Trooper still recovering from shooting
Vail, CO Colorado
GLENWOOD SPRINGS ” As the only person to earn two purple hearts from the Colorado State Patrol, Brian Koch has the scars and pain to prove it.
Today, he can only wait and wonder whether he’ll recover enough from his latest on-the-job injury to be able to put on a uniform and go out on patrol again.
On Thursday morning, Koch’s fellow state troopers lined up at Two Rivers Park in Glenwood Springs to have their vehicles, uniforms and weapons inspected as part of the Glenwood patrol post’s annual meeting. Nearby, Koch stood in a coat and tie and talked about how it could be a year or more before he’ll know whether he can rejoin them out on the streets.
Koch was seriously injured Oct. 24 by a gunman during what he had thought would be a routine traffic stop south of Silt. A bullet shattered his left forearm before being stopped by his bulletproof vest.
Koch has undergone several surgeries and was able to return to light desk duty at the Glenwood office about a month ago. He wears a removable cast on his left arm, still has no feeling in his left hand, and can’t bend his left index finger or straighten his middle one.
He has seen no further progress in nerve recovery in two months, and may face further surgery that would involve having tendons transplanted from his right arm to his left arm.
“It’s a long process of nerve recovery and bone regeneration, but hopefully I’ll make a full recovery,” Koch said in his first comments to the news media since the shooting.
Whatever Koch’s future, State Patrol Chief Col. Mark Trostel, said he is impressed by the road Koch has traveled so far.
“He’s a tough guy, very committed,” Trostel said. “That’s not unusual for a trooper, though.”
But Koch’s experiences are unusual for a trooper. In 2001, while working out of the Eagle post, he suffered serious back injuries after being attacked by passengers during a drunken driving stop.
He and an Eagle County sheriff’s deputy restrained the attackers, but Koch’s spine was broken. It took him more than a year to come back from that injury.
“I had to learn to walk again,” Koch said.
The tall, soft-spoken Koch jokes that the back injury knocked a little height off his formerly 6-foot-5 frame.
Koch said he had pulled over Steven Appl for driving 60 mph in a 30-mph zone. Then Appl “ambushed” him, firing at him as he approached the stolen car Appl was driving, Koch said. He said he had time only to shout “no!” at Appl before being shot.
While officers are trained to approach cars with caution, Koch said he has pulled over thousands of vehicles. He said he reacted with a brief moment of shock when he realized he was shot. He also experienced severe pain.
In addition, he “most certainly” feared for his life, and quickly shifted into survival mode, he said.
“Our goal is to go home at the end of our shift to our families,” Koch said.
Koch credits a “warrior mentality,” resulting in part from his training, for helping him take steps to respond to the situation.
He said he fired back at Appl, and Appl began to drive off, then stopped about 50 yards away. Koch, who was lying on the road, feared that Appl might try to back over him or get into a shoot-out with him, so Koch kept firing. He said he ended up firing a total of 10 rounds at Appl, during an encounter that may have lasted 15 or 20 seconds.
He said he apparently struck Appl’s vehicle enough times that the tires went flat. The vehicle eventually was found abandoned several miles up a road south of Silt.
Appl, who lived in rural Battlement Mesa, shot and killed himself the next day at a police checkpoint near Silt while hiding in the back of a vehicle being driven by someone else, police say.
Koch said once Appl had fled the shooting scene, his attention turned to the amount of blood he was losing from his arm, and a fear that the bullet may have pierced his vest and entered his torso. He also was anxious to call dispatchers with information about Appl and the vehicle he was driving.
Koch struggled to get back to his car, falling to his knees and crawling there. After two passersby came upon the scene, they applied a tourniquet to Koch’s arm.
Koch is proud that he was able to remain clear-headed enough to get out a warning and vehicle description to police. He didn’t expect that Appl would end up killing himself.
“I figured if he was going to shoot it out with me he was going to shoot it out with additional officers,” Koch said.
Koch said Appl was deeply involved as an interstate methamphetamine trafficker, and clearly was under the influence when Koch pulled him over. Appl had meth and dynamite in his stolen car, and explosives and weapons at home, Koch said.
“He’s just a bad guy. He chose a poor path in life,” Koch said.
The shooting served to show that meth is a major problem locally, and not just elsewhere, Koch said.
“I believe this incident woke up a sleeping community,” Koch said. “Officers out there are truly putting their lives on the line.”
The circumstances behind Koch’s two purple hearts also serve as reminders of the fact that state troopers work alone. Koch said it would be helpful to have a partner on patrol, but that is a state budget issue. He said staffing has remained stagnant since the 1980s despite a big increase in population and crime, so having troopers work in pairs isn’t feasible.
“We have such a shortage of troopers now, I don’t ever see that as a possibility,” he said.
Koch, 39, a former Glenwood Springs police officer, lives in the Silt area and has served more than six years with the State Patrol. As he looks to his own future, he said his ordeal has been hard on his wife and four children, who range in age from 9 to 20. He said his family has taken advantage of counseling. His 9-year-old daughter had a lot of nightmares after the shooting.
“She’s recovering. She sees dad up and doing things, which helps her,” he said.
Koch said his family will support him in whatever he decides to do next in life. One possibility would be to pursue a career involving his love of flying, even though he currently is under a Federal Aviation Administration restriction because of his injured arm. The State Patrol has an aviation division, and he said he would like to be able to fly for the agency.
He also expects to team up with one or more other troopers who have been wounded in action, and speak to other officers about safety issues.
It can be hard on officers not to get recognition for the dangers they face, and it’s also tough for them to so often “see the bad side of people,” Koch said, but added that he got into law enforcement to help people and isn’t sure he’s ready to give that up.