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Paralyzed By A Bullet From A Robbery Suspect, Streetwise, 'Tough Chick' LAPD Officer Kristina Ripatti Is Down, But She's Fighting Back
Against All Odds Unable To Walk, With Recovery Uncertain, Wounded Cop Struggles To Rebuild Her Life
August 27, 2006
Story by Brent Hopkins -- Photos by Hans Gutknecht -- Daily News
Memo: This is the first in an occasional series as we join Kristina Ripatti in her quest to walk, and surf, again.
Officer Kristina Ripatti feels cold all the time. Her fingers tingle.
Harsh red scars dot her otherwise smooth, tanned right arm. The tough cop who earned respect on the streets now sits in a wheelchair. "Running around, chasing people, that's what I wanted to do," she says. "I loved it. I didn't even want to take vacation."
For 10 years, the Los Angeles Police Department officer ran down suspicious-looking guys on street corners, scaled fences and wrestled gangbangers to the ground. She was an aggressive, proactive officer who went hard after killers and thieves.
They knew the name Ripatti, knew it meant someone who didn't mess around or take any junk.
This was her identity: The hard-edged cop who could mix it up with anyone. The world traveler who surfed, fished and pushed herself to the physical extreme. The pretty lady with the spiky blond hair and pale blue eyes. The mom who played with her young daughter.
Ripatti lost all that June 3, when a robber's bullets ripped through her body and left her paralyzed. Now, she fights to build her life anew.
Roll call, Southwest Station, early 1998.
The officers sat at their desks as the watch commander read off the news of the night.
Officer Tim Pearce listened for the partner call, hearing the names of who would be working with whom. Across the room sat Ripatti, her blond hair worn short like a punky surfer. They knew each other from their Police Academy days but not really well.
"Pearce ... Ripatti," came the call.
Pearce shook his head. Ripatti was the quiet, surly one.
"Great," he thought. "The tough chick."
A hospital therapy ward, Long Beach, August 2006.
Ripatti fights as a pair of therapists pull Ripatti into weird contortions. She twists and works and grimaces. Her body divides into two sections, strong and taut above her ribs, limp below.
In the background, patients in various stages of ability stretch and shuffle. "Every Breath You Take" by The Police plays on the radio. They roll her across an exercise ball, working numb muscles and unfeeling nerves.
Ripatti cringes but doesn't ask for a break.
To stimulate blood flow to her legs, they strap her into a standing frame and let her unmoving limbs stretch out erect. Her ankles flush with color and her face goes ghost white as the blood drains away.
Ripatti, 33, hefts a barbell in one hand and begins to lift. Up and down, up and down until she's been standing for 10 minutes. Then she's back on the padded bench, resting. Her shoe's come untied and she folds herself in half to grab her foot. She drags it upward and grunts as she doggedly ties the laces tight.
Her arms are admirably toned, but she worries she's losing the abs she honed so carefully before. And she's got plenty of other things to work on.
"That guy over there says he'd trade his abs for my arms," she says, laughing a bit. "He's got sensation and bowels. I'd trade for that."
On patrol, Southwest Division, late 1999.
Ripatti hit the streets with Pearce. They were gang cops now, working the elite CRASH unit. As soon as they stepped out of the station, people knew who was coming.
"Word travels through the ghetto Internet fast," Pearce said. "They'll see you on the street and they get on the cell phones, `Pearce and Ripatti are out tonight.' They know you ... Sometimes you catch them slippin'."
During patrol, they worked hard and joked around. They made the Rollin' 30s gang learn their names.
"They called her Blondie and me Robocop," Pearce says. "I was more rigid with them, she had more of a banter and a wit. I didn't tolerate any disrespect."
One night, they snuck up on some guys behind a fence along a narrow walkway near 39th and Normandie. They peered through the ivy, looking for a few guys they'd heard were up to no good. A dope dealer cocked a shotgun, swore at them and pulled the trigger. A blast echoed.
"I'm like, OK, that's it," Ripatti recalled. "We're done. We're dead."
Birdshot, wadding and powder ripped toward them, peppering them. Pearce drew his gun and dropped the guy with one shot to the leg.
They cuffed and arrested him. They were covered in black from the shot, their uniform jackets shot through.
"We thought it was pretty cool," Ripatti said.
