National News

Wounded Officer Had Sought a ‘Simpler Life’ Patrolling Schools

Posted May 21, 2018 2:18 p.m. EDT
Updated May 21, 2018 2:24 p.m. EDT

SANTA FE, Texas — In his 23-year career on the Houston police force, patrolling rough neighborhoods and working investigations, Officer John Barnes never had to fire his gun in a confrontation, his stepfather said.

But on Friday, four months into his new job on the force that serves the Santa Fe Independent School District, gunshots erupted in the hallways and classrooms of the high school where Barnes was working.

He and the force’s assistant chief ran toward the noise, and as Barnes confronted the 17-year-old gunman, he took a shotgun blast to his right arm. His gun was out and his arm was extended, family members said, but it was not clear whether he had fired.

As he lay bleeding on the floor of the school, Barnes urged the other officer to leave him behind and see to the students, according to his stepfather, Ronald Hatchett. The other officer later returned and tied a tourniquet around Barnes’ arm.

“It was entirely within his character to do what he did,” Hatchett said of his stepson in an interview Sunday. “He was first through the door. He suffered for being first through the door.”

The immediate rush by the two school officers to confront the suspect offered a sharp contrast to how a Florida sheriff’s deputy responded to gunshots at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School — by remaining outside the building where students had been killed. The former Broward County deputy, Scot Peterson, was criticized for taking cover behind a wall and not heading inside to confront the gunman during the deadly six-minute rampage on Feb. 14.

Still, many details about the law-enforcement response in Santa Fe remain hazy. The Galveston County sheriff, Henry Trochesset, told CNN on Sunday that officers engaged in a 25-minute firefight with the gunman. It is unclear exactly what happened during that time, exactly how the suspect surrendered or whether any students were struck by crossfire. Trochesset said that authorities were still waiting on autopsy results.

Of the 13 people wounded in the deadly shooting Friday, Barnes, 49, may now face the hardest, most tenuous path. He was still in critical condition Sunday at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, and he was being heavily sedated, Hatchett said.

Barnes lost huge amounts of blood after the shotgun blast shredded his right elbow. His heart stopped twice, Hatchett said — once while he was being evacuated by helicopter to the hospital, and again on the operating table. His kidney function was still “in peril,” and doctors do not yet know how his arm will be affected, Hatchett said.

“He is by no means completely out of the woods,” he said.

For a while Saturday, the doctors eased back on the sedation, allowing Barnes to open his eyes from his hospital bed, hold his wife’s hand and listen to his family tell him that they loved him.

“Everybody said, ‘You’re a real hero, John — we’re so proud of what you’ve been doing,'” Hatchett said. “We told him we’re going to be here with you.”

Since he was 10, John Barnes had wanted to be a cop, Hatchett said. In old photos that the family has been flipping through lately, he can be seen holding a BB gun with a law enforcement officer’s posture and authority.

His mother worried about what could happen to him and tried to dissuade him from a police career, Hatchett said, “but he never wavered.”

He worked as a corrections officer in Tarrant County, which includes Fort Worth, until a spot opened up at the police academy in Houston in 1994. He struck other cadets there as friendly and engaging, introducing himself so often as “John Barnes from Tarrant County” that they nicknamed him Tarrant County.

He was interested in the intricacies of police work and asked instructors question after question, to the point that his questions ate into the cadets’ break time, according to a friend, Capt. Jim Dale of the Houston Police Department.

Among his assignments on the Houston force were investigations of sex crimes, and he once pulled a man from a burning car, family and friends said. He retired from the force in January and began working in the Santa Fe schools, where his wife, Ashley, is an assistant principal at Roy J. Wollam Elementary.

He told Dale he was seeking a “simpler life,” one in which he would work closer to home and have summers free with his wife, 10-year-old daughter and 15-year-old son.

Even so, his stepfather said, Barnes recognized the stress and complexities of working in a school of 1,400 students, and had trained with other officers for the possibility of a school shooting.

The force that covers the Santa Fe schools has seven officers — including a chief and assistant chief — as well as a dispatcher and auxiliary officers, according to its website. The school district’s police chief did not return a phone message seeking comment.

“They had an anti-shooter plan that they’d been working on,” Hatchett said. “John had extensive practice at the firing range to make sure his skills were up to snuff.” His family now takes turns staying beside Barnes’ bed — all except his wife, who has been there constantly since she heard the news that a Santa Fe school officer had been shot. Amid phone calls and plaudits from the governor, other political figures and higher-ups in law enforcement, Ashley Barnes told her husband’s friend, Dale, that she did not see what the big deal was about what he had done Friday.

“John’s a hero all the time,” she told him.