Hesston Police Chief Doug Schroeder isn’t comfortable with being called a hero.
He was simply doing what had to be done, he said, when he received word the afternoon of Feb. 25 that there was a man shooting people at the Excel plant across town.
Not knowing who the shooter was, where he was or what he was armed with, Schroeder nevertheless entered the plant alone and minutes later shot and killed the gunman, identified as Excel employee Cedric Ford.
Before Schroeder intervened, Ford had killed three people and wounded 14 others. He was going after another employee when Schroeder shot him.
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“When I retire … I don’t really want to be known by one event, my actions within five minutes of one day of my life,” said Schroeder, who turns 41 on Sunday.
Schroeder is being honored for those five minutes later this week. He has been named Law Enforcement Hero of the Year by the Wichita Crime Commission, which will hold its 63rd annual awards banquet on Wednesday night.
“I’m humbled by the award,” Schroeder said. “Most everyone in law enforcement, you don’t do this for the accolades. You don’t do this for the recognition.
“You do this for the individuals you’re able to help.”
There’s no doubt, area law enforcement officials say, that more people would have been killed or injured at Excel if Schroeder hadn’t responded so quickly and decisively.
“This is really and truly a case where the chief was a hero,” said John Sullivan, who was senior agent in charge of the Wichita office of the FBI when the mass shooting occurred.
“The chief really saved lives that day.”
Fleeing in terror
Schroeder would not discuss what happened once he entered the Excel plant in Hesston on that February day, citing the active criminal case against Ford’s girlfriend, Sarah Jo Hopkins.
She pleaded guilty last month to providing the weapons Ford used in the shooting. Hopkins is scheduled to be sentenced on Nov. 28 in U.S. District Court.
But Sullivan provided the following account – based on his knowledge of the official Kansas Bureau of Investigation review – which was confirmed by Schroeder.
The chief was responding to reports of traffic accidents and gunfire along old U.S. 81 between Newton and Hesston when Harvey County emergency dispatchers relayed a report of a shooter at Excel.
Emergency dispatchers with Harvey County Communications discuss how events unfolded during the shooting spree at Excel Industries Feb. 25. (Mike Hutmacher, The Wichita Eagle)
Schroeder parked near an entrance in the middle of the plant building at 200 S. Ridge Road. As he arrived, he saw 300 to 400 employees running from the building.
“You can imagine the mass exodus,” Sullivan said. The employees, he said, were “fleeing in terror.”
As the people ran, Schroeder asked questions: “Who’s the shooter?” “Where are they?” “What does he look like?”
But “people are running from the building, literally for their lives,” Sullivan said, and they gave Schroeder few details.
“It was chaos,” Harvey County Sheriff T. Walton said. “People were actually running into the shooter.”
Schroeder went into a small building known as the tool crib and then into the main building through an adjoining door.
“To me, what’s really courageous is this is a guy that doesn’t know how many shooters there are or where they are at,” Sullivan said. “He doesn’t have any idea what he’s looking for.”
When Schroeder opened the door between the tool crib and the main building, “there’s a blood trail going both directions,” Sullivan said.
The blood trails, Walton said, were the result of employees dragging wounded co-workers out of harm’s way.
A left turn would have taken Schroeder to the rear of the main building. A right turn would lead him to the front.
“It was quiet,” Sullivan said. “He didn’t hear any screaming or yelling.”
Schroeder chose to turn right and headed toward the front of the building. He began to hear gunfire.
He crossed paths with an employee trying to leave the building. That employee directed him through the maze of hallways to an area with numerous offices.
Adam Miller was shot twice in the chest and once in his arm and his leg during the mass shooting at Excel Industries in Hesston, Kansas. (Mike Hutmacher, The Wichita Eagle)
Schroeder came across another employee next to the human resources department. As the employee gave the chief instructions on how to get to the front lobby, a window pane in a door behind the employee shattered.
As Schroeder was trying to figure out why the window had shattered, he heard “I’m going to get you” from the other side of the door.
It was Ford, who had shot at the door trying to kill the employee. Schroeder was standing just to the left of the door. The employee ran down the hall to the right, fleeing from Ford.
The door opened and Schroeder watched as the barrel of an AK-47 came into view. Ford emerged from the doorway, then made a hard right turn to chase after the employee.
“What he didn’t realize was that the chief was standing immediately to his left,” Sullivan said.
What happened next showed how Schroeder was able to maintain his composure in a highly stressful situation, Wichita Police Chief Gordon Ramsay said.
