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Double Duty: Husband, Wife Return to Streets. Wounded LAPD Officer, Spouse Make Comeback
April 15, 2007
Source: Brent Hopkins, Staff Writer, Daily News

Officer Tim Pearce's Crown Victoria cuts silently through the South Los Angeles night, seeking some Crips with a grudge. He drives with an eye for trouble. It's his first time back on the street in nearly six months. He's spent long days helping Officer Kristina Ripatti -- his wife and ex-partner, paralyzed from a night on patrol -- reclaim her wounded body. He's nervous. Gripping the wheel with one hand, he pulls his cell phone from his breast pocket and dials her up. He's headed into danger and wants to hear she's all right first. No answer. "We're going to come in fast without squealing the tires and revving the engines," Pearce thinks. "Every second counts. It's a roll of the dice ... but the stakes are even higher. Kristina's hurt, and I'm the sole provider. Oh well, this is what we do." A couple of 97 East Coast Crips got blasted by a rival crew the night before, and the gang officers of the Los Angeles Police Department's Southeast Station fear retaliation. The cops head north on McKinley Avenue, then swing left onto East 98th Street. Everyone keeps their lights off as they cut hard onto Avalon Boulevard, then make a right on East 97th Street, where they race to the middle of the block. A half-dozen squad cars converge in front of a nondescript bungalow. There's a crowd out front, and as the cruisers screech to a stop, it quickly disperses. Some people disappear inside, and the door slams shut. A few stand frozen in the yard. One nonchalantly saunters away. Pearce points to him and calls out, "Watch out for that guy." He leaps out. The big cop strides forcefully toward the man. Pearce sees something sketchy about the way he's sidling off. "Excuse me, brother," Pearce says. "Can I talk to you for a minute?"
Southwest Station
On another day, another first time back, Ripatti heads into her old station. She's returning to the scene that changed her life, part of the routine procedure for officer-involved shootings. She and her partner, Officer Joe Meyer, have filed endless reports on that long-ago June 3 night when she tackled 52-year-old James Fenton McNeal, a longtime criminal who had just added gas station robbery to his lengthy resume. At the station, Meyer helps Ripatti into a black-and-white, then dismantles her wheelchair and loads it into the trunk. They drive two blocks to Leighton and LaSalle avenues, followed by Capt. Regina Scott. Ripatti eagerly scans the streets where she once worked, remembering long-ago arrests and altercations. The cops eye a cluster of gangsters and keep their pistols close at hand. Ripatti and Meyer get out and describe to Scott the incident they've both relived dozens of times. At this corner, Ripatti saw McNeal scuttling across the street suspiciously. She gave chase, and he bolted and almost got to his home nearby. After a short struggle on the porch, he drew a .22 and shot her in the armpit, missing her bulletproof vest and nailing her spine. He squeezed off two more shots into her gun arm and was preparing for the kill when Meyer rushed up, drew his weapon and fired. McNeal fell, dead. Meyer stuck his hand in Ripatti's bloody chest wound and called for help. Her life in a wheelchair began. "I can guarantee you he didn't have that gun in his hand when I first saw him," Ripatti tells Scott. They approach the porch. Her blood has been scrubbed off the steps, and duct tape covers the bullet holes in the wall and ceiling. It looks like a nice, quiet place to live. "I was 99 percent sure that I killed him," Meyer recounts, mimicking his Glock .45 with his thick hands. "He fell, and he didn't make any noise." As they describe the incident, an ice cream truck cruises slowly by, its speaker playing an eerie "Turkey in the Straw."
97th Street
The man plays it cool and freezes up. Pearce pats him down. He whispers to him, locks his handcuffs around the man's wrists to be safe. He keeps his other hand on his pistol, just in case things go sideways. The man waits patiently, and everything seems OK until an officer produces a shoulder holster from the bushes. Suddenly, the cool night air feels warmer. They poke through the bushes and search for a weapon, but there's nothing. No one saw who threw the holster, and there's no pistol to go with it. It looks like the young men may be free to go. "Whoomp! There it is!" a cop calls out, echoing a line from a 1990s hip-hop song. A dull, black automatic sits behind the rear tire of a nicely kept-up Ford Expedition. There's a sudden commotion. The man, now handcuffed and subdued, begins to run.
