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Living to tell the tale

May 15, 2008

By Jenny Andreasson
Observer Staff
 
Today, American flags will sit at half-staff in honor of the police officers who have died protecting their communities. 
 
Winter Park Police will be mourning just one officer, Chief of Police John Osteen, who was in a fatal car crash while responding to a bank robbery alarm in 1930. While there have been no other line-of-duty deaths in the department's history, one officer came within inches of losing his life.
 
Eleven years ago, a fleeing suspect shot Officer Marty Barber in the head. The man walked up to Barber holding his stomach like he had been shot, but when Barber glanced behind him, the man pulled a gun from his waistband and ran toward him. 
 
As Barber spun around and started to draw his gun, the man shot him from five feet away. The bullet went in near his right ear and out his left cheek, severing an artery. 
 
That quick spin helped save his life. "If I had stayed where I was, he would have been aiming for the back of my head," Barber, 44, said.
 
Although he would end up losing four pints of blood, Barber never lost sight of his objective. After he was hit, he crouched down to make himself a small target, and when his night vision returned, he prepared to return fire but a patrol car pulled up near the running suspect.
 
Not wanting to take the chance of hitting another officer, Barber put his gun back in his holster and plugged the holes in his face with his fingers. He then walked out of the street and lay down so he wouldn't pass out.
 
The microphone he was wearing on his shoulder was blown out, but he wouldn't have been able to call for help anyway. "With my tongue being hit, the roof of my mouth blown out, and jaw shattered, you don't talk very well. Trust me, I tried," he said, with a laugh.
 
Fortunately for him, two officers a couple blocks away heard the shot and ran over to him.
 
Winter Park Sergeant John Bologna was the second officer to get there. Barber moved his hands away from his face to show Bologna the wound. 
 
"The first thing that went through my mind was 'How is he alive?'" Bologna said.
 
Barber never lost consciousness. He remembers the bumpy ambulance ride to the hospital. Because his artery had been hit, he was bleeding internally but the doctors didn't know where.
 
"When they first saw me nobody was saying anything," Barber said. "They told my wife, 'we don't know.'" He found out later that some of the doctors didn't think he was supposed to be alive. 
 
But he was more than alive, he was eager to get back to work. He spent 10 days in the hospital and another seven weeks recovering at home. After eight weeks, he convinced the chief to let him do administrative duty. After just 10 weeks, he was back on the streets.
 
He said he never though twice about coming back. "I enjoy doing this line of work and the thought was, 'Well, if God said it was my time it was my time. If not and I'm still able to do it, might as well,'" he said. 
 
Plus the odds of it happening again are slim, he said, although that doesn't stop him from occasionally thinking about it. "I don't let it scare me from doing what I'm supposed to do. I use it in a sense that I know this happened so I've got to be more prepared … is this a victim or is this a suspect acting hurt again?"
 
Bologna said Barber came back in full force with no hesitation. "He's just incredible … it's very obvious he loves what he does," he said.
 
His wife was also supportive of him going back. 
 
"He loves what he does and you don't want somebody doing something they don't enjoy," Lynn Barber said. "I don't worry each day anymore. We've already been through everything."
 
After three years of countless surgeries, her husband has only two noticeable scars, one on his lip and one on his left cheek. "He's just a walking miracle," she said. 
 
But, noticeable to Barber, the whole right side of his face is numb and he hears a constant ringing in his right eardrum, which was perforated by the bullet. He said those are things he doesn't notice much anymore.
 
Barber shares his experience with police academy students, but leaves out the moral. "All you've got to do is tell them the story. Once you tell it from beginning to end, they'll know what to do and what to watch for," he said.
 
He said he was able to stay calm after the shooting because he had the right mindset — "It's not so much will I get shot, but when." He said that mindset helps an officer stay focused on taking care of him or herself. 
 
"After being shot, don't give up. It's survive," he said.
 
The gunman, Gabriel Kenon, now 34, is serving two life sentences, one for first-degree attempted murder on Barber and the other for second-degree attempted murder on his brother, whom he shot first.
 
About a year ago, Kenon had to be resentenced because of a glitch in the statute he was sentenced under. The police department packed the courtroom to make sure Kenon would not receive a lesser sentence. He didn't. He'll be 70 before he gets a chance at parole.
 
Despite his memorable story, Barber said he's not famous around the department. 
 
Those close to him won't soon forget his bravery, Bologna said. "It was 11 years ago but it feels like yesterday when I drive past that scene. It's an honor to serve with him."
 
Winter Park Police has not had any other officers seriously injured in its history, said Sergeant Pam Marcum. Just one has died, Chief Osteen, whom the department's Honor Guard usually mourns at a special memorial in Washington, D.C. They have gone every year but one since 1999, but cannot go this year because of budget cuts, she said.
 
There are 18,274 officers who have died in the line of duty in the U.S., according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. About 180 died in 2007.
 
Marcum said Winter Park is lucky that they haven't had more deaths.
 
But Bologna said it's not all good fortune. "A lot of it comes down to training. We make sure officers are well prepared to handle situations."


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