Killer At A Distance: The Scott Bramhall Incident

By Massad Ayoob

Situation: In a bullet-pocked chase, the gunman has killed one victim and tried to murder many more. Now, 80 or more yards away, you’re the only one positioned to stop him … and all you have is your carry pistol.

Lesson: Shooting skill is based on solid marksmanship fundamentals. It’s critical to be aware of shooting backdrop and to fight tunnel vision. What you have immediately at hand is probably what you’ll finish the fight with, and when you’ve made shooting under pressure the norm, this will be on your side when it’s life or death.

In August of 2016, 35-year-old Nathan Terault was sentenced to 51 years and eight months in prison, the maximum under the jurisdiction’s sentencing guidelines, for a vicious shooting spree leaving a 71-year-old grandfather dead. It provided closure to the community of Puyallup, Washington which had been horrified by Terault’s meth-fueled shooting spree a year before in which he had attempted to murder several victims including multiple police officers.

On the day in question, the murderer — already a convicted felon, with multiple assaults and a drive-by shooting on his record — had strapped on a black shoulder rig and armed himself with a near-twin pair of GLOCK’s: a G32 in .357 SIG and a G23 in .40 S&W. At least one of the pistols was stolen.

The rampage had begun when the murder victim, Richard Johnson, caught Terault on his property rifling through Johnson’s pickup truck. He tried to run when Terault pulled the .357 on him, but was shot multiple times. Terault fled from the murder scene, carjacked an SUV and led police on a decidedly un-merry chase. During the course of the pursuit that followed, said the area newspaper The News Tribune, Terault “fired more shots at grade school children, teachers home for the summer, passersby and police.” Thirteen houses had been hit by bullets.

The closure of Terault’s adjudication also opened the door for American Handgunner to be the first publication to get the inside story from Puyallup Detective Scott Bramhall, the man who ended the terror when he shot the still-armed killer down.

Enter Scott Bramhall

Says Bramhall, “On August 11, 2015 I was on the phone at my desk getting ready to drive to interview a suspect in an out-of-area jail. I had 33 years on, my application for my new retirement job was in and I was waiting to hear about my job application. I was intending to submit my two weeks’ notice and two weeks of vacation together and retire. I was thinking this suspect interview in an out-of-area jail could be the last case of my career. A radio call of an active shooter went out over the air. Dispatch relayed reports from multiple 911 calls of a ‘white male walking down the street actively shooting on 13th St. SW and 6th Ave. The suspect is a white male dressed in blue flannel shirt and jeans shooting a handgun. Man down.’”

Bramhall continues, “I grabbed my portable radio. I was dressed in plain clothes as per my assignment in general investigations/fraud financial crimes. As soon as the call went out I heard Officer Kowalski radio he was in the area. Officer Kowalski radioed citizens were pointing south of his location, he heard gunshots and he was ‘out.’ I know Mike Kowalski very well, we were on the SWAT team together for 10 years, we have been hunting together, we are good friends and if I were asked to pick one employee of the Puyallup Police Dept. who I would want to go through a door with, Mike Kowalski would be my first choice of over 50 commissioned officers.

“He would be the last Puyallup PD officer an active shooter would want to have come after him. When Mike Kowalski said he was ‘out’ I knew he had grabbed his rifle and was on foot going after the active shooter. I got in my unmarked police car thinking this would be over before I got there; coming from the police station at 2:30 p.m. the short route to the location of the incident would take about five minutes with lights and siren in traffic in an unmarked vehicle.

I figured I’d be arriving and taking the statements of witnesses. Of course multiple officers answered up immediately, giving their locations as closer than mine.”

Reaching The Scene

Those who say ordinary citizens don’t need guns because they just have to call 911 and the Starship Enterprise will instantly beam down some cops, simply don’t understand the laws of time and space. Cops do, and on that sunny August afternoon Bramhall confronted it: traffic was maddeningly heavy, and the meth-head killer was driving — and shooting — wildly and unpredictably. As the pursuit changed directions, in the time it took officers to radio information in and other officers to respond accordingly, the criminal had time to change directions yet again.

At one point, as the chase turned toward Bramhall’s location, he realized he might be in position to meet the fugitive vehicle head-on. Bramhall’s unmarked unit was a Chevy Impala, a vehicle not as big as Impalas used to be, and as soon as he considered ramming the stolen SUV from the front, he discarded the thought. He didn’t think his smaller vehicle could stop the larger one. Moreover, if the driver was not disabled in a head-on and came out shooting, he and the officers behind the fleeing SUV would be in a crossfire with one another. Bramhall was prepared to reluctantly let him go past and then join in the pursuit — but then, a wild card turned up in the game.