Schroeder fired four shots, Walton said. All four hit Ford. He died at the scene.
As he was falling, however, Ford turned and fired shots at Schroeder with his handgun.
In his interview with the KBI, Schroeder said, “I saw the shell casings being ejected from the handgun, but I didn’t hear the shots.”
His police radio wouldn’t work inside the Excel building, so Schroeder found an employee to call 911 and report that the shooter was down.
Ford had ammunition for both the rifle and handgun with him when he was killed, and he was starting down a hallway where many employees were hiding inside offices.
“This man was not done shooting,” Walton said. “This man was going to shoot every round he had.
“It’s hard to tell how many people’s lives he (Schroeder) saved.”
Authorities believed Ford went on the shooting rampage because he was upset over being served with a protection from abuse order while working at Excel. Ford left work, then returned about 90 minutes later and began shooting.
‘God was with me’
The events of that day are seared into Schroeder’s memory.
“I remember everything from that day,” he said last week from his office in Hesston. “It definitely seemed like time was slowed down.”
Waiting for other law enforcement officers to arrive before he went into the plant simply wasn’t an option, he said. Research has shown that an active shooter fires a shot every four seconds – and that the average police response time is between five and six minutes.
“If you do the math, there’s a lot of shots in a short amount of time,” Schroeder said.
“Time is critical to saving lives, to saving casualties.”
Authorities said Ford fired at people throughout the building. Renee Benjamin, 30, was killed in the paint-line area in the back of the building, Walton said.
Josh Higbee, 31, and Brian Sadowsky, 44, were both shot to death closer to the front of the building, Walton said.
Many employees who made it out of the building gathered in a group across the street.
“He could have come out the front door and sprayed that area with the AK-47,” Walton said. “He didn’t, and we’re very fortunate.”
Next year marks Schroeder’s 20th anniversary as a law enforcement officer. There’s been a lot of training over those two decades – “training for the worst, hoping for the best,” Schroeder said. “We don’t put our head in the sand.”
That training “prepared me in ways I didn’t realize,” Schroeder said, including proper tactics and maintaining composure.
“The benefit of training and planning is that you don’t have to think about it,” he said.
Once he realized what he had to do, the training kicked in. Walton called it a form of muscle memory.
“Honestly, if I knew 20 years ago what I’d be through in these last 20 years, I don’t think I’d have the courage to be a police officer,” Schroeder said. “I just wouldn’t.
“I’ve seen too much. I’ve done too much. I’ve seen too much evil.”
But the training he has received over the years gave him the tools to do what had to be done, he said.
In retrospect, said Sullivan – the former FBI agent and now head of security at Via Christi Health – the outcome could have been much different if Schroeder had taken a different route to the front of the building or not reached the fateful hallway when he did.
As an Excel employee, Ford knew the building’s hallways well; Schroeder did not.
“God was with me, no doubt,” Schroeder said. “No doubt.”
Schroeder credits his family, his deep faith and the support of his church community with helping him process the events of that day.
“The first thing I said when I called my wife after it was over was ‘I’m sorry you married a cop,’ ” said Schroeder, who has been Hesston’s police chief since 2001.
As difficult as it is for a police officer to go through a deadly shooting, he said, “it’s just as difficult for my family. If somebody had to do it, I feel like I had the strongest support network that somebody could have.”
Recognizing how much the training he has received helped him do his job that day, Schroeder said he will one day begin to review that day with other law enforcement agencies so they can be better prepared in the event something like that happens.
“At some point in time, we in Hesston have an obligation to share the lessons we’ve learned,” he said.
Beyond that, however, Schroeder said he’s eager to move on and help return normalcy to Hesston. But it’s a new normal.
“Everyone in Hesston was touched, everyone in Harvey County,” Schroeder said. “For once, it wasn’t on the news. It was in their backyard.
“There’s a certain amount of realism that frightens people. And it should to an extent that we should all be aware and take precautions, but not to the extent that we live in fear.”
If there’s a silver lining to one of the darkest days in Hesston’s history, Schroeder said, it’s that businesses in small towns all over have taken a hard look at how they would handle active-shooter situations.
“What we heard a lot was ‘If it can happen in Hesston, it can happen anywhere,’ ” he said.
Police chief honor
What: Wichita Crime Commission Awards Banquet
When: 6 p.m. Wednesday
Where: DoubleTree by Hilton Wichita Airport
Cost: $100 per person, $950 per table of 10