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LAPD Officer Kristina Ripatti, Left Paralyzed by a Robber's Bullet, Is Slowly Rebuilding Her Life. Thanks to the Support of Many, She is Now Riding A ... Wave of Thanks
This is one in a series of stories on the recovery of Los Angeles police Officer Kristina Ripatti
November 23, 2006
Source: Brent Hopkins
Staff Writer, Daily News
Officer Kristina Ripatti eyed the water at Bolsa Chica State Beach and sighed.
The sun splayed out over the golden beach and a gorgeous set of waves rolled in -- long, slow and beautiful. Surrounded by friends, encased in her wet suit, this was her element, a surfer chick's paradise. She craned her neck, shook her spiky, blond hair and flexed her fingers, readying herself. "If I'm gonna drown, might as well do it in the early afternoon," she said, deadpan before adopting an inflated, news-anchor tone. "I can see it now, `She survived the bullet, then the surfing killed her."'
Five months ago, a .22-caliber slug fired by a robbery suspect chewed through her muscled body, stuck in her spine and left her paralyzed.
Hailed as a hero, transformed into an icon and a celebrity of sorts, Ripatti has had her life change on nearly every level. Even the most basic tasks have become complex. The ocean, where she felt so comfortable before, now seems vast and unpredictable.
Her husband and fellow Los Angeles Police Department officer, Tim Pearce, broke into a grin at her joke, soon replacing it with a sober look. Joe Meyer, her partner back on the streets of the Southwest Division, nodded his shaved head. Time to go.
Six cops -- five on foot and one in an oversized beach wheelchair -- all in a line. Ripatti's father, Jorma, still in his cowboy boots and scarf, kept to the side.
"Great, Tim, what have you gotten yourself into?" Pearce thought. "This is gonna be like some bad 'Baywatch' episode."'
The tide lapping at their ankles, they pushed Ripatti into the water. Pearce gently lifted his wife from her chair and let her acclimate to the cold.
Meyer, powerfully built but wary of surfing, stopped at the tide line, watching carefully as they made their way into the waves. Ripatti bobbed in the wash, her head disappearing in the foam and breaking through again. Before long, she called for a longboard, a 10-foot pintail Dewey Weber.
A decent wave rolled in, and Pearce shoved her hard into the froth. She caught it. She rode it. She rolled, turned, hung on and madly made it all the way to the beach. A huge grin spread across her face until she slipped off in the shallow water.
Meyer splashed his way over, reaching down to his partner.
"You OK?" he asked, hand out and ready to grab her.
"Yeah," she sputtered. "Get me out there again."
And so she went, again and again, escorted by her brother officers, cheered by her family. Always on the verge of disaster, always skirting the danger and smiling. Competitive to the last.
Shot by Robber
That was the spirit she took to the streets, the one that told her to jump from her patrol car and take off running after a suspicious-looking man near Leighton and LaSalle avenues June 3. As she caught up with James Fenton McNeal, who'd just robbed a nearby gas station, Ripatti grabbed him from behind.
McNeal whirled, drew a gun and shot her in the armpit, narrowly missing her bulletproof vest. The shot nearly killed her, then he fired twice more through her gun arm. As the blood gushed from her wounds, she struggled to get up, unaware how badly she'd been hit.
The thief took aim at her head, preparing for an execution. Meyer ran up, pulled his pistol and shot the man to death. He saved his partner's life, first with the shot, then by falling to his knees and jamming his hand to her wound, preventing her from bleeding to death.
Ripatti screamed at him, over and over, to get off, to let her up, to let her stand. Soon, she passed out and lost track of the blood-soaked scene.
When she awoke in the hospital, Pearce and Meyer were by her side. Hooked to a ventilator, unable to speak, she pointed to her chest and then formed her fingers into a pistol.
"No," Meyer told her. "You didn't shoot him."
She extended three fingers outward, the sign of the Rollin' 30s Crips. Was McNeal a gangster? Meyer shook his head and said he didn't know yet, didn't know anything.
Drive's Still There
Months later, relaxing at her Redondo Beach home, they laugh about that day. Three bullets slowed her but could not snuff out that intense drive.
"No, `Are you OK, Joe? Did you get shot, Joe?"' he said, affectionately resting his hand on the back of her wheelchair. "It's just, `Did I get a shot off?"'
Together, they come across like a teenage brother and sister, needling each other at every opportunity. When she's not around, the soft-spoken former soldier reflects on how close they've become.
"We were friends, but we didn't go out all the time before," Meyer said. "I went to her daughter's birthday party; we'd go out drinking, go to the beach.
"Now, I'd do anything for that girl. That friendship, that bond, I can't even describe it."
Nor can she describe her relationship with him. Or her husband. Or her daughter. Or even herself.
In this new life framework, so much has changed that their identities evolve daily.
Before, they were all just regular folks with a tough job. Now, with her paralyzed and Pearce's dreams haunted by her injury, they've become symbols, a living embodiment of sacrifice and strength. Their newfound fame still seems to surprise them.
Always Her Support
In late September, when the Dodgers were in the thick of the pennant race, the team invited Ripatti to throw out the ceremonial first pitch. Sitting in her wheelchair, unable to use her body to generate the momentum of a windup, this proved to be an incredibly daunting task.
Ripatti, Pearce and Meyer practiced for hours, working from a weak toss of a few feet to a solid throw that could cover the nearly 60 feet to home plate. Then just before they left, she threw too hard and knocked herself straight backward. Fearing an embarrassing repeat, she asked Pearce to kneel behind the chair and support her. As always, he obliged.