Confrontation

Relates Bramhall, “I see the suspect coming north on Fairview, then I see the suspect vehicle stop. Later I learned he had collided with a citizen’s vehicle; however, I did not see this. I observe the suspect with his entire torso sticking out of the driver’s door window and I witness the suspect fire about five shots into the front of the marked police car behind the white SUV he is in. I hope for the best for the officer. The offender is wearing a blue flannel shirt and has a black handgun. Then as I watch, the offender gets out of the white SUV and trots north to a vehicle stopped in the roadway and fires about five shots at the citizen driver from the vehicle’s driver’s side rear wheel. I figure I just witnessed a homicide, if not two homicides.

“I can’t shoot because of all the citizens in cars stopped in the intersection in my line of fire. The offender trots obliquely from my right to left. I find myself as perimeter unmarked police unit where the suspect has broken out of primary containment putting me, a perimeter unit, in a primary contact position.”

Time To Shoot

It’s known to Detective Bramhall this man is a deadly threat. Bramhall, 57, has been shooting since he was a kid and winning trophies in shooting competitions since the early 1980’s. He shoots with such famed Pacific Northwest firearms experts as multiple gunfight winner John Solheim and master trainer Bill Burris, and Bramhall has spent many years as a firearms instructor and SWAT operator. He has trained at Thunder Ranch with Clint Smith, and through the Washington State Law Enforcement Firearms Instructors Association, has taken training with Jeff Cooper, me and many others.

Around his waist in plainclothes he wears a matched set of hip holster, single mag pouch, and dress gunbelt, all in horsehide by ace leather-smith Greg Kramer. Bramhall carries a privately owned, department-approved Colt Lightweight Government Model with aluminum frame and 5″ barrel, with Novak sights, a front post he has colored yellow and a forged stainless barrel bushing. The pistol has a factory standard trigger pull.

And now, he has stopped the Impala, flung open the driver’s door, and set his left foot on the pavement as he reflexively draws, goes into his familiar two-hand hold and braces his Colt on the windshield frame. Bramhall holds his fire until he sees he has a clear firing path: no one is between him and the armed offender, and the gunman is walking in front of a solid fence made of 2″ square steel posts. Amidst the heavy city traffic, he at last has a clear shot with a good backstop.

As he has done countless times before in preparing for such a moment, Bramhall presses the trigger rearward. The pistol discharges. There is no reaction downrange. Miss! He presses again.

The gunman drops like a bag of rocks.

And then, two things happen almost simultaneously. Bramhall sees a marked Puyallup Police Department Chevy Tahoe roll atop the downed gunman, pinning him to the ground, and another police vehicle pulls up between Bramhall and the suspect. Bramhall’s finger instantly comes off the trigger, and his muzzle moves into a safe direction.

Nathan Terault’s deadly rampage is over. It has lasted for eight terrifying minutes from first shot to last. The murderer’s illegally possessed GLOCK 23 will be recovered from him where he fell; the stolen GLOCK 32 will be recovered from the scene of the Johnson murder.

Detective Bramhall has only gotten one thing wrong. He has estimated the distance to be about 40 yards.

Investigation will show conclusively Detective Scott Bramhall has shot down the killer and ended the deadly fight from a distance of between 80 and 84 yards.

Perceptions

Dr. Alexis Artwohl and many other authorities have documented altered perceptions in people involved in fighting for their lives. Things like tunnel vision, auditory exclusion and tachypsychia — the sense of things happening in slow motion — can all occur. Detective Bramhall’s experiences in this regard are fascinating and instructive.

He recalls it happening in real time, not slow motion. However, he remembers thinking when he fired the first shot, which sounded to him like a “poof,” that he was mentally processing such: he consciously looked to see his hammer was back and his slide forward and that no, he didn’t have a squib.

“I heard the spent shell case ‘tink’ across my windshield so I knew my gun has at least completed the ejection cycle,” he wrote later. Scott told me, “I had expected to hear the second shot, but I heard another ‘poof’ and I remember thinking at the moment, ‘This is bizarre.’ I had thought things like auditory exclusion came from stress, but throughout the shooting I had no awareness of accelerated heartbeat or anything similar.” When our brain goes into survival mode, it seems to screen out things that distract us from survival imperatives; some in the medical world call it “cortical perception.”

