ONE NIGHT IN THE FALL OF 1989, WE AWOKE TO THE shattering of a huge plate-glass window in our record store in the Deep Ellum neighborhood of Dallas. My wife, Deannah, and I bounded out of the bed—our bedroom was in the back of the store—and I grabbed the shotgun propped up in a corner of the room as I ran to the bedroom door. The door was shut, so we had no way of knowing where in the store the intruders were. I pumped a shell into the chamber. If you’ve ever heard the sound of a pump-action shotgun, you know it is distinct.
My wife banged on the door. We were hoping these noises would frighten the intruders away, and we listened intently for any sound in the store.
I remember that as I stood there, completely naked, taking in Deannah’s frightened expression—which probably mirrored my own—I realized I wasn’t prepared for what was happening. Not only were we underdressed for the occasion, but we didn’t even have a phone in our bedroom. We couldn’t call the police for help. But we did have a burglar alarm in the store, and then it dawned on us that if someone had come in, the motion detectors would have set off the alarm. It must have been drunken revelers cruising down Commerce Street. They had probably thrown a rock through the window just for the hell of it. God knows it wouldn’t have been the first time that happened in Deep Ellum, the center of nightlife in Dallas.
Just outside our bedroom door we had six-foot-tall folding wooden partitions that separated our bedroom from our small store. After pulling on some shorts and shoes, I stepped out into the store to survey the damage. Glass was everywhere. The window they had broken was about five feet wide by eight feet tall. I was furious at the mess they had made. But when I looked over at the rack closest to the broken window and noticed several rows of compact discs were missing from the shelves, I felt violated. I know it sounds clichéd. We hear burglary victims say it all the time in the news. Mainly, I think it means feeling helpless: Someone had actually come into my place—while I was there—and taken my property. Suddenly I saw with frightening clarity just how vulnerable we were. It doesn’t just happen to the guy down the street.
After that night, I slept in pajamas and kept a pair of shoes next to the bed. I also began leaving our bedroom door open. The only reason we had slept with it shut in the first place was to keep our two cats from setting off the motion detectors in the middle of the night. And what a joke the motion detectors had turned out to be. We also bought a cordless phone. I repositioned the partitions outside our bedroom door to leave a crack a few inches wide so I could see most of our storefront. And I began keeping a shell pumped in the chamber of my shotgun. After all, the sound of pumping a shotgun might tell the bad guys you’re armed, but it also tells them where you are. If I ever had another unwelcome guest in the middle of the night, I wanted to make sure I had every advantage.
I also thought a great deal about how I would handle the situation if it happened again. I didn’t want to be forced into making split-second life-or-death decisions. I thought about trying to capture the intruder. Maybe I’d yell out, “Freeze or I’ll blow your f—ing head off!” But then what? Do you really shoot? Or do you let him get away? What if he does freeze? Now you have to worry about his buddies waiting for him in the getaway car. Are they willing to come to their comrade’s rescue? And what if there is more than one intruder? A neighbor had seen two people fleeing our store, and a third person had been driving the getaway car. The more I thought about it, the possibilities were limitless.
My wife was alone all day in the store because to make ends meet, I had to continue my job working at a large electronics company. So my biggest fear became—and I think this is probably the most common fear that anyone would have—what if the burglar got away and came back intent on doing more than just stealing my property?
With as much thought as I gave to this issue, I never really decided how I would handle the situation if I was confronted with it again. But I did know one thing for certain. I would be better prepared than I was the first time.
WHEN WE FIRST MOVED TO DEEP ELLUM, WE DIDN’T own a gun. But after hearing some of the crime stories our neighbors had to tell, I felt I needed a way to defend us. Even after I got the gun, we argued over it. My wife didn’t like the idea of having one in her house. But after the burglary, she resigned herself to the fact that she would never persuade me to get rid of it now.
I was raised in a family that owned many guns. My great-great-grandfather homesteaded on some land about sixty miles south of Fort Worth back in 1870. My family still owns about two hundred acres there. My dad used to take my brother and me hunting out there all the time. He taught us to handle guns carefully and with respect. It didn’t bother me in the least to have a loaded gun in my house. In fact, I slept a lot better knowing it was there. But little did we know that our peace of mind would soon be rattled once more. Three weeks after the first burglary, we were hit again. This time we weren’t home. We had left for only twenty minutes. It was around midnight. When we returned home, the police were already there and our alarm, which had actually worked this time, was wailing loudly. It was obvious that the burglars had struck minutes after we’d left and had probably been watching us. The break-in was identical to the first burglary. They threw a large rock at the window that had been broken out the first time. But I had replaced that window with laminated glass; although it cracked into a million pieces, it stayed intact. The burglars just moved to the next window.
I told the police that it must have been the same people. They agreed—it’s common, they told me, for burglars to hit the same place a second time. Then a man drove up and identified himself as a police officer. He was off duty and had been on his way to Adair’s Saloon just down the street when he noticed two suspicious-looking men in front of our store. He turned around in an alley to drive by again, but it was too late. Our alarm was already going off, and he could see our shattered windows. He also saw a car taking off with three occupants.
