When Kansas City police tried to stop a man acting suspiciously, he ran. As the officers followed him around a corner, he stepped from the shadows, gun in hand, and started firing.
The first bullet hit Officer Patrick Brown square in the chest, knocking him off of his feet.
The gunman then turned his weapon on Brown’s partner, Officer Brian Schoen, and let loose a volley. One bullet ripped a chunk of flesh off Schoen’s right hip. Another slammed into his left thigh, nicking the femoral artery.
Overcoming the fear, pain and surprise of the moment, Schoen drew his weapon and fired back. Brown, saved by his bullet-resistant vest and roused from being temporarily disoriented, did too.
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The suspect fell to the ground, wounded by two bullets.
Twenty years after that short, vicious gunfight in the heart of Kansas City, a peculiar fluke in Missouri law is forcing Brown and Schoen to relive the night they almost died so they can fight the possible release from prison of the man who tried to kill them.
“I truly have more sympathy for what victims go through,” Schoen said of the situation. “I know what it feels like to be victimized over and over and over again.”
When Saeed Aquil, then 24, was sentenced in 1996 to 60 years in prison for shooting the officers, everyone in the courtroom, including the judge, thought Aquil would have to serve 85 percent of the sentence before becoming eligible for parole.
“The gravity of his crime justifies the sentence,” Circuit Judge David Shinn said at the time.
Brown and Schoen even received letters from state officials letting them know that Aquil wouldn’t see the parole board until 2037.
But later, Missouri Department of Corrections officials recalculated the sentence and determined that Aquil was entitled to an earlier chance at freedom.
Though Missouri’s so-called 85 percent rule covered first-degree aggravated assault, it didn’t cover the separate crime of aggravated assault on a law enforcement officer, officials had determined.
Missouri lawmakers added that crime and others to the covered list in 2003, but the rule couldn’t be applied retroactively to Aquil. To the chagrin of Brown and Schoen, their assailant became eligible for parole after serving only about 12 years.
Wednesday, for the third time, he will have a hearing with the state parole board.
Brown and Schoen plan to be there, for the third time, to express their opposition. They have collected letters and petition signatures from other people also opposed to Aquil’s release.
“Why would we want this guy out in our community?” Schoen asked.
Aquil, now 43, lives at the Crossroads Correctional Center in Cameron, Mo. In a phone interview Friday, he expressed regret for the “bad choices” he made that night.
“It has been the bane of my existence,” he said. “I was young and stupid and did a really stupid thing.”
He was carrying a gun, he said, because he was trying to be “cool” in the eyes of his friends. But he has changed his ways, he said.
“I’ve long since accepted Jesus Christ in my life,” he said.
Both officers were about a year into their law enforcement careers on New Year’s Eve 1994 when they spotted two suspicious figures near a building at 37th Street and Prospect Avenue. They decided to stop them and see what they were doing.
Ice and snow coated the streets that bitterly cold day. When Brown steered their patrol car onto 37th Street, it slid down the hill before stopping. As the officers got out, Brown told the men they had seen to stop. Instead, the two figures darted around the other side of the building.
The officers walked around the corner. Aquil had his back to them. When Brown told him to take his hands out of his pockets, Aquil wheeled around holding a 9mm pistol. Before either officer could react, he pulled the trigger.
Brown said Aquil was only about six feet away and looked him in the eye before he fired.
“One minute I was standing and the next minute I was on my back,” Brown said.
In those helpless seconds, Brown heard more shots. He thought the gunman was shooting at him still. Actually, he heard Schoen and Aquil firing at each other.
The other person with Aquil had kept running, and he got away.
Aquil could have easily done the same thing, Schoen said.
“We didn’t have him cornered,” he said. “He could have just disappeared into the neighborhood.”
Questioned later by detectives, Aquil said he knew that the men were police officers. But he didn’t know them personally.
“You wouldn’t expect me to stop for someone I didn’t know,” Aquil said, according to a written synopsis of that interview.
He also claimed that Brown had his weapon out, so he shot him in “self-defense.”
Brown, however, was holding only a flashlight. He didn’t draw his weapon until after he fell to the ground.
Today, Schoen is a sergeant with the department. Brown, now a civilian, left the department in 2007.
Both consented to the plea agreement only because they were told Aquil would have to serve 85 percent of the sentence, Brown said.
“If I had to do it again, I’d make them try the case and take our chances with a jury,” Brown said.
Now they are forced to relive the incident every couple of years. The longest Aquil can be passed over for parole is five years.
Both of his victims are committed to doing everything they can to ensure that he serves his full sentence for what they believe was an ambush.
“Deliberate, calculated and without remorse,” Brown said. “He plotted to kill us.”