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Oak Creek police officers remember Sikh temple shooting

Murphy, Lenda speak in detail about the day's events


Oct. 29, 2012

Oak Creek - The first shot hit him in the face, left side of his jaw, the 9mm bullet moving down, ripping through his larynx, bouncing off his spinal column and lodging in his right neck.

He remembered his training - "in a high-risk incident I will survive." And he moved, even as 11 more bullets pierced his arms, hands, legs and the back of his head, even as three more bullets struck his protective vest, even as the gunman kept coming, firing at close range.

When bullets, blood and terror came to the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin on that Sunday morning, Aug. 5, Oak Creek Police Lt. Brian Murphy would not give in.

In the middle of a gun battle that raged for about two minutes, he found himself wedged beneath a car as the gunman reloaded. And he thought to himself: "I'm not going out like this. I'm not going out in a parking lot."

His guys were on their way, led by veteran officer Sam Lenda, a marksman.

His guys would end the terror.

Three months later, after three operations, Murphy is recovering.

His voice is a raspy whisper. His left thumb is wrapped in a bandage. A scar runs down the right side of his throat. Scars pockmark his arms and legs.

Two bullets remain in his body, along with shrapnel. Murphy faces another round of surgeries next month to repair his vocal cords and his thumb.

Six Sikh worshippers were killed in the rampage. Three worshippers were wounded, including two who were hospitalized.

The gunman, Wade Michael Page, a white supremacist, killed himself after he was hit by a rifle shot. It was Lenda who brought him down.

Last week, Murphy and Lenda sat for interviews with the Journal Sentinel inside a conference room at the Oak Creek Police Department headquarters. With clarity and conviction, they discussed the attack and its aftermath.

Murphy, 51, has red hair, green eyes, and an easygoing charm. Born and raised in New York, he still carries a thick Brooklyn accent. He comes from a line of police officers. His brother recently retired from the New York Police Department. His grandfather was an NYPD captain.

Murphy served five years in the U.S. Marines from 1980 to 1985, including one year on embassy duty in Afghanistan. He was on the security force at the United Nations for five years. A friend persuaded him to come to Wisconsin. He worked one year as a deputy in the Jefferson County Sheriff's Department and joined the Oak Creek force in April 1991.

Lenda, 55, has a crew cut and mustache. A native of South Milwaukee, he has a crisp, authoritative voice and manner. He has been on the Oak Creek force for 33 years and is due to retire in 18 months.

Others have called them heroes for their actions that day. But the word hero sits uneasily with these men.

"I'm just doing my job," Murphy says. "My entire adult life has been based on working in a situation that can at times become uncontrollable and chaotic. But the training I've been provided has always set me up to work very positively and to do the right thing without thinking."

The day that changed his life, and the lives of so many others, began routinely. Up at 6 a.m., a quick shower and breakfast, out the door and ready for roll call at 7. First shift, seven officers on patrol.

Murphy wasn't supposed to be at work. But he took the shift so a sergeant could attend his son's graduation from boot camp.

"It was a beautiful Sunday morning, the kind that you hope for," Murphy says.

The start of the day was simple. A training video, paperwork, and finally Murphy went on the road in his squad, a Chevy Tahoe.

Just before 10:30 a.m., the first calls came in - something terrible at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin, 7512 S. Howell Ave. In those first frantic moments, no one outside the temple knew what was happening. A gunman was on the loose, bent on murder, spilling blood in the temple parking lot and inside a place of worship.

Murphy was driving westbound on Puetz Road, approaching Howell Ave., about 12 blocks from the temple. He activated his emergency lights and raced to the scene.

"Well, you have a few things going through your head," he says. "One, I knew I had seven of us working. I knew there would be a good response. I know everybody on the team. There wasn't a whole lot of direction needed to get the response that was going to be needed. When I heard where everyone was coming from, I knew I would be the first on the scene."

He pulled into the parking lot and saw two men lying on the ground. He got out of his vehicle, walked over to check on them. He knew that at least one was dead.

And then, suddenly, he saw someone come out of the temple, running. Murphy held his .45-caliber service revolver.

"As soon as I looked over, it was obvious to see that this more than likely had to be the guy, just by his dress (black pants, white shirt)," he says. "And the fact he had a holster on his hip, kind of the giveaway. At that point, I drew down on him and told him, 'police.' I identified myself and told him to stop."

They were 30 yards apart. Both men fired.

"That's when he hit me in the face," Murphy says.