He chased the car down Oakland Avenue near Fair Park. Although he didn’t actually see the people in the car commit the crime, he felt certain they had. It was obvious they were running from something. He got their license number before losing them. The police suspected that the criminals were using a stolen car: If that was the case, the license number probably wouldn’t be of much use.
Once again, it looked as though our intruders were going to get away scot-free. I was mad as hell. Not only would I have to replace the broken window I’d just spent $300 on, but now I would have to replace the one next to it. Also, they took a lot more merchandise this time. When I replaced the two windows, I decided to use Lexan plastic instead of laminated glass. Although the Lexan cost more money, the glass company assured me I would never have to replace the windows again. The stuff is almost bulletproof, they told me. By the time we had replaced our windows and stolen merchandise, the two break-ins had cost us about $2,500. Fortunately, we had an understanding landlord who worked with us on our rent for a few months, so we didn’t have to come up with the money all at once.
The night after the second burglary, I decided what I hadn’t been able to decide after the first burglary. If I was ever there during another break-in, I would not hesitate to use my gun. And I would shoot to kill. Here I am working two jobs, struggling to make our business a success, and these people come in and take what we’ve worked hard for so they can go to a pawnshop and sell it for a nickel on the dollar. If they came back to my place, I decided, they’d get what they deserved.
A few days later, the detective assigned to my case called. The getaway car hadn’t been reported stolen. It belonged to a man with a long list of previous convictions, including burglary. The man confessed to the crimes but refused to rat on his two partners. He eventually went to prison for his part in the burglaries. Although it was comforting to know that some justice had been served, I still worried about his two partners. I warned Deannah again that the next time there would definitely be gunfire.
Seven months later, Deannah was sitting up in bed watching television—it was about two in the morning—and she heard someone tapping on the window. “Someone is breaking in,” she whispered, shaking me hard.
Before I had time to respond, I heard glass shattering. Deannah didn’t want to see someone die, no matter what they were doing. She knew I had been serious about my threats. Although I’d warned her that if this happened again she was to stay back, she ran to the door and began screaming. I yelled at her to get back in the room. She did, and then I went out, around the partition, and leveled my shotgun. The burglar had broken one of our door windows, crossed the twenty feet to our CD racks, and scooped up a handful of discs. When my wife screamed, he froze—clearly surprised that someone was there—but when he saw me come out from behind the partition, he made a frantic dash for the door. I was about 25 feet away, and I squeezed off one shot just before he got to the door. It didn’t slow him down—he ducked through the broken window of the door and dove headfirst into the waiting getaway car. I moved closer to the door and took another shot as the car sped away. I would later learn that my second shot had pelted their car.
While my wife telephoned the police, I noticed eight compact discs lying on the sidewalk outside the broken door. I went out and began picking them up. What I found got me very excited. Out of eight CDs, seven contained shotgun pellets. If the criminal had been carrying them, he had to have sustained some injury. I told my wife to have the 911 operator start checking the hospitals because he would surely need treatment. I couldn’t believe I’d actually gotten the bastard. And, I must say, it felt good. But that feeling quickly went away when, just moments after the police arrived, their radios became very active: They had stopped a car going the wrong way on a one-way street nearby, and one of the passengers was a gunshot victim. The way it sounded, I thought he was dead.
I learned a few minutes later that he was just wounded. I was relieved that I hadn’t killed him, but—with the exception of Deannah—I was the only one who felt that way. As word spread around our tiny urban community, I became something of a hero. People came from all over Deep Ellum to congratulate me.
As for the burglars, the driver of the car had previous convictions for breaking and entering and was sentenced to ten years. They had had three young ladies with them, along for a joyride. The police released them without filing any charges. I was surprised to learn that the man I had shot, who was in his early twenties, did not have a record. He received six years’ probation. (I like to think that what happened helped him turn his life around. After all, he must have realized he came perilously close to being killed for a few bucks’ worth of CDs. I know that for the past four years, with the exception of a minor probation violation, he has managed to stay out of trouble.)
Shortly after the third break-in, we took in a stray mixed-Labrador puppy, who grew into a beautiful watchdog. For the last three years we were in business, he turned out to be a far better deterrent than my burglar alarm or my shotgun. We were never broken into again.
Although statistics show that violent crime in our society is actually decreasing, the perception by most people is that they are more likely than ever to become a victim. Why? Perhaps it’s because of the randomness of so much of today’s violent crimes. Whatever the reason, people are scared, and more and more of them are arming themselves and choosing to fight back.
I would use deadly force to defend myself or my wife. But when it comes to the defense of property, one needs to think hard about the consequences. I know I was prepared to pull the trigger that night. Otherwise, I would have hesitated. But my life wasn’t threatened. I was angry that someone was trying to take what I had worked hard for. Still, it has been five years since that night, and I continue to brood about what I did and why. I get chills thinking of the moment when the police radio reported a gunshot victim who I thought was dead. Now I know I’m not prepared to use deadly force to protect my property again. I’m the one who would have to live with the memory of someone bleeding to death by my hand, and that is just not worth it.