Ex-cop: I know the pain of Dallas - I was shot in 1970 amid racial turmoil

PTOM09
Thomas J. Gibbons Jr. in the emergency room on Aug. 30, 1970. He underwent multiple surgeries and spent months in the hospital recovering from his injuries.

Editor's note: Thomas J. Gibbons Jr. is a retired Inquirer reporter whose late father was Philadelphia police commissioner from 1952 to 1960. He writes about surviving a shooting 46 years ago when he was a Philadelphia policeman.

A street-level ambush.

Occasionally I worried about that scenario, but I didn't dwell on it. As a 25-year-old Philadelphia Highway Patrol officer in the summer of 1970, I believed I was indestructible. And on the August night I was nearly shot to death, I learned I was wrong.

But a deliberate attack on uniformed police by a sniper from an elevated, planned position such as the one that occurred Thursday night during protests in Dallas, leaving five officers dead, would never have entered my mind.

So when I heard an early TV news report from Dallas on Friday morning, I was beyond stunned. After all, this is America. That kind of violence against police happens in third-world countries. Now, the playbook seems changed.

In my case, I was one of seven officers shot in one of the bloodiest weekends for Philadelphia police.

At 8:25 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 30, 1970, Philadelphia's inner-city neighborhoods were already tense. Almost exactly 24 hours earlier, Fairmount Park Police Sgt. Frank Von Colln had been ambushed and shot dead at his desk in the guardhouse headquarters near Cobbs Creek Parkway in West Philadelphia. A short while later, Park Guard Officer James Harrington was shot in the face when he and his partner drove up to the same guardhouse to get fuel for their emergency patrol wagon.

A manhunt for the killers was ordered by then-Police Commissioner Frank L. Rizzo, who took charge at the scene Saturday. Officers from all over the city, including the Highway Patrol and Stakeout (now SWAT) poured into the area, searching for the gunmen.

In our unmarked Ford sedan, my police partner, John Nolen, and I raced in from South Philadelphia. Searchers soon turned up grenades with trip wires near the guardhouse. Rizzo declared it a plot to kill police. Nolen and I gingerly searched behind the guardhouse down to Cobbs Creek.

By midnight, as suspects were being questioned, things began to calm and we were ordered to return to our headquarters in Bustleton. At 30th and Market Streets, we got a Sunday Bulletin, and the front page alarmed us. It carried a graphic picture of Von Colln dead on the guardhouse floor. Rizzo had permitted photographers to take the photo to show the radical, organized violence then fomenting against police.

On Sunday night, Nolen and I were teamed again. We had been practicing on our police motorcycles for the annual Thrill Show, then at John F. Kennedy Stadium, but the drill team officers' scheduled weekend off was canceled because of simmering racial violence in the city and an upcoming convention at Temple University involving the Black Panthers.

Our tour of duty began with a car chase in West Philadelphia, started by district officers. Around 8, following a fast-food dinner, we resumed our patrol. Meanwhile, two men were driving through the neighborhood in a stolen Cadillac. The pair had burglarized a motel room in Washington, but were surprised by detectives summoned to the room by the manager. The detectives were bound and beaten. The pair took their police service revolvers, escaped, and headed to Philadelphia, their hometown. They had those guns in the Caddy.

Nolen and I were cruising Walnut Street when we spotted the shiny new Eldorado. The trunk lock was punched out - odd for a new vehicle. The men turned onto southbound 59th Street. We pulled them over at Cedar Avenue.

Because I was driving, I walked up to the driver still behind the steering wheel. Nolen went to the passenger side. I asked for the driver's license and registration. Meanwhile, I scanned the car's interior. Suddenly, Nolen yelled to me over the car's roof.

"Look out, Tom, he's got a -"

Nolen never finished the sentence. I heard a gunshot and looked over the roof at Nolen staggering back, blood gushing from his face from a shot fired by the passenger through a folded newspaper. I was trying to absorb everything. My eyes turned to the driver. Now he had a revolver pointed at me. I began to draw my .38-caliber revolver, but as I brought it up from the holster, he shot me in the right elbow.