When the trio took the field, all in Dodgers jerseys, the crowd cheered. When she lofted in the pitch -- a high, solid lob -- they clapped. And, when she raised her fist and waved, they stood and applauded in a manner usually reserved for the game itself, rather than its ho-hum opening ritual.
As the three cops made their way up to their seats, a man broke off from his conversation of the pennant race and recognized Ripatti.
"Thank you," he said. "Thank you for everything."
The scene repeated itself once again several weeks later at the California Governor and First Lady's Conference On Women, where Ripatti appeared on the program alongside luminaries as varied as the Dalai Lama, home maven Martha Stewart and writer Anna Quindlen.
Sharing the stage with Rwandan genocide survivor Imacul(hrt)e Ilabagiza and Sharon Rocha, mother of the murdered Laci Peterson, the cop drew a prolonged ovation from the audience of nearly 1,000 women.
Pearce, off to the side, began clapping, then stopped when he figured the cheers would die down. They didn't, so he began again, then stopped. The applause refused to cease.
He went through three separate clapping sessions -- by the end, even the other panelists were on their feet, cheering his wounded wife.
Standing Ovation
She told the story, one she's related many, many times, of her last night on patrol. When she coldly described how McNeal shot her, a woman exclaimed "What a dog!" As she continued to tell how Meyer pulled the trigger and saved her life, the audience cheered again, raucously.
"I lost my career, I lost my lifestyle, I lost my hobbies," Ripatti said. "You lose your sex life, as you know it, with your husband. There's not been one thing that's been hard. There have been a lot of things that have been hard."
When she thanked Pearce, who stood somewhat uncomfortably off to the side, for his support, the crowd stood up and saluted him, too. Afterward, woman after woman came up to pat his arm and tell him he was an ideal husband. Almost shyly, the normally gregarious officer shook his head and quietly thanked them.
"You know what's strange?" he said afterward. "In 10 years, I could count on one hand how many people came up and said, `Hey, thank you, officer.' It just floors me that people gave her a standing ovation. I just wish every officer got this."
That steadfast modesty and deference in the face of newfound, unwanted celebrity goes to the heart of both Pearce's and Ripatti's character. They've become heroes to people who've never met them, something to hold up and cling to, yet they never seem anything more than a pair of modest cops who happen to love each other.
"What drew me in was that they're both such compelling people," said LAPD Chief William Bratton, who frequently calls both Ripatti and Pearce to check in. "They're just good people. If there were ever two people who are able to deal with this, it's them."
Ripatti and Pearce show such unrelenting verve, with her uncompromising push to stand up out of her chair, walk and one day run again, it's tempting to forget the gravity of their situation. She's 34 and her once powerful legs hang dead and useless. She cannot feel anything beneath her chest.
Though fit and upbeat, she must work incredibly hard to try to regain the independence she once cherished. She piles hours of gym work atop physical therapy, supplementing it with trips to more radical rehabilitation specialists.
Relearning Movement
Once a week, the couple drive up to Gold's Gym in Northridge, where Ripatti submits to a charismatic South African named Taylor-Kevin Isaacs. With his hair pulled back into a long ponytail, the wiry therapist teaches her to balance, to stretch and to coax her body into movements that no longer come easily.
Ripatti sat in her chair while Isaacs kicked workout balls toward her, lofting them above her. She glared at them, then at him. He was clearly toying with her.
"OK, you can just watch them go over your head," he murmured. "I respect that."
She growled angrily and began stretching upward. As he sent one after another, like David Beckham booming in penalty kicks, Ripatti began reaching the balls. She nearly fell from her chair with the exertion, then, face red, pulled herself upright.
"All right, how would you describe that?" he said. "Hard, medium, mild?"
"Hmmm ..." she responded, eyes hard, but lips pulling back into a smile. "Mild."
Isaacs chuckled.
"Great," he said. "I'll prepare an even harder program for you next week."
She meets these challenges with relish, working through pain, frustration and complications. Her body is still adjusting to its new state, enduring blood clots, infections and fatigue. She still suffers terrible chills, leaving her shivering on hot days.
Psychologically, she's made huge adjustments, as well. When Ripatti came home from the hospital, their young daughter, Jordan, didn't react well to the wheelchair. When her toddler recoiled, the tough cop's heart broke.
In time, Jordan came around and the 20-month-old now gets behind her mom's wheelchair to help push her around the house.
Ripatti realized she could still be a mother, a wife, perhaps even a police officer. Each day, she learns more about how to adjust to her new life.
And it's a vastly different life than she was used to. Strangers stop her at the gym to say thank you. The recent Calabasas Classic Run drew 1,400 participants and raised $5,000 for a fund to benefit her and another wounded officer. The Dalai Lama hugged her and bestowed his blessing. Community groups put on concerts, pass the hat and send checks.
Home Makeover
Perhaps the biggest change yet came in October, when they got a surprise from "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition." The TV show's volunteer crew sent the family off on a trip to Cabo San Lucas, then literally blew up their two-story home and built a stunning, Craftsman-style house for an episode set to air Dec. 10.
That part of their life is comfortable. But Ripatti still falls down in her fancy new house. Pearce still worries for her safety. The attention, the fame, the ovations are nice, she said, but do not justify the price they've both paid.
"You can't get a big head because the reality of the injury brings you back every day," she said, leaning forward in her wheelchair. "All these crazy things, all these neat experiences ... I'd trade them all to have my legs again."
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