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Paralyzed Ex-police Officer Slowly Builds a New Life
September 9, 2007
Source: Brent Hopkins, Staff Writer, Daily News

Editor's Note: LAPD Officer Kristina Ripatti was shot and paralyzed while patrolling with the Southwest Division's gang enforcement detail on June 3, 2006. For the past year, Daily News photographer Hans Gutknecht and reporter Brent Hopkins have followed her courageous attempts at rehabilitation. This is the fourth installment of their report.
Officer Kristina Ripatti sat, surrounded by cops, and remembered it all. The previous year's jog down the beach for the Los Angeles Police Department Memorial Run at Dockweiler State Beach on June 3, 2006, the last one she would ever take.
Then another sprint, hours later, down a dark South Los Angeles street - one ending with a gun-toting crook dead and a bullet in her spine. Now she was back, confined to a wheelchair, with all her old stationmates around her. She figured she'd say hello, shake some hands, offer some words of encouragement.
But she couldn't just sit there.
"I don't want to make a big deal over this," she thought. "But I want to do this - for me."
Her old squad was forming ranks on the hill. She pointed her chair toward the incline, cranked her arms and rolled forward. Even off her feet, she would be with them every step.
The report of the starting gun cracked through the air. The cops, well-conditioned, all jumped and scanned for the shooter. Then they laughed and began to run.
And Ripatti led the way with husband and ex-partner Officer Tim Pearce following just behind.
Hollywood and Highland
May 10, 2007
The fateful night on Leighton and LaSalle avenues turned Ripatti, Pearce and her partner, Officer Joe Meyer, into household names for many.
After Ripatti chased down James Fenton McNeal, a 52-year-old convicted murderer who'd just held up a gas station, the man had whirled and shot her in the torso and twice through her arm. Pistol aimed at her head, he prepared for the kill. Before McNeal could get off the fatal round, Meyer dashed up, drew down and blew him away. Four shots ripped through McNeal, ending his criminal career permanently. Then the big cop dropped to his knees, cradled his stricken partner and proceeded to save her life by blocking the flow of blood from her wounds.
People around the world anxiously monitored Ripatti's struggle for life in the hospital. She emerged to a sea of blue as cops lined up to pay tribute.
Now, the department prepared to bestow its two most prestigious awards: the Medal of Valor to Meyer and the Police Star to Ripatti. The partners took the stage, already packed with more than a dozen cops who'd risked their lives to save others.
Ripatti silently rolled up the ramp at the front of the packed ballroom, with Pearce behind to ensure she'd make it all right. Chief William Bratton smiled as she braked to a stop by his side.
Meyer stood at crisp attention before the room, his pulse beating visibly in his temple. As the master of ceremonies told the dramatic story of that night in Southwest Division, he blinked back tears. He then took his medal and embraced his partner and friend.
"Joe did not want to accept this award tonight. He believes he does not deserve it because I'm paralyzed," Ripatti said, voice wavering slightly. "But Joe's actions are nothing less than heroic. He gave me a second chance at life." As Ripatti saluted the man who came to her rescue, he said nothing, just retained his rigid stance. Rows and rows of cops stood and rained down applause. City Council President Eric Garcetti cried. So did Ripatti.
Dockweiler State Beach
June 2, 2007
After a five-kilometer run along the beach, Southwest Division approached the finish line. Ripatti was still on point, rolling hard, Pearce just behind her. "For Kris!" the cops chanted, the rhythm of the cadence propelling them forward. "For Tim!"
And, with all this progress, they pulled up short in unison. Ripatti slipped out of her wheelchair and onto a padded mat. At her side was Taylor-Kevin Isaacs, her enigmatic, brilliant fitness guru. He had a huge surprise in store.
As the cops milled around, Isaacs and Pearce strapped Ripatti into a sturdy set of leg braces. The thick exoskeleton looked like something out of a Batman movie, its silvery frame enveloping her legs and ending at the tips of her toes. Secured to the braces and a pad across her back, Ripatti struggled to her feet. Gripping the handles of a walker, she steadied herself. The cops stood silently, watching.
And then one began to clap. Then another. Then another. Soon, they were all applauding as she moved her black tennis shoe tentatively forward. Then the other, again and again.
Ripatti, paralyzed from the chest down, was walking.
Redondo Beach
Summer, 2007
Ripatti and Pearce relaxed at home, a gorgeous Craftsman-style place custom-built for them by the "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" team. They share the place with 2-year-old Jordan, their only child.