When they went back on the street, Pearce was jumpy for a while, reacting more quickly and with more intensity, always looking for someone on edge. It took him a long time to relax, to settle back into the rhythm.
Outside of work, they exercised, hung out, carpooled. They found reasons to be together whenever they could. Ripatti began to feel conflicted and talked to her sister about it.
"I think I want to kiss my partner," she told her.
Outside the hospital, Long Beach, August 2006.
Ripatti, in a solid-frame Colours wheelchair, eyes a high curb. She rolls to the edge, peers down, then rolls backward. Like Evel Knievel, she breathes deeply and prepares to roll.
Gera-Lyne Delfin-Hagerstrand, her occupational therapist, watches nervously.
"I think I can make the curb," Ripatti says. "I can do it."
Delfin-Hagerstrand isn't so sure.
"Look," she says. "If you eat it, it's not my fault, OK?"
Ripatti cranks the wheels and shoots forward. She sails off the curb and lands perfectly on the asphalt. No big deal.
One challenge met, the therapist directs the cop to climb a concrete ramp to the parking garage. Ripatti growls her way to the top, but her pulse climbs just a bit.
"I'm gonna have arms like a biker," she says.
There seems to be nothing in the list of physical challenges she can't do.
Delfin-Hagerstrand has another idea -- the hill off to the side. She points, and Ripatti rolls.
It's a steep hill, very steep, with an incline sharp enough to slow the people walking alongside the chair. Ripatti grits her teeth and digs in. Slowly, slowly, slowly, she works forward. Her face turns red, her veins stand out on her arms, her biceps clench.
She makes the hill.
"She's amazing," the therapist marvels. "Some patients, you've really got to motivate them to get them to try something new. She's so athletic; she's always willing to try something."
On the sand, Santa Barbara, March 2003.
Pearce and Ripatti wandered the beach, not far from Rincon, their favorite surf spot.
After they'd been split up as partners, Pearce had realized he felt something for Ripatti.
At a party during a relay race to Las Vegas one night, he had told her there had to be something between them. They'd started dating. They'd fallen in love.
As the two walked, Pearce noticed a fishing float protruding from the sand. He started digging, deeper and deeper until he hit a box. Ripatti stood, arms crossed. This was some Mafia drop-off, she figured, or something revolting she wanted nothing to do with.
"That's Sammy Two Eyes' money or dope or something," she told him. "Or it's a dead cat. I don't want to mess with that."
Pearce, headstrong as always, didn't listen. He opened the box, which was filled with gold coins. And a pair of wine glasses. And a little tiny box. He handed it to her and told her to open it.
Inside sat a diamond-encrusted ring.
"I say, `Will you marry me?"' he recalled. "And she's just looking at me funny, and I'm like, `C'mon, do I have to ask you twice?"'
He didn't.
They married in October 2003. In 2005, they had a daughter and named her Jordan.
Long Beach Memorial Hospital, Long Beach, August 2006.
Dr. Ann Vasile, medical director of spinal cord rehabilitation, contemplates her patient.
"This is a critical time for her to hang on to her hopes and dreams," she says. "In terms of neurological recovery, the most significant recovery occurs in the first six months to a year. If we see some recovery now, we can look forward. Up till now, we have not seen that in Kristina."
She doesn't disclose the specifics of Ripatti's injuries, citing patient confidentiality.
But Ripatti shares them: One .22-caliber bullet entered through the armpit, ricocheted off a rib, shattered and lodged in the spine. Paralysis from the chest down.
There's no standard protocol for treating an injury like this. Just hard work -- and hope.
"When she first got here, she could feed herself and sit up in the bed, but that was about it," Vasile says. "She needed 100 percent assistance; now she's about 25 percent or less. In the next few months, she should go back to doing things with no assistance.
"She's perfectly where she should be. She's on track, and we're all so proud of her."
Car Three C One, Southwest Division, June 3, 2006.
Ripatti drove with Officer Joe Meyer, her partner of six months.
Pearce had been reassigned to Southeast. Ripatti and Meyer drove around, looking for anyone suspicious.
Near Leighton and LaSalle avenues, they found someone.
James Fenton McNeal, 52, had just robbed a gas station. They rolled up on him and gave him the eye.
"We were just cruising around, and we thought he was a basehead, a crack-smoker," Ripatti said. "We weren't even going to jam him, but he was looking really shady."