It appears Scott Bramhall defeated tunnel vision as well, because he was consciously, deliberately looking at his shooting background and the periphery of the situation. He knew officers were chasing this man and could at any moment appear in his line of fire. He was watching for this, saw it in time and ceased fire in time.

Another reality in such matters is different people perceive things differently. Some witnesses, who had not heard Bramhall’s shots, thought Officer Micah Wilson had run down Terault with his patrol Tahoe. Wilson himself, also not hearing Bramhall’s gunfire, thought Terault had tripped and fallen, and he was simply driving his vehicle onto the man to hold the killer down.

And Bramhall? When he saw the killer fall at his second shot, he thought he must have hit the spine, because he didn’t expect even his Federal HST 230 grain +P ammo to drop a man with anything less than a central nervous system hit. It turned out the bullet had struck Terault in the thigh and shattered his femur, resulting in Terault’s immediate collapse.

Lessons

A quiet career isn’t quiet ’til it’s over. Scott Bramhall was counting the days to his retirement on the day he had to use his gun to stop an armed murderer. Prior to then, the closest he had come to shooting a man was using bean-bag rounds against a suspect when he worked on the SWAT team. (He wasn’t impressed with the effect of the bean bags, but that’s another story.) However, he had a full-size fighting pistol and more important, awareness and training in both tactics and defensive shooting, and still made a point of shooting weekly. All this allowed him to successfully perform what Jeff Cooper would likely have called “a feat of arms” ending a deadly threat to the community Bramhall had sworn an oath to protect.

What you have on your person is very likely all you’ll have to fight with. On that particular day, Bramhall’s personal Colt AR15 was not in his unmarked unit. It’s not likely in the fast-breaking circumstances, he would have had time to deploy it from a locked rack or rifle case anyway. He also did not have time to access the body armor in the trunk of the unmarked Impala.

If you are trained to recognize altered perceptions which may occur in such circumstances, they won’t alarm or distract you if and when they do take place. Note Bramhall was actually able to cognitively process and analyze the fact he was experiencing auditory exclusion in the course of the fight and this awareness did not get in the way of his getting the necessary job done.

Consciously scanning the danger zone can beat the tunnel vision effect. Bramhall was acutely aware of everything in the “shooting backdrop” from even before he un-holstered his Colt .45. This allowed him to take advantage when he briefly had a clear line of fire and a solid, safe backstop. It also allowed him to see two different police vehicles coming into his line of fire, in time to get his finger off the trigger of his weapon and divert his muzzle to a safe direction.

When life is on the line, it helps if shooting under pressure has become “the norm” for you instead of, “This is it!” Scott Bramhall joins a long line of Good Guys (Wyatt Earp, Jelly Bryce, Col. Charles Askins, Jr., Jim Cirillo, Bill Allard and many more) who in the course of trophy-winning competitive shooting conditioned themselves to later successfully running a gun when the stakes were much, much higher than trophies.

Know thy weapon (and its trajectory). A life-long shooter, Bramhall often used his handguns at extended ranges, out to 200 yards. He was known to get 4″ 5-shot groups at a hundred yards with carefully crafted handloads from his pet Colt Single Action Army revolvers. With that experience, it’s no surprise he was able to hit a moving gunman at 80 to 84 yards, using a service pistol with which he was intimately familiar.

It’s hits that count. Scott Bramhall retired from the Puyallup Police Department on schedule, a matter of weeks after the shooting. He, Wilson and two other officers earned medals for their performance that day. Today, in retirement, Bramhall describes himself as a “revolver guy” who is perfectly happy carrying a 6-shooter or even a 5-shooter launching big bullets to where they are aimed.

It ain’t over ’til it’s over! Detective Bramhall did not immediately get on his radio after the shooting. The reason was, the incident wasn’t over. He knew a “suspect down” broadcast might falsely lull other officers now arriving closer to the suspect into the belief the man was out, when in fact all that was known was for this moment, the suspect was down. It turned out Terault was indeed out of the fight after Bramhall’s .45 slug dropped him, but Bramhall was wise in maintaining radio silence at the moment of what the Supreme Court, in its Graham v. Connor decision called “tense, uncertain and rapidly evolving” circumstances.

SCOTUS, and indeed all our courts, take into account “the totality of the circumstances.” This incident is a classic example of how those rapidly evolving circumstances must be just as rapidly processed by the first responders in situations of deadly danger such as this one. American Handgunner wishes to thank Scott Bramhall for allowing us to be the first publication to share his detailed perceptions of the incident in which he became one of the life-saving heroes of the Puyallup Police Department.

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