Leighton Avenue
Satisfied with the incident retelling, Scott thanks Ripatti and Meyer for their help, and everyone returns to their cars. The two old partners take a nostalgic cruise through their former territory on the way back to the station. "Hey, whassup?" a long-haired doper greets them, leaning over to smile at Ripatti as she eyes him from the passenger seat. "I heard what happened to you -- that's (messed) up. I was in jail when it happened, but I read about it in the newspaper. Damn. You take care, all right?" Ripatti gives him a hint of a grin. "OK, you, too," she says. "And stay away from that crack. That stuff's no good." On the next block, they encounter three young men dressed in the deep blue of the Rollin' 30s Crips. One recognizes the pair and lifts his chin to say hello. "Ripatti and Meyer?" he says, a little surprised. "Aw, man, you again?" Ripatti draws her shoulders back, staring out from the car. "Yeah, man," she says, voice hard. "We're back." But only for a moment.
East 97th Street
Pearce sprints after the man, his heavy gun belt jingling. Footsteps echo as the pair recede from the glare of the streetlight. In seconds, the guy is on the ground, Pearce's knee pinning him to the cold concrete. "What are you doin', man?" he says, tone exasperated. "Why you runnin?"' The man, twisted awkwardly beneath the cop's leg, angles his head up and speaks, tone perfectly calm. "I got scared, sir," he replies. "C'mon," Pearce laughs. "Scared of what?" "I thought you were gonna beat on me," he says. "I didn't know you were the police." Pearce, dressed in a blue uniform with a shiny silver-and-gold badge pinned to his chest, shakes his head in disbelief. "We're not going to beat on you," he says, adopting the tone of a frustrated teacher. "So if I let you up, you're not going to run, are you?" "No, sir." The cops escort him to the car and continue the search. The now-detained gangster has placed a dealer's paper advertisement over his license plate, hiding its true identity. Inside, they find registry in his mother's name, a backpack full of clothes and a pornographic DVD featuring an obese woman. Another gun turns up in the yard, and another youngster, this one on probation, gets cuffed and loaded into the back of a car. The officers head back for the station. "First night back, not too bad, huh, Tim?" says his partner, Officer Dan Pearce, who's not related. "When we first rolled up, you were like, 'Get that guy!' And I'm like: 'Get out of here, that guy's nothing! I've got five months in the unit, what do you know?' And you were right. ... You were right." Tim Pearce pulls out the cell phone again and calls Ripatti. Before she got shot and their lives turned upside down, they used to compete about who could get the most guns off the street. Now, he wants to let her know he's OK.
Redondo Beach
A trip to the gym. Eating dinner. Errands. Even relaxing at home. The danger never really goes away. Pearce and Ripatti always have their guards up, forever looking down the block or into the next car, in case someone comes to exact revenge for an old arrest. Earlier on the day she returned to the scene of her shooting, Ripatti found herself with a full schedule. She drove with Sgt. Deana Stark, a close friend, after rolling from her Craftsman-style home to the car. Six months earlier, she could barely get out of bed without the help of a nurse. She pulled herself into the car, nearly unassisted. "Wait," she said. "Could you grab my gun? It's the Colt on the top of the fridge." She's headed to the police station, two blocks from where she was shot, familiar but not always friendly territory. Even confined to a wheelchair, Ripatti wanted to be ready, just in case.
Southeast Station
Tim Pearce's day began with a gun, as he checked out a beanbag shotgun from the equipment room and headed for Car85831. Dan Pearce walked with him. A deep breath or two and Unit18 George21 was ready to roll. "Good to be back?" Dan Pearce asked. "We've had some good capers lately. Got an AK(-47) out of Jordan just the other night." That's Jordan Downs, one of the largest public housing facilities in the country, home to law-abiding citizens and gun-toting Crips alike. Tim Pearce is tall and stern-looking in his uniform. Off duty he's laid back, but on patrol he's all business. Dan Pearce has spiky, blond hair and an energetic, chatty manner. He's quick to laugh and very fast on his feet. The black-and-white Crown Victoria is beat-up and scratched, but the engine's punchy, and Tim Pearce drives hard. As he gunned it out of the parking lot, his partner caught him up on all the recent gossip. Though their nametags read identically and they're often mistaken for siblings, the two men are not related. Their gang opponents don't know that, though. They've been told there are six Pearce brothers, each one bigger and tougher than the last. As they made their way through the neighborhood, Tim Pearce called out landmarks. "See that building up there?" he said matter-of-factly at 108th and Figueroa streets. "That's where the guy on PCP ate that lady. Then across the street, some guy named New York got axed with an AK. Then on the other corner. ... Man, four corners and a murder on every one."
