By Massad Ayoob
Shot 15 times by a mass murderer, you survive to become a role model and helper for other shooting incident survivors.
There are no guarantees of routine, easy days. Efficiency trumps comfort. Carry backup, and wear body armor when you know you may be in harm’s way.
The city of Oak Creek, Wisconsin, sits on the southern edge of Milwaukee. Now with a population of some 34,000 residents and as many as 1.5 million passers-through daily due to its location on an Interstate, its police department still has the same complement of 58 sworn officers it had in 1990 when the population was 14,000 and Brian Murphy was sworn in as a cop there.
On August 5, 2012, a white supremacist entered the gurdwara — or Sikh temple — in the heart of the city, and shot 10 innocent people before a police bullet took him down. Only four of the victims survived. One was Lieutenant Brian Murphy. This is his story.
The Mass Murderer
Wade Michael Page, 40, seemed like an ordinary middle-class Joe until he went in the service, but alcoholism and related problems ended his military career and sent him on a downward spiral. He embraced a white supremacist group, the Hammerskins, and found the only real bonding of his life with them and related white power bands. When it was discovered he’d had a two-year affair with a Native American woman, the neo-Nazis made it clear he was no longer one of them. Some theorize this is what drove him to mass murder people of color.
Twice in the week before the cowardly slaughter, Page had visited the temple and been warmly welcomed, and given a tour of the building. Only later would it become apparent he was reconnoitering his chosen killing ground.
Late mid-morning on the Sunday in question, Page drove into the parking lot of the gurdwara and parked in a position giving him strategic command of the parking lot and main entrance. Exiting his vehicle, he walked toward the entrance. Two Sikhs who had just arrived to worship encountered him in the parking lot. One said, “Welcome, sir. Please come inside.”
Page drew a pistol and shot them both dead, then strode past their corpses to the entryway. Two children who had seen the murders ran inside and shouted a warning. Soon an adult was on the phone to 9-1-1.
The interval between the first call and the arrival of the first responding officer was only two minutes, one of the fastest police responses in the history of mass murders. But when no one present is armed and capable of stopping the killer, a lot of carnage can take place in that time.
Deadly Spree Continues
One woman entering is warned by another member. She replies she is going in to pray. She kneels. Page spots her, and shoots her dead.
One man gives his wife keys to a door at the end of a hallway and tells her to hide there. Page sees him on the phone calling 9-1-1, and shoots him down while he is talking. The killer slides a door open, sees an octogenarian man on his knees praying, and shoots him in the chest. The victim falls, suffers a massive stroke, and will survive but only be capable of communicating by blinking.
Some people have taken refuge in a room off the prayer area. The crafty Page knocks softly on the door; a compassionate member of the temple, thinking it’s a victim seeking sanctuary, opens the door a crack and is shot through the eye. In the back of the room is Satwant Singh Kaleka, the founder and leader of the temple. He bravely approaches Page and beseeches, “Please, you don’t have to do this.” Page shoots another man in the stomach; the victim runs out of the room and across the parking lot, where he’ll collapse on a neighbor’s lawn. The lawn belongs to a retired 32-year firefighter/paramedic and decorated Vietnam vet, who treats the wound and gets the victim to the hospital 20 minutes before anyone else, saving his life.
Mr. Kaleka is not so lucky. Page is on him. He fires, and the spiritual leader falls, mortally wounded. Dying, Kaleka draws his kirpan, the small, dull knife that is a ceremonial token among Sikh men; he grabs Page by the leg and starts stabbing him in the leg. Brian Murphy will later say in a tone of wonder, “Mr. Kaleka was never military or LE, but this mid-60s man knew he needed to protect his people. He finally dropped the kirpan and wrapped his hands so tightly into the pant legs of Page, his fingernails peeled off when Page finally broke free from him.” Kaleka doesn’t survive.
Page emerges from this latest murder scene walking straight south. His path takes him to the kitchen adjacent to the prayer area, where temple members have been cooking a traditional communal meal. There is a little pantry room where a cluster of helpless victims have taken refuge. Three women have left the pantry to walk across the kitchen to shut off the stove for fear it would start a fire if left unattended. Page comes around the corner and fires, somehow missing all three at a distance of 18 feet. They freeze momentarily, then run back to the tiny pantry. The killer follows them, still shooting, still missing. They close the door, which is hollow core with no lock.