So she leapt from the car and gave chase. Down the street, across a yard, up some stairs, onto a porch, she went after McNeal.
"It happens 100 times a night when you chase someone," Ripatti said. "You never think anything's going to happen."
She grabbed him high and they struggled. He pulled a pistol and fired right up the line of her arm, hitting the spot not covered by her bullet- proof vest. She fell to the ground in a heap.
McNeal towered over her, shot her once in the biceps of her gun arm. The bullet went through the skin, inside her muscle and out the other side. He aimed again, fired and shot through her forearm. He prepared to shoot again.
Meyer drew his gun and killed him.
He cuffed the assailant, just to be safe, then ran to his partner and jammed his hand to her wound.
"Hang on," he told her. "Think of Tim. Think of Jordan."
"All I remember was the strong smell of gunpowder," she said. "It was like the gun got shot off right in front of my nose. The next thing I knew, I was falling to the ground, and Joe's on top of me, holding me. I just kept screaming for him to get off of me."
Car 18 G 21, Southeast Division, June 3, 2006.
Pearce was out on patrol with Officer Scotty Stevens near the Jordan Downs projects. They heard a call over the radio: Officer down, Leighton and LaSalle. The two cops looked at one another, knowing that was Ripatti's area. They screamed down Century Boulevard and hopped on the 110 Freeway.
"You think it's her, you think it's her?" Stevens asked, over and over.
"Yeah, we're not hearing her," Pearce said. "She's either winged or she's dead. And if she's winged, it's going to be a great story."
As they pulled off the freeway, Pearce's cell phone rang in his breast pocket. A sergeant from Southwest told him his wife had just been shot. They snaked through traffic and skidded to a stop at the scene.
Pearce fought his way through the crowd and got next to the porch where she lay. His wife, sheet white, stared up into the air. Her eyes couldn't focus.
Pearce ran to stand next to her and slipped. Her blood was everywhere, thick, syrupy, pouring down the porch steps. He leaned in and kissed her, wondering if this would be the last moment he'd share with the woman he loved.
California Hospital Medical Center Operating Room, Los Angeles, June 3, 2006.
Doctors furiously labored on the wounded cop, who bled so much she had just two pints left.
They collected her jewelry and handed it to Pearce, who stood to the side, hoping and praying.
Ripatti hovered in and out of consciousness. The doctors told her to fight.
"What do you mean, fight?" she said. "I'm not going anywhere."
A doctor called Pearce aside.
"Tim," he said, "your wife may be paralyzed."
California Hospital Medical Center, private room, Los Angeles, June 2006.
Ripatti woke up, unable to feel her legs. She didn't know what happened and asked Pearce why she couldn't move. He told her the news. She nodded, then fell asleep.
In the next few days, this happened five more times. Again and again, he told his active wife, who loved to surf and run, that she couldn't walk.
California Hospital Medical Center, front entrance, Los Angeles, June 13, 2006.
One hundred cops snapped to attention and saluted as Ripatti was rolled out of the hospital. Her new life was set to begin. She went home to Redondo Beach and began to learn to live again.
The Ripatti-Pearce household, Redondo Beach, August 2006.
Jordan Pearce, 15 months, sits in her mom's lap, contented. This is Ripatti's world now, the ground floor of a two-story house she and her sister bought seven years before. She sleeps in a hospital bed, bathes in the back bathroom.
Three days a week, she goes to the hospital for therapy. Three more, she works with a physical trainer. She plans to walk again.
"It's not like I'm saying, OK, I'm paralyzed, no big deal," Ripatti says. "There's lots of days I cry all the time. You have to. You have to grieve.
"But I don't regret it. If I could fix my legs and walk again, I'd do the same job. It's just a hard thing to deal with."
Long Beach Memorial Hospital, Long Beach, August 2006.
Pearce, 38, watches his wife struggle through therapy. Time and again, Ripatti meets the challenge. His whole life has changed as well, but he sees this as a temporary interruption.
"People tell me in 10, 12 years, there'll be some kind of cure for spinal injuries with stem cells," he says. "I figure even if it's 20 years, she'll be 53 years old. Her grandma's 94 years old, so that's at least 40 more years of walking.
"She could have the best of both worlds. She lived her life to the fullest before, did everything she could do as a cop. Now, she could do something new.
"She could learn to walk again. How many people get that chance?"
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