Bridal shop, Saugus
In one month, Ripatti and Stark's closest friend, Ana-Maria Mejia, will get married. She wouldn't consider not having them both there at the altar, wheelchair or otherwise. So Ripatti sequestered herself in a corner dressing room with her two friends, who helped her out of her track pants and T-shirt and into her bridesmaid's gown. She rolled around the corner, eyebrow raised with stern authority. "Don't laugh," she warned. She wore a cranberry-red, A-line gown with a V-neck halter adorned with a rhinestone clasp. It showed off her toned shoulders and biceps and was cut to accommodate her torso when she leans forward to crank her chair's wheels. A pink scar traced its way out of the dress, around her rib cage and over her shoulder blade. Beneath it, she still carries the bullet that paralyzed her. "When she tried this on, it was a brown dress," Mejia said. "And she's like, 'Perfect, I look good in brown, we'll do it in brown.' I had to tell her, 'It. Is. In. Red. No discussion!" Ripatti, who seems much more comfortable talking guns and gangs, squirmed in her moment of glamour. She was a knockout. Then she changed back into her regular clothes and left for a tougher locale.
South Los Angeles
Ripatti sat beside Stark, watching the avenues, recalling how things used to be. "Every time you hit a corner," she said, eyes narrowed as she watched a teenager dash down the street, baseball bat in hand, "each block has a story you remember." Like back in her days as an anti-gang officer, partnered up with Pearce. Before they got together, but as they began to fall in love. One night, they rolled up on a dope house she described as "like a 7-Eleven with weed." Gangsters would come up to a little window on the side to buy their marijuana. Pearce and Ripatti crept up and waited, hearing the criminals' voices before they popped up to make an arrest. A struggle broke out. "The fight's on!" Ripatti recalled, voice excited. "We're fighting in the house, and a loaded .45 comes out of his waistband and boom! It falls out and hits the ground. "He breaks free and runs out of the house. We chased him for three blocks before he gave up. We take him back, grab the gun and find a ton of weed. That was crazy." For a moment, she was back in her element. The stories began to flow. Her career came back in snippets, scenes ripped from film noir and detective novels. But it was all real.
Southeast Station
For the remainder of the evening, Tim Pearce and the rest of the squad chased after suspects who never appeared and searched cars without finding guns or hard drugs. It was a slow night just before Christmas and no one got killed, but on every other block, they had a reminder of past violence. As Tim Pearce slouched in his chair back inside the station, his partner brought a printout on their earlier arrest. The gentleman, as they referred to him, was no stranger to jail time. "We've got a guy on parole associating with gang members in the presence of a weapon," Dan Pearce said, making a tsk-ing sound. "So he'll probably go away for a year. And in his mom's car, too. ... Better call off Christmas." Everyone chuckled, and Tim Pearce finished a snack he was eating. He had made it through his first night back, caught a gangster and emerged unscathed. It should have been a triumphant feeling, but instead, he pondered asking for reassignment to the gang detectives, a position he would end up taking a few months later. There, he could focus on more dangerous gangsters and spend less time on the streets. He called home to his wife to check on her. She was fine. "I did a lot of soul-searching about this," he said later. "I've been doing this almost 10 years, and I love the job, love the people. But it's dangerous; the odds of getting hurt are pretty good. So I have to do something new. It would be selfish of me not to."
110 Freeway
Ripatti reclined in Stark's car. She has been on the injured-on-duty list for nine months, returning to work only to visit colleagues. Soon, she will hit the one-year mark, when she must decide whether to return to active duty in a less physical role -- or leave the force. Pearce found that less dangerous job as a detective, writing warrants for higher-profile criminals. Now, his wife considered her own future. Chief William Bratton promised her a job if she wanted one, but she doesn't know if she can still be effective confined to a chair. She loved the adrenaline of chasing down a suspect or grabbing a gun away from a gangster. Directing operations from a desk or watching a camera just isn't the same. "I feel like I lost my identity," she said. "It's a consuming job. You're always thinking about it. And that's why I think I have to cut the ties, instead of just hanging on because it's comfortable. "There's got to be something out there for me. I just don't know what it is yet."

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