He went for cover, diving by a car. He had always been told that being shot was like being hit with a sledgehammer. Now he knew.

The gunman outflanked Murphy. Even now, it's something Murphy regrets. He thought the gunman would come straight at him, but, instead, he wheeled around.

The second shot hit Murphy's left thumb.

"I would love to tell you some religious aspect, but my initial thought was, 'that's going to leave a mark,' " Murphy says. "I know it sounds stupid and nobody buys it, but I just looked and thought, 'ooh.' "

"Another shot hit, and it's probably at that point that I dropped my gun," he says.

"One of the things we're taught to do is to minimize yourself, give the least opportunity that you can to other people," Murphy says. "He continued to shoot. He walked around. I could see him. He had hit me at that point in the upper arms. And once I got under the car, he had stopped to reload."

For a few seconds, Murphy says it was quiet, warm and cozy. He thought of his wife, Ann. They got married in June 2011 and never took a honeymoon. They had tickets tucked away for a trip to the Florida Keys. And he thought: That trip isn't going to happen so soon.

The two men didn't speak. The gunman, Murphy says, was businesslike, deadpan.

"He didn't look enraged," Murphy says. "He didn't look anything other than very comfortable in what he was doing."

Murphy went for his squad vehicle and his rifle, crawling to get there. The gunman, just 10 feet away, went after Murphy.

"That's when he shot me in the back of the head, shot me in the back of the arm, shot in the other leg," Murphy says. "And at this point, I had actually thought, when is enough enough? I mean, you hit me. And it would have had to have been apparent to him that he hit me that many times. That's all I thought to myself, 'oh, come on, that's enough.' "

In the distance, he heard the other squad cars. Closer, he heard the sound of his police radio.

And then, he heard the first rifle shot.

Inspiration from book

It was in July when Sam Lenda's mechanic called him over to the garage. The mechanic's dad, a Marine veteran, wanted to give Lenda two books.

One was "Flags of Our Fathers," about the men who raised the flag over Iwo Jima.

The other was "Lone Survivor," written by Marcus Luttrell. Of four Navy SEALS who went on a harrowing mission in July 2005 in Afghanistan, only Luttrell survived the ambush.

Lenda read every night, inspired by the books and also a little awed, especially by "Lone Survivor."

"I remember going to bed thinking if I ever got into the gunfight of my life, when the bullets are flying and my brothers are going down, would I rise to their level or would I coward out?" Lenda says. "And that's the last thought I had on Saturday night, because I just finished reading the book."

The next morning, Aug. 5, he reported for work. "Ordinary day, beautiful day," he says.

Roll call at 7. Lenda was in a rush. He had to view the training video and get to a nearby Kohl's department store by 7:30 a.m. to take a report. He realized he had forgotten to pack his SWAT gear.

After that, he was dispatched to a local hotel.

"Two transvestites were fighting in a parking lot," he says.

And then, another call came in. There was trouble at the Sikh Temple.

"I'm thinking, I'm going to a gunfight and I don't have my (expletive) with me," Lenda says.

He raced to the temple, aiming his vehicle across a median, and looked for the lights of Murphy's vehicle. But he couldn't see them.

"A guy is walking toward me in the parking lot," Lenda says. "What is he doing? What is he doing?"

As he talks, Lenda makes a motion with his hand, like someone is waving at him.

The man in the parking lot was the gunman, Page. He wasn't waving.

"He was shooting at me," Lenda says, moving his arm one way. And then, moving his arm the other way, Lenda says, "He was shooting at Brian."

Lenda says he could not believe what he was seeing and radioed in, "That guy in the parking lot, he's walking toward me."

Lenda backed up his squad and at the same time pushed buttons to release the lock on an assault rifle, an AR-15 that was set between the front seats of the vehicle.

"Oh, he was aggressive," Lenda says. "He's coming. Once he tracked on me and just as he started focusing on me, he was marching toward me, he was coming at me."

"You don't march and you don't reload on the march unless you've been trained," Lenda says. "I'm thinking this guy knows what he's doing. He has a white shirt and black pants. He's reloading. He's reloading."

Lenda wasn't panicked. He's a trainer with decades of SWAT experience.

He knew what to do: press the advantage, turn the hunter into the hunted. "You want to one-up. He has a handgun, you take a rifle," Lenda says. "He has a rifle, you take a howitzer. That's what we're trained to do."

Lenda moved the squad vehicle forward again, to the crest of the hill, set up with his rifle behind the door of his vehicle, and ordered Page to drop his gun.

