids he arrested - died the next morning.

In May 2008, De Coatsworth joined the force in mourning Sgt. Stephen Liczbinski - husband, father of three, the youngest son of a large Port Richmond family. He was shot three days before his 40th birthday, responding to a bank robbery.

Four months later, De Coatsworth saluted the coffin of Officer Isabel Nazario, a single mother with a 15-year-old daughter, run down by a teenager in a stolen car.

On Sept. 23, 2008, one day before the first anniversary of his own shooting, De Coatsworth consoled the parents of Officer Patrick McDonald, a fearless 30-year-old highway patrol officer murdered while chasing a suspect after a traffic stop.

On Nov. 17, 2008, Sgt. Timothy Simpson, 46 and Liczbinski's former patrol partner, was killed en route to a robbery by an allegedly drunk driver. De Coatsworth attended that funeral, and three months later yet another.

On Feb. 13, Officer John Pawlowski died when he was called to intervene in a fight over a cab fare. The son and brother of Philadelphia police officers, Pawlowski was 25. His wife was five months pregnant with their first child.

It was the deadliest period in the Philadelphia police force's 224-year history.

In each case the criminals' objectives were so small and so petty, the violence so extreme, that the outcome defies reason. For the price of some doughnuts, a taxi fare, a joyride, six officers' lives ended in less than 16 months.

The aftershocks reverberate for years - and not only for coworkers, relatives, and friends. Memories haunt the doctors who try to save the officers' lives, and the witnesses who, in the midst of an ordinary day, stumble into a deadly encounter.

Periodically, an officer's mourning relative will approach De Coatsworth and gently suggest he get another job.

His mother has asked, "Don't you think it's time to look into something else?"

"I'd be lying if I didn't say 'This is enough' has crossed my mind. But all it is is a thought. . . . I'd love to be a veterinarian or a professional athlete, but that's not realistic. This is reality, and I am doing what I want to do. If you quit, the bad guys win."

Whatever doubts De Coatsworth may have had about God and the power of St. Michael are gone. He has grown accustomed to his scars, and tired of his story. "It's important that people understand. There are so many officers who display valor every day. That's not B.S. You know how Michael Jordan was naturally gifted? Well, there are cops who are naturally gifted.

"I think I can learn to be one of them one day."


Nine months after Officer Richie De Coatsworth was shot, he returned to work and soon joined the highway patrol.

In April, he was trying to disperse a crowd in Logan when a mentally ill man lunged for his gun. In a struggle, the pistol fired, and the man was injured and fled. A backup officer later fatally shot the man. The police department and District Attorney's Office cleared De Coatsworth of any wrongdoing.

In September, De Coatsworth shot a man in one of his legs after the man tried to run him down with his motorcycle at a traffic stop. The District Attorney's Office cleared the officer, and a police department ruling is pending. Until then, De Coatsworth is on desk duty.

Antonio Coulter pleaded guilty to attempted murder, aggravated assault, weapons charges, and related offenses. He is serving a sentence of 36 to 72 years at Fayette State Prison outside Pittsburgh. His case is under appeal. Coulter says that he is innocent and that his legal counsel was incompetent. - Melissa Dribben