By Massad Ayoob
One brother officer is badly wounded and down, the other is reloading, and you’re out of ammo … and the bad guy isn’t.
There are reasons police went to guns with more — and better — ammo. Creative thinking and commitment can pull you through seemingly hopeless situations.
In the March/April 2016 issue of Handgunner magazine, the Ayoob Files section focused on Tim Gramins’ shooting in Skokie, Ill., in which 54 shots were fired in about as many seconds, 33 of them by the officer before he finally killed his heavily armed assailant. The suspect had soaked up 17 .45 slugs before giving up the ghost. In the May/June issue we printed a letter from Ken Howard. The letter began, “When I read this story, I was transported back to 1974 when I learned a hard lesson about having sufficient ammo on your person for the fight.” This got my attention and Editor Roy Huntington’s, since both of us remembered having to carry six-shot service revolvers on duty in roughly that same time period, 3,000 miles apart.
Soon I was sitting down in Virginia with Ken, who retired in 1997 after a distinguished career beginning with DC Metro Police and ending with him as a Captain of the Alexandria, Va. PD. It turned out the 1974 incident in question was the second of three shooting incidents he experienced in his career. This is the story of the one he was talking about in his letter. Ken feels it’s the one with the most learning points.
It was a cold, dark night in Alexandria on November 24, 1974. Then-Detective Howard was working the four to midnight tour in the Criminal Investigations Division Robbery Squad, the time when victims and witnesses were home from work and accessible for interviews. Wearing the then-mandatory coat and tie and carrying the APD-issue snub-nose .38 and six spare cartridges, Ken was driving a new unmarked Dodge to just such an interview at approximately 6 p.m. when he monitored a high-risk radio call.
We’ll let Ken set up the situation:
“A patrol unit (was) saying he had one man chasing another man with a gun a short distance from me. I headed in that direction when the dispatcher put out a call for an armed robbery at the state liquor store close to where the patrol officer had been a few moments ago. That officer, Jim Ammons, radioed he had the suspects still in the car, knew who one of them was, and asked for emergency back-up. Officer Morty Ford was assigned backup as I continued to the scene, cutting through a couple of parking lots to get there faster. At this point the radio became quiet (I was expecting to hear something from either Ammons or Ford), and as I drove into the parking lot across from the liquor store the suspect’s car was coming out, right at me.”
Things go into slow motion for Ken at this point. He is the third cop to arrive — uniformed officers Ammons and Ford have gotten there ahead of him — and he sees the driver of the Dodge sedan reach out his car window and fire a large revolver at Ford. He sees his brother officer clutch at his chest, stagger backward and fall, dropping his department-issue S&W Combat Masterpiece .38.
This driver has just shot a cop, and he’s about to lead the police on a running gun battle through Alexandria’s streets during rush hour — and Howard is not going to let him do it. He aims his new unmarked unit at the front of the getaway car, braces himself, stands on the accelerator and rams the Dodge head-on.
The crash brings both vehicles to a jarring halt. The driver appears to be the only one in the getaway car. Howard flings open his own door and, a southpaw, snatches his Colt Detective Special from the holster on his left hip. He has become a creature of his training. Taking cover at the juncture of the open door, he crouches to get the engine block between him and the gunman, brings his revolver to eye level and fires.
In the darkened parking lot, there isn’t enough light to see the sights; the cars are nose to nose, and his headlights can’t illuminate his target or silhouette his sight picture. He fires anyway, as fast as he can roll the double action trigger. Ken’s “fight or flight” response has put him in a world of his own. It seems that he and his opponent are all that exist. He does not consciously see anything but the gunman bobbing and weaving in the front seat of the getaway car as his bullets punch through the windshield. Ken is aware everything has gone silent and he cannot hear his own gunfire, though he does perceive his muzzle flashes. Yet he is also aware Officer Ammons is fighting from his left, and that to his right, a heroic citizen is carrying the severely wounded Officer Ford out of the line of fire.
Though it feels as if everything has gone into slow motion, things are actually happening fast. His antagonist has ducked down beneath the cover of the dashboard and is exiting through the right front passenger door. The little Colt is empty; Ken opens the cylinder and shifts the gun to his right hand, muzzle up, as his left palm slaps the long ejector rod and clears all six empties. Still crouching behind the “V” of his open car door and his engine block, he tilts the muzzle down with his right hand as his dominant left hand snakes into his coat pocket for his speedloader. The six round-nose 158-gr. bullets seem to glide effortlessly into the chambers, and Ken peels the empty neoprene Hunt Multi-loader away and lets it fall as he closes the cylinder. His left hand wraps again around the checkered walnut stocks and the grip adapter. Ken is back in the fight.
By now the gunman has emerged through the front passenger door. He is down prone on the asphalt, belly-crawling like an infantryman under fire, his long-barreled revolver pointing toward Howard’s left in the direction of Officer Ammons. Ken extends his snubbie and fires six more shots in rapid cadence. He is certain at least some of his bullets are striking home, but the gunman is still moving with gun in hand.