They wait, bracing for the bullets they know will soon tear through their flimsy barricade and end their lives. But, suddenly, the shooting stops.
Looking through the window, Page has seen the first police car, driven by Lt. Brian Murphy, arrive.
Enter Brian Murphy
Murphy had not been scheduled to work that day, but the shift was short of supervisors and he volunteered to come in. A back injury incurred a year-and-a-half before in training had required surgery and almost taken him off the job, and expecting a slow and easy day, he didn’t put on the backup Walther PPK he often carried to supplement his HK USP .45 duty pistol. For the same reason, when he got to the PD and discovered only two patrol vehicles available — a comfortable new SUV and an old, clapped-out squad car — he chose the former. Inspecting it as he always did, he discovered the new dash rack that held a shotgun and patrol rifle didn’t release as it should. In a decision he would ever after regret, he chose the more comfortable vehicle to go easier on his back.
The call had come in from the temple at 10:26 A.M., and Murphy was the first to arrive, two minutes later. The layout was such there was no way to make a surreptitious approach and work his way in with good cover. Seeing the bloody results of Page’s opening slaughter, he radioed for Emergency Medical Services and mentioned he didn’t see a suspect. Moments later, this changed.
Witnesses calling 9-1-1 had described a big, bald Caucasian with eyeglasses wearing a white shirt. Suddenly, Murphy saw a man fitting the description. The cars he rapidly trotted behind hid the man’s hands, but Murphy saw something on his belt that was either a holster or a cell phone holder. Not enough reason to shoot yet, but reason enough to reach for his service pistol and shout, “POLICE! STOP!”
At a distance of 30 to 40 yards, the jogging man raised his arm toward Murphy, and now the cop could see the gun in the man’s hand. Without breaking stride, Page fired, and so did Murphy.
Murphy’s shot missed. Page’s didn’t. The 147-gr. Federal 9mm hollow point struck Murphy in the face, on the left of the chin, like a very hard punch. Murphy didn’t realize the bullet had deflected downward, destroying his voice-box, bouncing off his spinal column, and lodging three millimeters behind his carotid artery. Murphy, a plank-holding member of the department’s SWAT team, became a creature of his training. He reflexively moved to cover, losing sight of his antagonist.
Lt. Murphy would relate later, “I went behind the car for cover. Unknown to me he has stopped, come around behind, while I’m down behind, looking over and under the car, no shots coming. Then there’s boom, boom, boom as I rose; he came up from behind me, when I bring my gun up he shoots, he takes the top half of my left thumb off and shoots the gun out of my hand. He covered that ground in 10 seconds.”
Murphy remembers seeing his left thumb explode, in slow motion, in a spray of blood and tissue. Dr. Alexis Artwohl, a police psychologist who has done deep research with gunfight survivors, notes a number of them experience extraneous thoughts at such moments. Brian Murphy has one now: “That’s gonna leave a mark.”
Murphy continues his recollection: “He’s going boom, boom, boom. We are now about 10 feet apart, my squad is on the other side of him. I can hear my guys coming. I am thinking of cover. He walks by, boom boom, shoots me in the vest a couple of times. There’s all this shooting and noise.
“Then I’m down, lying there thinking no one is shooting me right now, I can stay here. Then I see my wife Ann’s face, and my kids, and I think, ‘I’m not going out in this parking lot.’ One way or another, I am going to get back to the vehicle.
“I thought he had taken off. Then I realized he had just been reloading. I heard the sound of the slide chambering a round from a fresh magazine. Me and him, looking at each other. Boom, boom, boom, boom, boom. I’m moving back. We’re staring at each other. I’m not giving him anything, not begging. Bullets are hot metal, getting shot burns more than anything else. I was thinking, get to the car. I’m just mad at this point. Around my body (I find out later) are 26 shell casings. I rolled over, started low crawling, shots kept coming. He shot me back of left arm through front; I saw the spray of red fog.
