Winston Pearson remembers how son Aaron loved to hear cop stories when he was growing up.
When the father got home from work, the son would pepper him with questions: What’d you see today? Who’d you arrest? You have to pull your gun? Aaron would soak up details of burglaries and car stops and everyday cases that Winston had encountered as a Jackson County sheriff’s deputy.
So when Aaron called in late 2011 to say he was becoming a police officer, his father wasn’t surprised.
“No doubt about it, I was not disappointed,” said Winston, 58, who pinned the badge on his son when Aaron graduated from the Springfield Police Academy in June 2012. “I was proud. Proud that he had followed in my footsteps.”
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Now he wonders and admits he’s felt a twinge of guilt since the early morning hours of Jan. 26.
Did he tell too many stories? If he hadn’t talked up the profession, shown his son the love he has for it, would Aaron have chosen a different path? Would his son have been spared the .38-caliber bullet that hit him in the head just below his left eye and threatened to leave his two small children without a dad?
But more than the guilt on this Father’s Day is the gratitude. The answered prayers. The love and support of family.
Because somehow, some way, Aaron beat the odds. He and his family battled the doctors’ bleak prognoses. Initially, they told Aaron’s family, “Treat every hour as a victory.” Then, “He’ll likely never talk again. … May not walk much.” And then: “He’ll have weakness in his right side.”
Yet after rehab at a brain injury center in Atlanta and hours of physical and speech therapy, Aaron can talk with his family. He runs as he plays with his children, and he’s working to regain the strength and 50 pounds he has lost since January.
Last month, using his right hand, the 2003 graduate of Blue Springs High School threw out the first pitch for his beloved hometown Kansas City Royals.
Father’s Day holds new meaning for father and son, and for Aaron’s wife, Amanda, and their extended family and friends. A Kansas City area father, still a Jackson County deputy, has his son to text or call nearly every day. And that son, although he won’t have a long police career like his dad, does have his own Jack and Jovie to watch and guide as they grow.
“It reminds me of what we almost didn’t have,” said Amanda, who like her husband of five years grew up the child of a police officer. “I watch him throw the Frisbee with Jack, play with Jovie, and I think, ‘This is the perfect life. I need nothing else.’”
As she spoke, Aaron sat nearby, holding Jovie, who celebrated her first birthday one week ago. He bounced her on his lap and urged her, “Say Dadda.”
Scars from the shooting remain: the groove down the middle of Aaron’s shaved head where doctors put his skull back together, the cavity where his left eye used to be.
Since the shooting, the words sometimes don’t come as quickly and surely as they once did. His brain knows what it wants to say, but longer sentences often come out in what family members call “word salad.”
Yet when he talked about where he is now, what’s important today, he was perfectly clear.
“I think for me,” said Aaron, 30, and then paused for a few seconds and looked over at Amanda before he found the right words and started again. “I have the kids. I want them to be good. That’s all I want.”
‘That phone call’
Aaron hadn’t been a cop long when the tables turned. He was no longer the son just listening to stories. He had his own to tell.
“He would call me two or three, five times a week,” Winston said. “He would be like ‘Hey, Dad, I had this call …,’ or ‘Yeah, it was a slow night.’”
He knew Aaron was good at his job, “had a knack for it.” He smiled as he recalled how Aaron, in his second year, received a commendation for his work busting a drug house.
Winston and his wife, Marsha, were glad that Aaron and Amanda had settled in a nice and seemingly safe community in southwest Missouri. Still, as dads do, he carried some worry.
“I didn’t sit there and stress upon it, but it was always in the back of mind,” Winston said. “That I could get that phone call.”
It came about 3 a.m. the fourth Monday of January. The deputy let the first call go, thinking it was a fellow officer needing him to catch an earlier shift. He’d call back later, Winston thought.
Less than five minutes later, the phone rang again. Same number. He knew he’d better get it this time.
“Winston, are you awake?”
It was Tom Dempsey, Amanda’s father. Like Aaron’s dad, Dempsey had spent a career in law enforcement working for Springfield police. He had risen to sergeant with the department before an on-the-job knee injury sidelined him in 2001.
From the minute Dempsey heard his son-in-law had been shot, he told police he wanted to be the one to call Winston.
“I wanted him to hear it from me. I didn’t want some stranger calling him,” Dempsey said. “I knew as a police officer and father, he’d rather hear it from me.”
The words he said over the phone that Monday morning have stayed in Winston’s mind.
“Aaron’s been shot. It’s bad. You need to get down here now.”
Without knowing any details, Winston could tell by Dempsey’s voice the severity of what his son faced. He knew he needed to get the family — Aaron’s mom and the young man’s brother and niece — on the road for what would be three hours of silence and prayer.
Before he went through the house waking people up, Winston felt the reality of what had happened, the “double whammy.”
“Not only did I find out that a fellow officer had been shot,” he said, “but that officer was my son.”
Amanda, already at the hospital, had been told her husband had been shot in the head. She’d been awakened by the doorbell at the couple’s home just west of Springfield.