Page kept firing. One of the shots hit the windshield of Lenda's vehicle, shards of glass flying into his face.

"I thought, this stings more than when I ride my motorcycle in the rain," Lenda says. "I remember tracking him. I kept shooting as he was moving."

Page was 60 yards away.

Lenda says he was intent on stopping him: "This guy can't leave the parking lot, nor can he get back in the church."

Lenda fired six rounds from his rifle; the second or third shot put Page down with a bullet to the abdomen. Page scrambled out of sight and pulled the trigger of his gun.

Lenda and the other officers who arrived on the scene still pressed the attack. They heard a gunshot, but hadn't seen the result.

Finally, they saw the gunman, who was dead.

Lenda came up to Page, kicked the gun away, and then raced over to Murphy.

"After I found Brian, you know what popped into my head, the chapter in the book I had just read," Lenda says.

Chapter 8 of "Lone Survivor" was titled "The Final Battle for Murphy's Ridge."

The officer-down rescue began. Officers Mike Schultz and Kelly Rommel moved Murphy into a squad car. Lenda flagged down two ambulances, and Murphy was loaded into one and whisked off to Froedtert Hospital in Wauwatosa.

He was calm, controlling his breathing. All he requested was that they have a little something at the hospital to control his pain.

Murphy has no memory of the surgery. It took 12 hours. But he remembers waking up, seeing his wife, brother and brother-in-law.

He knew he was going to be fine.

He was in intensive care for three days, moved to another room, and then was up and walking, only steps at the start. He had a tracheal tube for four weeks and used a feeding tube for six weeks. He was released from the hospital Aug. 22.

Murphy's days are now measured in physical therapy appointments and small moments with his wife and two stepchildren. His older daughter lives in South Korea, where she teaches English. But she'll be coming home soon.

He has so much to be thankful for: his life, his family, new bonds forged with the worshippers at the Sikh Temple and bonds that have grown even stronger with the Oak Creek police force and the wider city.

"I went over to the Sikh Temple to pay my respects," Murphy says. "They visited me in the hospital. They have been supportive throughout. They've lost members. Again, how many people are affected? We always say there are six deceased. How many family members are affected? How far does it go? I feel horrible for the six. That's the part I'm sorry about."

He's on leave but wants to get back to work.

"People always ask me, do you flash back, do you have nightmares," Murphy says. "My answer is no. I have none of that. I'm lucky and I touch wood. I'm very fortunate that way. But what I do look back at is what I could have done different. I have always been a big proponent, no reason to go over 70 miles an hour. You put others at risk. But if I could have gone 100, could I have stopped him from shooting just one other person?"

"I apologized to the Sikh Temple for not getting there sooner," he says. "I apologized to my wife for putting her through all of this. You know, how much stress can you get, having to go through something like this? I apologized to my children."

"And I do feel bad that at some point, you think, how did I let him (the gunman) outflank me?" Murphy says. "That's what I'm sorry about."

Lenda has no regrets. Yet he has changed.

"I now spend more time listening to people," Lenda says. "After 33 years you've probably heard most of the stories out there, most of the excuses. Now, I'll spend time with people. To me, minutes are more precious than before. I look at how important time is."

Lenda thinks of Murphy and the wounds he received. And he appreciates the thanks that Murphy gave him when he visited the hospital.

"I knew if Sam was behind a gun, it was going to end," Murphy says.

Questions left

Even as the men explain what happened that day, they are left with as many questions as answers. Milliseconds counted. Fate played a role, too. Why Murphy? Why Lenda? Had Lenda packed his SWAT gear, he would have gone to the back of his car and taken out the vest and the rifle, losing 15 seconds. Decisions were made on the fly. But training guided Oak Creek's officers.

Overshadowing everything, though, were the losses, worshippers killed on a beautiful Sunday morning.

And there is also one last mystery at the heart of this tragedy. Why did Murphy live? Most of the gunshots came from close range, striking him 12 times in his body, and another three in his protective vest.

"I didn't give him anything back," he says. "I didn't yell in pain. I'm not giving you anything. While it might be very self-serving and egotistical, I wonder if there was not some part of him that thought, I don't want to get too close because he's not stopping. No matter how much I shoot him, he's not stopping. And maybe that just held him off enough . . . before Sam could get there. You know what I mean?"

"I don't know the answer," Murphy says. "Nobody knows the answer. It could be purely divine intervention that said every bullet is going to miss an important piece of you."

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