Dueling Rifles: The Brent Smith Incident
A man ready to die wants to take some other people with him. He opens fire on his girlfriend — and the police — with a high-powered rifle.
When the bad guy has a rifle, it’s a good idea for you to have one too … the aftermath may be different from what you expect … and modern tools for containing fast-moving gunmen go beyond the gun.
Sunday afternoon, Nov. 9, 2008 in Mequon, Wis. A woman walks into Mequon Police headquarters to report a frightening incident.
It’s her live-in boyfriend, Ryan Carey, she explains. He has problems with drugs and alcohol and behavior control. The situation has been escalating, and she has become so scared of him she has dropped her kids off with her estranged husband. Today, she asked him to leave the house. He refused, and things became uglier. She went for the phone to call the police, and he physically attacked her. She shows the shift sergeant where she has been punched, bitten, and kicked.
And then, she says, he went into the bedroom. She saw him loading some kind of a long gun. She ran from the house and jumped into her car. As she drove away from her own home in terror, he emerged from the house, firing. He shot at her twice.
A quiet Sunday afternoon in Mequon — population about 24,000, with a police department of 3-dozen sworn officers and a dozen non-sworn employees — will be quiet no more.
Four 1-officer patrol cars are dispatched to the location. The responding officers are Jason Moertl, Corey Polishinski, Mandie Rudolph and Brent Smith. Smith, whose patrol has just taken him past the subdivision where the shooting occurred, is the closest of the four. When he hears a call signal coming out to him and three other squad cars simultaneously, the first thought in his mind is, “This can’t be good.”
Dispatch says over the radio, “A subject came into the lobby and reports she had been involved in an argument with another resident of the house who shot at her when she drove away.” Smith reaches over and unlocks the issue patrol rifle, a Colt AR-15 A3, and sets it on his squad bag in the front seat for faster access. Then, he reaches for the microphone.
Talking car to car, he and the other responding Mequon officers quickly plot their strategy. They will stage at the entrance to the subdivision, and plan their approach. Officer Moertl has a map book in his car. It seems to show the target address at the West end of the subdivision.
Moertl and Polishinski, it is quickly agreed, will approach from the south side of the subdivision, while Rudolph and Smith will come in from the north. All four squad cars roll out, with Rudolph’s ahead of Smith’s on the northern approach.
Rudolph and Smith in separate patrol cars are nearing the turn that will take them into the west side of the subdivision when they find out the danger is not exactly where the map appeared to show it. Brent Smith hears the blast of a high-powered weapon, and what sounds like something striking metal, and instantly knows he and his sister officer are under fire.
Everything starts to go into slow motion for Officer Smith. He pulls over quickly, slamming the gearshift into park before the patrol car has stopped moving, and grabs his AR-15, charging a round into the chamber as he bails from the vehicle. He sees a muzzle flash — though he does not hear the gunshot — and from the angle of the flash realizes he’s being fired at from behind a corner of a nearby house. He sprints toward what appears to be the closest cover — the other side of the same house.
The ambusher shoots at him again … and misses. Smith gains the cover of the other side of the house, and begins moving to the rear to outflank his deadly attacker.
He broadcasts over his radio that have been fired, and gives the location.
As Smith does so, gunman Ryan Carey turns his attention to another target, the female officer in the lead patrol car, who has also come to a stop after hearing the shot. She twists in the driver’s seat to reach for her own AR-15 in its rack when a powerful 7.62x54mm Russian bullet — roughly the equivalent of an American .30-06 — crashes through the rear doorpost and window of her driver’s door, passing through the passenger compartment. Had she still been in the upright driving position behind the steering wheel, it would have gone squarely through her brain. Instead, her movement in reaching for her patrol rifle has pulled her barely inches out of the bullet’s lethal path.
Mandie Rudolph pulls her car forward more, then exits the vehicle, rifle in hand and running toward the danger. Behind the house, sprinting himself, Brent Smith hears her report on the radio that gunfire has struck her police vehicle. And, he knows, Officers Moertl and Polishinski are racing toward the scene to assist.
It’s a big house, and a long way to run, and things are happening fast. What Smith, on the opposite side of the building, cannot know at this point is Ryan Carey has emptied his bolt-action Mosin-Nagant rifle. The would-be cop-killer has run inside the building, dumped the empty Mosin, and grabbed another gun, a WWII-era bolt-action Yugoslavian carbine. It is fully loaded. He emerges, hunting for new targets.