And at this moment, Ken Howard is out of ammunition.
Ken knows Officer Ammons is somewhere off to his left and the suspect can shoot him at any moment, but he is equally aware that if he charges the gunman head-on he is likely to be shot himself. Ken moves back around his unmarked unit and sprints around behind the two rammed-together cars, emerging on the gunman’s blind side. On the way he somehow gets his empty Colt back in its holster, though he will have no conscious recollection of having done so. He does remember his left hand closing around the only weapon he has left, a spring-loaded blackjack in his left hip pocket.
Ken lunges at the prone gunman, crashing the blackjack’s lead tip into the back of the man’s head, and he sees the big revolver leave the man’s hands. Dropping his knee on the gunman with full body weight behind it, Ken snatches his handcuffs from his belt and manacles the suspect. Only now is he aware that the gunman is soaked with blood. He shouts to Officer Ammons, and determines the other officer is okay. Ammons, now reloaded himself, stands guard on the suspect as Ken returns to his vehicle to radio for medical and backup.
Every player only gets his own piece of the puzzle. The first stage of the gun battle had already ended by the time Ken arrived at the scene. He only saw and engaged one of what turned out to be three suspects.
The gunman he had seen shoot Officer Ford had been the driver of the getaway vehicle. Before Ken arrived on the scene, an accomplice to the robbery had jumped from the left rear seat of the getaway car and fired his revolver at Officer Ford, the .22 slug passing harmlessly through the cop’s hair. This gunman had fled the scene on foot, pursued by yet another uniformed cop. During that foot pursuit, there was gunfire and a stray bullet wounded a passing citizen in the buttocks.
And the third suspect? Minutes later at the shooting scene in the parking lot, his back to the fugitives’ wrecked Dodge, Howard saw two other detectives draw their guns and rush toward the car behind him. They had spotted a 24-year-old male emerging from the front seat of the suspects’ vehicle. Unarmed by that point, this suspect surrendered. He had been under the dashboard, unseen, throughout the entire gunfight. Such is the price of tunnel vision.
The gunman Howard had shot was identified as Jesse James Brewer, 48, with a long record of violent crime. He had waited in the car throughout the robbery with a Ruger Blackhawk in .45 Colt, acting as both wheelman and as “outrider,” his mission being to kill any officer who interdicted their robbery. Brewer had been shot eight times. Four of those wounds, it was determined, had been inflicted by Detective Ken Howard. Brewer died the following day in the hospital.
The second armed suspect was Michael Leon Jones, 24. Though he was able to escape the pursuing officer in the darkness, Jones was arrested when he subsequently turned up at a hospital for treatment of a gunshot wound. A former bank robber, Jones would serve time for the liquor store robbery and shootout. After his subsequent release he would shoot — and almost kill — a DC police officer.
Assigned to ride in the ambulance with the mortally wounded Brewer, Ken borrowed six rounds from another officer to reload his empty Detective Special. Later that night, returning to the station, he was met by CID commander Captain Norman Grimm. The captain told Howard he had done what he had to do, and he was behind him a hundred per cent. It was a gesture of support Ken Howard would remember gratefully for the rest of his life.
Officer Morty Ford was rushed to the same intensive care unit as the man who had shot him. Surgeons repaired his serious chest wound, but he required transfusions. Tragically, some of the blood was contaminated. “Morty wound up with hepatitis-C from that,” Ken remembers sadly. “The specialists told Morty that there was about a 98 percent chance he would die of liver cancer as a result. And it’s exactly what happened.”
Officer Jim Ammons’ “piece of the puzzle” took shape sooner than Howard’s because he arrived at the scene earlier. Ammons told me in 2016:
“I had tunnel vision, for sure. I saw Jones jump out of the car, shoot at Morty and take off running. I fired three shots at him. When Brewer opened fire I thought he was shooting at me; Morty Ford was way over on my right and I couldn’t see him at all. I fired three shots at Brewer while he was still in the driver’s seat and I think the bullet that hit him in the face was one of mine. That was all six. I was reloading when Ken rammed the car, jumped out, and started shooting. I couldn’t believe how fast Ken was shooting and reloading. It seemed he got off 12 rounds at Brewer before I could blink!
“While I reloaded, I moved to the back of the patrol car so when I came back up I wouldn’t be where Brewer had last seen me. After all that shooting Brewer was still low-crawling with his gun out, trying to get at me. I was getting ready to shoot him in the head when I saw that big .45 go flying out of his hand…”
Lessons From The Fight
At the time of the shooting, Alexandria PD issued the 4″ S&W Model 15 for uniform wear, and new 2″ Model 10’s or 2″ Colt Detective Specials to plainclothes investigators. Senior men got the new guns. As a new detective, Ken got an older Colt. Regulation ammo carriers were double dump pouches for uniform, and a single 6-loop cartridge belt slide for plainclothes. Not long before the incident Ken had been carrying his personal 4″ S&W Model 19 Combat Magnum but — partly for comfort, with the S&W more than three-quarters of a pound heavier than the Detective Special, and partly because of regulations — he had gone back to the issue Colt he was wearing at the time of the incident. He had recently bought two of the Hunt speedloaders and had been carrying both in his left coat pocket. On this night, he had left one of them in his desk. Why? “Convenience,” he sighs bitterly.
