July 16 06:59 PM

Life on line

Tow truck driver takes weapon from fallen chief, prepared to defend scene

Mike Thorpe went out on a limb to start a towing business four years ago. In April, he went out on a limb to save lives as bullet holes in cab reflect. photo by Catherine Minolli.
June 04, 2008
CAPAC — When Mike Thorpe decided to open a tow truck business he knew he was sticking his neck out.

But the unassuming 40-year-old took the risk four years ago, having no idea just how risky his business venture would be.

Thorpe was shot at outside of suspect Donald Burke's William G. Drive home on April 16 when he drove a wrecker there at the request of Police Chief Raymond Hawks, who was investigating a reckless driving report. Along with calling Thorpe to tow the suspect's vehicle, Hawks' radioed for backup from the county, telling central dispatch that there might be trouble.

Hawks had already knocked on the suspect's door and was in the driveway when Thorpe backed his truck in. Thorpe was sitting in the cab talking to the chief, clueless, he says, of what was about to occur. Shots rang out wildly and the chief went down.

Last Tuesday, Thorpe testified about the incident at Burke's preliminary hearing on multiple charges related to the shooting that wounded two police officers and nearly cost him his life.

Thorpe says once the bullets started flying, it took a minute to fully realize what was happening, but once he did instincts and conditioning took over.

"I had just barely backed up to the (suspect's) car, sitting in the driver's seat talking to the chief," Thorpe recalls. "It took two shots to recognize in my brain what was going on. The chief was shot and one was ricocheting through the cab before I realized 'this is a shooting.'"

Rather than hightail it out of there, Thorpe took a look at what was going on.

"From what I saw in the (sideview) mirror it looked like he was trying to reload that gun, playing with it or unjamming it," Thorpe recalls, noting that he's a longtime hunter and is familiar with firearms. "I did not think it was over."

Thorpe got out of his truck to help the chief. He said he took hold of the chief's service revolver and took a quick look at what was going on.

"I took a peek up to the house over the top of the patrol car to watch and in about two seconds (the suspect) closed the door behind him and I never saw him again," Thorpe says.

So he concentrated on caring for the chief.

"I was trying to figure out how to get him out of there, not realizing (emergency medical personnel) were not coming in there," Thorpe says.

As a tow truck driver, Thorpe is equipped with a radio so he used it to contact central dispatch rather than calling 911. Despite that, he says, he still wasn't getting the information he needed—that he was basically on his own because EMTs weren't allowed to enter the unsecured scene.

"I wish they would have told me that, it would have changed things," he says, adding that it wasn't until neighbors questioned some authorities and reported back that an ambulance wouldn't arrive soon.

Thorpe says the chief was concerned about calling his wife and he tried to talk him into taking care of that later.

"I kept trying to tell him 'let's get you out of here first,'" Thorpe says. "I was concerned that (Hawks' wife Vickie) would freak out and try to race over here.

"But I knew I wouldn't be able to live with myself if I didn't call her. I handed the phone to him so he could tell her himself. I really was afraid about her driving over there."

By then, neighbors Bill Klobnock, Monica Teem, Sandra Jaros and Anthony Kokozska—along with Vickie Hawks who'd rushed to be by her husband's side—helped Thorpe move Hawks onto the back of Thorpe's flatbed truck.

Thorpe says it never occurred to him to get out of the situation, though he's uncomfortable when people call him a hero.

"Some people say 'man, if I was there I'd be hightailing it,'" Thorpe says. "But I don't even like thinking that's how people might act in a situation like that when a person is unable to help themself or defend themself. It's not a time to worry about me."

Thorpe says his conditioning as a wrecker driver—he's seen some horrific crash scenes on area roads—and his instincts as a hunter helped him deal with the harrowing incident. He says he was fully prepared to do whatever necessary to stop the carnage.

"At accident scenes I have to more or less put blinders on and not pay attention to the trauma," Thorpe says. "It was a similar situation so that's what I did. Natural instincts kicked in, you go into a defensive hunt mode. I was not paying attention to the dangers."

The incident has, however, changed the way he thinks, Thorpe says.

"You look over your shoulder a lot more and it's definitely kept me up a bit more at night," he says. "It runs through your mind that those bullets were intended for your head. It's an amazing situation that everyone is lucky to be alive."

Thorpe says he's pretty sure there's a reason for that.

"It really puts in the thought of a higher power," he says. "Everyone is still alive, there were three people shot at and there could have been three funerals. That we all walked away amazes me. It's like there was some sort of guardian angel stopping the bullets."

Hawks continues to recover at Port Huron Hospital, where his condition continues to improve. At a press conference last Wednesday, he told reporters he considers Thorpe and the other neighbors who risked their safety to help him as his guardian angels.

Hawks says he hopes to enter a rehabilitation facility soon, and ultimately continue his recovery at home.

Burke was last Tuesday bound over for trial in circuit court. He's lodged in the St. Clair County Jail on $3 million bond.

Thorpe's company—Mike's Towing and Hauling—is a full road service company who provides AAA road service and is accepted by a dozen or more other insurance providers. For more information call 586-419-Mike's.

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