As a daughter and wife of a cop, she knew that sometimes burglars ring the doorbell to see if anyone is home. So to be safe, she called her husband’s cellphone. After getting no answer, she turned on all the lights before answering the door.
There stood two police officers and a Springfield sergeant. Something had happened to Aaron, they told her, “and we need to take you to the hospital.” No details. She called family to come stay with the kids.
Early on during the drive to the hospital, she felt some relief. The sergeant, who finally told her that Aaron had been shot, didn’t have his lights and sirens going.
That’s a good sign, she thought.
But before long, he turned them on.
Oh my God, Amanda thought. It’s worse. I’m going there to say goodbye.
A dad’s voice
Winston’s only prayer as he drove to Springfield was that his son stay alive long enough for him to say goodbye. He didn’t want to call for an update, afraid they might tell him he was too late.
When he got to the hospital, he learned that doctors had removed part of Aaron’s skull to reduce the swelling in his brain.
Now, as Aaron lay in the hospital bed, all bandages, tubes and cords, the prayers and concerns changed. Winston went through stages, from watching the clock tick by every minute to wondering what new obstacle they’d face.
The questions were overwhelming: When the bandages came off, would his son have a hole in his head? Would he recognize anyone? Would he know his father and mother? His wife? His two kids?
News from the medical team brought new fears.
Physicians cautioned that if he made it, his personality could be different. Because of the part of his brain that was injured, he could be quick to anger and might struggle with what’s right from wrong. The list kept coming.
“They said he’d be weak on his right side and probably never be able to talk,” Amanda recalled. “That’s when I broke down.”
She’d fallen in love with his sense of humor, his personality. And what about Jackson and Jovie?
After a few days, physicians brought Aaron out of the coma.
“We had no idea what we would get when he woke up,” Amanda said.
Winston could see his son was still there; he watched him look at people when they came into the room. He knew Aaron recognized people.
Each day brought new successes. Before long, Aaron was eager to see his kids. Jackson came in first.
Amanda remembers the nurses fixing up the room, using nice quilts to cover the cords and tubes and bringing in two stuffed animals for Aaron to give his son.
“He just wanted to see his dad,” Amanda said. And Aaron needed to see his boy.
He was also ready for his daughter, then 7 months old. He put a pillow under his left arm, cradled it and pointed to where the baby would lie.
“When they brought her in,” Winston said, “his face lit up like a Christmas tree.”
As Aaron held his daughter, his family watched him put his face to hers.
“Hey, Jovie Jo,” he said, and made silly noises to make her smile.
That was the moment.
Winston felt his fears lessen a bit. And for Amanda, such relief. Aaron not only knew his daughter, but he called her by her nickname.
“I knew everything was going to be OK at that point,” Amanda said.
Five months after the shooting, fragments of the bullet are still lodged in Aaron’s brain. He has a prosthetic left eye, and he’s back to working out at the gym, building up the strength he became known for at the academy.
“If you’d look at his class and say, ‘Who would I not want to fight?’ he would be one of them,” said retired lieutenant Greg Wheelen, who taught Aaron. “He was a strong, strong kid. Still is.”
Doctors told Amanda several times that he probably survived because he was so physically fit.
The pressure he put on himself in the academy is also coming through as he builds himself back up. After a recent speech therapy session in which Aaron scored a 29 out of 30, Amanda teased him about focusing on the one he didn’t get right.
Aaron just shook his head. He wants to do better. To become stronger.
“I always try to do things,” he said. “I’m always just trying. I want to do it the way I’ve always done it.
“It’s frustrating, I won’t lie.”
He isn’t sure what lies ahead. They take little steps. He had planned to test for a driver’s license in a few weeks, but he recently suffered a minor setback.
Amanda had dropped him off to hang out with his squad from the department and Aaron suffered a grand mal seizure, something that sometimes comes with head injuries.
“I wasn’t happy about that one,” Aaron said. The driver’s license will wait. And Amanda won’t return to teaching this fall.
When talk circles around to the future, a job or more school, he shrugs.
“I don’t know what I’ll have in the next couple months,” he said. “I don’t know exactly what I’m going to be able to do, unfortunately.”
For Aaron’s dad, the guilt hangs on.
He remembers a time, before Aaron joined the Springfield force, when his son asked him about being a cop.
“I told him, ‘You’ll never get rich. But there’s one thing I’ll tell you,’” Winston told his son. “‘You will love your job and love every minute of it.’”
As he works his deputy post at the Historic Truman Courthouse in Independence, Winston still loves what he does. But the way he views law enforcement has changed. That’s hard to handle some days.
“I went for 30 years and nothing ever happened to me,” he said. “I’ve been stabbed, grabbed, hit and punched, but never been shot, never had to shoot anybody.
“And Aaron, he was just on three years,” Winston said. “The thing I love, this profession I dedicated my life to, almost took my son.
“But every day he gets better — I get better.”