All shots fired by the police that night were with department-issue .38 Special ammo: 158-gr. lead RN +P. This type of bullet was notorious for punching narrow wound channels. It was likely to exit a felon’s body with enough power to kill a bystander, but was infamous for poor “stopping power.” Brewer had taken eight hits in his face, chest, and upper and lower abdomen, and was still trying to shoot cops when Howard finished the fight by “jacking him out.” Two of the bullets fired by Ken had gone through and through Brewer sideways as he lay prone while attempting to shoot Officer Ammons.
Ken recalled what the after-effects were for his department in terms of gear:
“There was a hue and cry about ‘dum-dum bullets’ and what awful people we were for wanting hollow points, but shortly after this incident we got 158-grain lead semi-wadcutter +P hollow points, the FBI load. We also had a new chief from outside who had been told by some elements of the community that our use of shotguns intimidated them, so he took the shotguns out of the patrol cars. That’s why all we had that night was 6-shooters. There was a big kerfuffle after Morty got shot, when the union said he might not have been wounded if shotguns had been available. I told the chief the same thing to his face — if Morty and Jim had been armed with shotguns, the gunfight would have been over before I even got there. To his credit, the chief listened and gave us the shotguns back.”
Later, semiautomatic service pistols were phased in. Today, the retired captain reports, Alexandria Police are issued 14-shot Glock 23 duty pistols with .40 S&W JHP ammunition, and there are AR-15’s in most department vehicles.
Another learning point from the incident came in the form of bystander assistance. During the shootout, a man who worked at the Ye Olde Hunter firearms emporium in Alexandria ran into the line of fire to pull the wounded Morty Ford clear and apply first aid. Ken considered him forever after a “citizen hero.”
Howard’s Eventful Career
During his first two years in law enforcement on DC Metro, Ken Howard responded to a burglary with other officers. When they found the suspect and he pointed a sawed-off shotgun, Ken leveled his issue 4″ Colt .38 at the man’s chest and fired, along with other officers. They killed him before he could shoot.
In the ’80’s he was a uniformed patrol supervisor called to the scene of a possible hostage-taking in Alexandria. There he found an incoherent madman holding another man with an arm around his neck and a butcher knife in the victim’s mouth. Verbal negotiation failed, and when it was apparent the hostage taker was about to thrust the big knife up into the victim’s brain, Howard leveled the department-issue S&W Model 15 and quickly put two .38 Special “FBI Loads” into his neck and chest, causing him to fall down and away from the victim. When the downed suspect reached for a second weapon, Ken shot him in the knee and anchored him. The victim escaped with minor lacerations of the mouth. The suspect survived, though Ken felt the 158-gr. lead SWCHPs had done a much better job of “stopping” than the old RNs.
In all three of the incidents Ken was involved in, he never heard the gunfire and he experienced tunnel vision. In the shooting outside the liquor store, between the darkness and the slow-motion effect of tachypsychia, he felt like a man swimming underwater. Still he persevered and prevailed each time. In the liquor store shooting, when his gun ran dry he went to his blackjack and finished the fight like a soldier with an empty rifle going immediately to the bayonet. There’s a lesson there as well.
Concealed soft body armor — introduced by Richard Davis of Second Chance — was available at the time of this shooting but APD had not yet adopted it. It could have defeated the bullet that went into Morty Ford’s upper torso and ultimately shortened his life.
We are also reminded night shooting sucks. Night sights were still far away from being standard equipment. Ken had hit with every shot in his prior DC incident, where the cops had flashlights for illumination, and likewise scored 100 percent hits in good indoor lighting during his final shooting, the hostage rescue incident, in which he was two arm-lengths away from the knife-wielder. Today with night sights, weaponlights and frequent training in poor light, we’re all ahead of the game. During our meeting, Ken reminded me his 33 percent hit ratio in the liquor-store gunfight stands in stark contrast to the 95 percent-plus he averaged over the years on the range during qualification.
A huge lesson from this is the importance of sustaining fire. Ken believes that Morty Ford had emptied his gun, reloaded laboriously one cartridge at a time from his dump pouches, and had just closed the cylinder at the time he was shot down. If he’d had a gun that held more rounds … if he’d had a speedloader as Ken did … well, you do the math.
Retired from a career spanning three decades, Ken still carries a semiauto. And a spare magazine.
Note to readers: Years after this incident, when Alexandria PD switched to autoloaders, the department’s service revolvers were traded in and while officers were allowed to purchase the handguns they had used to protect the public, Ken’s was in evidence and was traded before he could buy it. Ever since, he’s yearned to recover the gun he used that night. If you should run across a 2nd generation Colt Detective Special with an unshrouded ejector rod and 2″ barrel (SN 689642), please let me know and we’ll see if we can reunite a retired public servant with the instrument he used to “protect and serve.”
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