As he does so, Officer Brent Smith has cleared the corner at the rear of the building. Approaching that corner, he has been concerned the ambusher might be there waiting for him, and has visualized himself jamming the muzzle of his patrol rifle into the man’s sternum.
But instead, what he sees is down the side of the building, 50 feet away, is a man moving from the garage in front of the house, holding a long gun with a wooden stock. The man appears to move toward Smith, then suddenly pivots back toward the street, as if to shoot at a target there.
The man with the gun is turning it toward the position where Smith last observed Officer Mandie Rudolph, whom he knows this gunman has already shot at once. There is only one thing left that can be done to stop him.
Brent Smith raises his AR-15, looks through the large rear aperture and puts the post front sight center on the gunman’s torso, bringing the trigger straight back. It seems to take forever for the rifle to fire, and when it does, Ryan Carey jerks his shoulders as if in an exaggerated shrugging movement, and totters a couple of steps back. Smith, seeing his target still up and running and armed, fires a second shot, and a third. After some five steps, Carey collapses. Smith sees him fall out of sight between two cars in the driveway.
Smith moves cautiously forward, rifle still up, cognizant the man who has fallen may not be the only threat present. He hears Rudolph ask him over the radio if he’s okay. Smith responds he is, and the suspect is now down and out of sight in the driveway. He broadcasts a request for a rescue unit, advising they stage out of range until the danger scene has been cleared. Smith sees Officer Polishinski enter the yard, and together they approach the downed suspect. The gunman is lying still, supine, his rifle still in hand. Smith reaches down and pulls the weapon from the man’s limp grasp. By now, the other two officers are there, too.
The suspect is handcuffed and searched. The downed man is unresponsive, and two of the officers begin cardio-pulmonary resuscitation. One of those officers is Jason Moertl. The other is Mandie Rudolph, trying to save the man who moments before came within inches of blowing her brains out.
Smith knows his patrol rifle has become evidence. It’s already on safe. Now, he begins to unload it. He removes the magazine, and then realizes he has become so clumsy he can’t clear the chamber. He turns the Colt AR over to Officer Corey Polishinski, who extracts the chambered round, and retrieves it as evidence.
Sergeant Wolfgang Gieske has arrived and takes command of the scene, making sure his people are all right and giving his Automatic Electronic Defibrillator to Officers Rudolph and Moertl, who are still working feverishly to try to save the gunman’s life. Firefighter paramedics arrive simultaneously. One of them asks, “Where’s the victim?”
“Don’t call him that! Your patient is over there,” snaps the wise sergeant, who knows the difference.
Ryan Carey did not survive. He was hit by a single round, almost certainly the first one Smith fired. Stumbling back from the hit apparently moved him out of the path of Smith’s next two shots. The bullet had entered the right of the gunman’s rib cage, blasting the liver apart and lacerating the diaphragm before it lodged, mushroomed, in the opposite side of the chest wall. The Federal 55-gr. softnose had performed exactly as designed, and had shed only three grains of its mass.
Ozaukee County District Attorney Sandy Williams delivered a memorandum of closure on the case on November 21. Noting that Ryan Carey had tried to shoot three people, including two police officers, before Smith’s bullet put him down, the report stated, “Ryan Carey was shooting into an open area within the neighborhood and there were numerous residents present in their homes, as well as when he first began shooting there was even a child outside in the yard by the location of Ryan Carey. Had Officer Smith not fired his firearm stopping Ryan Carey, Ryan Carey would have continued shooting and continued to put numerous people at risk of death and/or grave bodily harm. Officer Smith needed to fire his firearm to terminate Ryan Carey’s actions for the protection of his fellow law enforcement officers who were at the scene, specifically, Officers Rudolph, Polishinski and Moertl. His actions are also justified in the protection of the other neighbors within their residences.”
The memorandum concluded, “An individual has the right and it is legally justified to use lethal force if it is to protect the life of others. These events of Nov. 9, 2008 rose to the level of Officer Brent Smith being justified in killing Ryan Carey. These findings by no means diminish the tragedy of Ryan Carey being deceased; his behavior and actions of November 9th was the catalyst for why Officer Brent Smith needed to take the action he did.”
The family of the deceased was at first concerned that excessive force might have been used on their loved one. At least one family member asked why police couldn’t have just wounded him. Mequon police officials gently explained the reality of the situation, and shared the investigative file with them. There were no further complaints from the family, and no lawsuit was ever filed.