Before Ripatti got hurt, the couple had planned on having two kids, but the injury put their whole lives in limbo. While she'd made tremendous progress - going from bedridden to getting around unassisted - the prospect of having another child while paralyzed seemed terrifying.
"If we don't have any more kids, that's fine," Pearce told her, as they discussed things months before. "Jordan will grow up as an only child, and she'll be great."
The little girl, who looks almost exactly like her mother, has shown tremendous progress alongside Ripatti. When her mom first returned from the hospital, Jordan cowered and ran from her wheelchair. Now, she rolls it to Ripatti's side and helps her mother up when she slips from its seat.
"The things you miss ..." Ripatti sighed. "I miss my old self. When I see Jordan running around, I can't chase after her. Tim's tackling her, and I'm just sitting there."
It was time to get their daughter up from her nap. Pearce and Ripatti headed into her surf-themed bedroom. Ripatti reached into the low bed, specially built to wheelchair height, and shook her daughter.
Jordan yawned, stretched and opened her vivid blue eyes.
"Hey, baby," Ripatti called. "You remember me?"
The two cops helped the tiny child from her bed, dressed her in a pretty, watermelon-print dress and took her out to play. As she romped across their front yard, Ripatti kept a close eye from her chair.
Dockweiler State Beach
The finish line was 40 long yards away as Ripatti channeled her upper-body strength to push her legs forward.
With each flex of her shoulders, the brace redirected the movement down through her unfeeling thighs and calves. Her legs jerked along as she grimaced in pain. She'd done this before in the privacy of the gym, but never for this distance and with this many spectators. She wasn't back on her feet for good, but with the right conditions and supreme effort, maybe she could make it all the way. The cops of Southwest moved along behind her, clapping in unison. And a crowd began to form, first a few, then more, then more.
As she took each agonizing step forward, the crowd swelled until, pretty soon, 1,200 police officers surrounded the finish line.
They roared with approval, pumping their fists and cheering. Bratton and his No. 2, Assistant Chief Jim McDonnell, stood at the heart, encouraging Ripatti onward. She kept pushing forward, arms straining and teeth gritted. She crossed the line.
The energy cascaded forward as the crowd erupted with wild yells. Pearce, heart pounding and eyes misting, embraced her in a mad hug and she grinned. This was the first time in a year he'd hugged her standing up, the first time he'd looked into her eyes, an intimate moment, surrounded by a thousand roaring cops.
"I forgot how tall you are," he told her, softly.
The bubble around them melted away as well-wishers swarmed forward. Isaacs helped Ripatti down and out of the brace. She settled into her chair and breathed deeply, face flushed from exertion.
"That was quite a breakthrough for you," Isaacs told her. McDonnell, who's kept close tabs on Ripatti's rehabilitation, leaned in and squeezed her shoulders.
"No," he said. "That was a breakthrough for all of us."
Kona, Hawaii
July 8, 2007
The workouts, the rehab, the uncertainty of it all has weighed on the family. Ripatti had made up her mind to leave the force, while her husband had taken a new job as a gang detective to keep himself a little farther from the dangers of the streets.
On July 12, the department would officially retire Ripatti from duty with a full medical pension. No ceremony, no glitz, just an official ruling and her life as a cop was finished.
Now Ripatti was no longer an officer and she could contemplate her future. She'd become a spokeswoman for NuStep Inc., a fitness equipment manufacturer who supplied her with a cross-training machine to keep her deadened legs in shape.
She earned a grant from the Physically Challenged Athletes Scholarship Fund enabling her to go back to school for a graduate degree. She was considering enrolling at the University of Southern California.
And as she began acclimating to her life in a chair, Ripatti thought about family life more and more. She and Pearce had asked her doctor if they could have another kid.
Yes, he said, but she needed at least a year from the injury for her body to adjust. Even with Isaacs' amazing therapy that enabled her to get around with a walker, she still relied mainly on the wheelchair for mobility. Time was passing, and watching Jordan play on the beach only stirred her emotions more. Something felt wrong, however. She'd grown hyper-aware of her body in the past year, compensating for the lost sensation below her chest. She sent Pearce to the drug store to look for an answer to why things felt off.
He returned, package in hand, and, as the rest of the family relaxed, Ripatti rolled into the bathroom, feeling uneasy. She unwrapped the box, followed the instructions and waited.
And, as the colors changed before her eyes, it hit her like a thunderbolt.
She was pregnant.

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