“The last shot. I’m on my hands and knees, elbows and knees, crawling, not fast. I’ve been shot 14 times at this point, he’s just walking me down. The last shot, I’m leaned over, he’s eight feet back shooting down. That last shot hits the top corner of my vest by the shoulder, comes out, skimming off top edge; it went between the top layer and the next layer, just one layer of the material. The bullet squirted out and went to the back of my skull and that shot just knocked me flat. So loud, so white, it pounds me flat.”
It was then the first backup officer, Sam Lenda, arrived.
Enter Sam Lenda
Widely considered to be the best shot on the force, Oak Creek Officer and firearms instructor Sam Lenda pulled up and quickly assessed the situation. He stepped out of the vehicle with his patrol rifle. Taking careful aim at a range of 60 yards, he fired. On the second shot, Wade Michael Page dropped like the proverbial rock: Lenda’s .223 bullet had smashed his hip, taking out the cross section of skeletal support, and gone into his abdomen, shredding his guts.
Doctors would say later the wound was mortal, but the mad dog killer wasn’t dead yet. Page raised the pistol and fired his final shot into his own head. The murders were over.
When brother officers got to the downed and bleeding Lt. Murphy, he told them, rasping through his wounded throat, to get inside and take care of the innocent victims first.
Twelve hours of surgery saved Brian Murphy’s life. So, of course, did the Level III Armor Express vest that had defeated three bullets that would have killed him. The slug that skidded off the vest into the back of his head was slowed sufficiently by the Twaron aramid it stopped without penetrating the skull. The other dozen had hit his face into throat, and in both hands, both arms, and both legs. He never lost consciousness. Many surgeries would follow. There are probably more to come.
Sam Lenda and Brian Murphy were both awarded the Medal of Valor for their actions on August 5, 2012. The Sikh community has been particularly appreciative. Murphy would comment later the Sikh ethos was much like his own lifelong profession, “to protect and serve.”
Hero cop and role model Sam Lenda has since retired with distinction from the Oak Creek Police Department. Retired from police work due to his injuries, Brian Murphy is now the Save Program Manager for Armor Express in Central Lake, Michigan. He works with other officers whose lives have been saved by the company’s product, and helps them and their families adjust to the aftermath of the near-death experience.
And, of course, he shares his learning experience with cops everywhere.
I’ve heard Brian tell his compelling story at ILEETA, the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association, and at The Pin Shoot, the match for cops and armed citizens sponsored by soft body armor inventor Richard Davis and his son Matt, who runs Armor Express. I can say with confidence no one knows the lessons of this incident better than Brian himself. Here is his take:
Wear body armor when there is a risk. A drive to church on Sunday morning still requires a seat belt; so, Brian found out, a cop working a quiet Sunday morning and responding to a bad thing at a house of worship needs a vest on. Brian says, unequivocally, the Armor Express vest he wore at work daily saved his life.
Carry backup. If he’d had his usual backup gun on after his service pistol was shot out of his hand, Brian might well have been able to neutralize his mad dog antagonist after the first few hits. Instead, he was unarmed against the firestorm of 9mm bullets following.
Don’t let comfort trump capability. Brian knows if he took the crappy old patrol car where the dashboard long-gun rack worked, he would likely have come out of the fight much better than he did with the new car whose gun lock would not yield the patrol rifle.
Danger doesn’t make appointments. A basic tenet of officer survival, Brian reminds fellow cops, is “There is no such thing as ‘routine’ in police work.”
Don’t give up! Brian kept the killer occupied, buying time for the rest of the officers to get there and end the fight. A year later, at a memorial, a Sikh woman approached Brian and thanked him for saving so many lives. He replied modestly he didn’t think he had done much. She replied she was one of the women and children who were huddled in the pantry about to be murdered by Page when he was distracted by Murphy’s arrival. “How many times were you shot?” she asked. “It was 15,” he answered.
She smiled at him gently and said, “There were 15 of us in that pantry. He would have killed us all. You took a bullet for each of us.”
We wish to thank retired Lt. Brian Murphy, and Armor Express CEO Matt Davis, for making this article possible. You can hear Brian’s compelling story in his own voice, made permanently gravelly by the throat wound, at proarmspodcast.com.