The issue patrol rifle used in the shooting was, of course, taken in evidence. So was Officer Smith’s department issue Glock 22 pistol, along with all 46 rounds of Federal Hydra-Shok .40 ammunition on his person that were in the gun and his two spare magazines. This is routinely done to allow for a complete investigation which rules out any other guns at the scene having been fired. Mequon PD policy wisely provided the officer be furnished with a replacement gun as soon as his duty weapon was taken, and this of course was done. History shows without this step, disarming the officer after a line-of-duty shooting is perceived as an unnecessarily punitive act.
Brent Smith phoned his wife Mary at the first opportunity, to explain what had happened. When he got home, he was met with a big hug and comforting support. The next day, when they brought their 7- and 9-year-old kids to school, they sat down with the prinicipal to make sure the children weren’t harassed by schoolmates who might have heard of the shooting on the news. A trip to church and a conversation with their pastor proved reassuring, too.
The investigation continued. On Brent’s end, the detectives from the Bureau of Criminal Investigation were very professional, but it was still an identity crisis for a cop to be interrogated in the death of a citizen, however much Brent knew the protocol was necessary. It produced a nagging sense of “Do they think we did something wrong?”
On the other end, investigators discovered Carey had spoken of suicide by gun, and had once said he was likely to die in a shootout with police. They learned in the days before the incident, he had been “putting his affairs in order” and looking up old, long-lost friends. It was classic “departure ritual” indicative of intent to commit suicide, but no one in Carey’s circle who noticed it recognized the syndrome or did anything about it. Most of the investigators came to believe Ryan’s death was “suicide by cop.” Apparently wanting to have company in death, or hoping to go out in a blaze of glory, he had fired deliberately at Officer Rudolph, and come terribly close to killing her.
Brent found himself slacking off on activity at work, and becoming irritable at home. He finally sought counseling, and was soon back on track in both environments.
Studies show it is more likely than not that any of us will experience altered perceptions in an incident such as this. One of the most common is auditory exclusion: When he came under fire from a loud high-powered rifle, Brent saw the muzzle flashes but did not hear the gunshot reports after the first one. Tachypsychia, the sense of things going into slow motion, happens more often than not: Brent was consciously aware of that “slowdown” from the moment the first shot was fired, and though he was sprinting full-speed at points thereafter, he told American Handgunner he felt as if he was “moving through molasses.” As he fired, the shot sequence seemed to be happening in achingly slow motion; after the first discharge and his target’s body jerking in reaction, there was time for him to think, “Holy shit! You just killed this guy!” The next two shots seemed like slow fire to him, as well. Yet every other witness reported him firing a fast, uninterrupted volley of gunshots. The tachypsychia did not pass until the incident was over.
The patrol rifle was the right tool for the job, and it accomplished the necessary task. Brent was shooting with iron sights in imperfect light, just before sundown, yet he put the first shot exactly where he carefully aimed it from a distance of approximately 50 feet. Would a red-dot optic have allowed him to better track the moving target and hit him with the two follow-up shots? It’s a possibility, but we’ll never know for sure. As a direct result of this incident, Mequon Police patrol rifles were equipped with SureFire WeaponLight fore-end attachments, and with EOTech optical sights supplemented with backup iron sights.
Equipment analysis encompasses more than guns. The map the officers looked at left them with the wrong impression of where the house in question actually was, leading Rudolph and Smith to enter the danger zone sooner than expected, resulting in the near-lethal ambush. Mequon patrol cars at the time did not have air cards to allow officers to instantly download updated maps onto their onboard computers. Today, they do have that potentially life-saving capability.
Having to kill in the line of duty can take an emotional toll on even the most well-adjusted police officer. After Brent’s experience, he advises other cops to seek competent counseling sooner rather than later, as a proactive measure.
Brent Smith’s strongest take-away from the incident was his admiration for the courage, dedication, and professionalism of his peer officers, especially Mandie Rudolph. Her ears ringing from the murderous gunfire that had almost claimed her life, she had coolly broadcast her situation as she moved her squad car out of the line of fire, then grabbed her rifle and ran to the sound of the guns, and finally, tried to save the life of the man who had nearly killed her.
All four officers had courageously responded to deadly danger, and they had done their duty.
By Massad Ayoob