The bullet broke my right arm and severed the ulnar nerve. The impact threw me to the street. My spit-shined black motorcycle boots scraped hard on the macadam. Before I could get my weapon in my left hand, the driver leaned out of the window and fired at me. Another slug grazed my right wrist. I needed to get cover and started to crawl across 59th Street to a parked truck.

Just as I got alongside the truck, another shot hit, entering my back near the spine, glancing off my pelvis and traveling upward, ripping through my liver, intestines, and stomach before deflating my right lung and coming to a stop in the chest wall. I couldn't breathe too well!

But I rolled under the truck and into the filthy gutter in my well-pressed motorcycle breeches and gray shirt.

I took stock. I couldn't believe what had just happened. I didn't know where the gunmen or Nolen were. But I still had my gun and pointed it with my left hand.

Suddenly I heard a volley of gunshots, then the sounds of what I suspected was the Caddy speeding away. I thought they had killed Nolen. What I didn't know was that both men began to exit the car from the passenger side. Nolen, who lived down the block from me and was almost the best shot in our police academy class, regained consciousness on the sidewalk and opened fire on the pair, forcing the driver back into the car and striking the passenger in the heel, a wound that left a blood trail as he ran away.

As the driver sped off, Nolen crawled to our car and got on the radio, but had trouble with our location. He crawled to a street sign, then told dispatchers where we were. I heard the blessed sounds of the sirens coming. An officer scooped me up and threw me in the back of his car. Gasping for air, I told him what happened and gave a description of the Caddy and the driver. I also asked him to get me a Catholic priest.

Misericordia, a Catholic hospital now called Mercy Philadelphia Hospital, was just several blocks away at 54th and Cedar. We were there in moments. Attendants got me on a gurney and into the emergency room, stripped me, and began tracing the paths of the bullets, seemingly playing tic-tac-toe with their pens on my torso. Nolen arrived via a police wagon and was put on a gurney next to me, stunning doctors when they discovered that the bullet that hit his cheek had exited out his ear, sparing life-threatening problems.

Meanwhile, police found the unoccupied Cadillac abandoned not far from the shooting scene, a bullet hole in the windshield. Police traced the blood trail to a house a short distance away, where the passenger was captured. The driver was arrested six weeks later in West Oak Lane, still armed with the gun used to shoot me.

Rizzo brought Daily News columnist Tom Fox into the emergency room to see us, along with photographers. Fox took notes as we tried hard to brief the commissioner.

I would undergo multiple surgeries, battle a serious infection, come down with Hepatitis B from blood transfusions, and spend months in the hospital recovering from the injuries. Nolen, because the trajectory of the bullet missed his brain and went out his ear, was discharged in a week.

Both assailants were convicted and sentenced to prison.

The weekend of Aug. 29, 1970, I was one of seven officers shot in what turned out to be the bloodiest weekend for city police in recent memory.

Nolen and I both left the department on disability. He worked decades as an auto damage appraiser and then as a charter boat captain in Ocean City, N.J. He died in 2014.

I became a reporter for the Evening Bulletin and then for the Inquirer. I retired in 2005.

In my 32 years as a reporter in the city, I covered a number of stories about officers being killed, fatally shot, or wounded in the line of duty. I stood outside countless hospitals waiting for the news conference that would tell me whether the victim was dead or alive. I forced myself to suppress any feelings during the briefing and then again when I wrote the piece.

I did the same thing when I went to the homes of police officers in the days after a horrible incident involving them. That was even tougher for me, because I was interacting with a direct relative, not the mayor or police commissioner.

But in retirement, it hits home at a higher level. I attend a service every month for officers who have died in the line of duty, some of whom I knew, have written about, or were friends of my dad's. Sometimes I'm called on to read their names. That's another mountain I climb. I try to get through it with tight lips.

In the next few days, I'll watch the televised Dallas funerals. I'll hear the bagpipes. And it will all become real for me again. The families of the slain officers, the wounded cops facing years of uncertainty.

I stand with them.