Sgt. David White thought he was a dead man. He remembers seeing God or an angel. Now he's thankful to be alive and wants to return to police work.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the another in a series of stories that will appear through the end of the year updating readers on people, subjects and topics of great interest covered during 2017. Coming Monday: An update on the Alliance History Mini Museum.
LAKE TWP. A bullet dangles from a chain looped around the neck of Sgt. David White.
Partially discolored from ripping through the flesh of his shoulders and back, it reminds the 60-year-old Uniontown police officer of the summer night when he was shot four times ... and it reminds him he's still alive.
Alive to smell the fragrance of a lilac bush or to feel the rush of wind while cruising the highway on a Harley-Davidson motorcycle. Alive to listen to birds chirping and to tell his wife and daughter, "I love you."
Five months ago, while being rushed in an ambulance to Summa Akron City Hospital, the officer of 25 years thought he was a dead man. He had lost half of the blood circulating through his body. A tourniquet was wrapped around his left arm and a combat dressing plugged a hole in his stomach.
On that ride, while he prayed silently, the world started to fade out before arriving at the hospital. At that moment, he didn't expect to live out the scene that unfolded at his home last week, where he sat in his living room gazing out a window obstructed by a Christmas tree, recounting that July night in a resolute voice and with unblinking precision.
"I'm just grateful to be here for Christmas again," he said.
The midnight shift of July 9 started out like countless others.
About 9:45 p.m., the veteran officer left his township home following dinner with his wife and teenage daughter. Nothing else about that day was memorable until he arrived at the Uniontown Police Department. Two rifles and other gear were loaded into a police cruiser. Normal equipment.
Before heading out with his partner, White smoked a cigarette in the parking lot. Then his police radio crackled shortly after 10 p.m. with a call to Lela Avenue NW for a domestic dispute.
The address and name of Ryan A. Probst were familiar. Police had been there before. Family members said Probst struggled with mental illness and depression. That night he turned violent.
Arriving on the scene, a relative of Probst hustled past White and his partner, blurting Ryan had fired a gun outside the home. A woman also had fled the home, screaming for help.
White and his partner went to the front of the house. Light illuminated the area inside. The door was open. White stepped inside, gun drawn. He called out to no response. Then he saw Probst to the left, in the near distance, at the bottom of stairs leading to the basement. A gun was spotted. White reflexively shuffled back outside in a burst of movement, yelling: "Shotgun!"
Moments elapsed before White was jarred by the sound of a motorcycle revving inside the garage. Probst was on the motorcycle before it crashed to the garage floor. The engine silenced. The shotgun dropped.
White paced cautiously into the darkened garage. Foremost in his mind was the safety of Probst's family members, who fled to a neighboring home. White proceeded with a Taser in his right hand and gun in his left. A Taser had no effect on Probst, who wielded a handgun, spraying gunfire.
Bang. Bang. Bang. Bang. Bang. Bang. Six gunshots echoed.
Two missed White. Four connected. One pierced the vest over his stomach. Two ripped through his wrist. Another tore through his shoulder. White returned fire but didn't strike the 28-year-old Probst.
White took cover behind the police cruiser. The second officer shouted an order, near the front of the home: "Show me your hands!" Within moments, gunshots erupted. White's partner shot Probst, who died from the wounds.
White had already called police dispatch, breathing heavily as he gave the numbers for an officer in trouble: "Code 44."
Then he called Police Chief Harold Britt on a cellphone. Watching television with his two sons, Britt already had been contacted by dispatch and immediately drove to Lela Avenue.
Sirens wailed in the distance. Uniontown firefighters were getting closer. A few minutes passed before fatigue and weakness overtook White, forcing him to sit and lean against the vehicle, his complexion paling, his breathing altered. Britt arrived and helped White's partner tend to the wounds.
That's when he said he felt God. He saw a spirit with no face, no eyes, no hair. Something beyond Earthly description.
"There was a presence beside me that just kind of appeared at my right side," he said. "And it was God or an angel or Jesus Christ."
Then it was gone.
"I can't tell you what it was ... but there was a being beside me."
The mysterious presence comforted him. But moments later, while being driven to the hospital, doubts swam inside his head
"I did not think I would survive that night," he said. "I thought this was it. It was going bad fast."
Chief Britt drove White's wife and daughter to the hospital — a quiet ride interrupted only by traffic on his police radio.
White was whisked into blood transfusions and emergency surgery. Time on a respirator followed. A continuous stream of friends, family and police officers visited.
At least one officer was there around the clock, Britt said. From Uniontown, Akron, Cuyahoga Falls, Boston Heights, the Summit County Sheriff's Office and beyond, he said.
Sometimes there were too many visitors, he said, forcing people to wait outside the hospital room. Visitors had to be restricted at one point to ensure he could rest.
Support from Uniontown residents, churches and the surrounding communities of Hartville, Springfield Township, Lake Township and Green also was tremendous, Britt said.
"I didn't really know if he would make it but I know he's a strong individual and he's stubborn," he said. "And if anybody was going to survive that it was going to be Dave."
Prayers and support
Florida. Pennsylvania. Michigan. New York. South Dakota. Cards and religious and heartfelt sentiments poured in from across the country.
A 13-year-old boy in Las Vegas was thinking of him. So was a deacon in Georgia. Also sent were a football and baseballs signed by members of the Lake High School football and baseball teams. Among the cards and items were religious books, including "God's Word: Real Hope" and "Devotions for COPS and the people they serve."
The deluge of attention was overwhelming to the former construction worker, a man with a strong disposition who is at ease in a Harley-Davidson T-shirt and speaks candidly about his ordeal. He was unaccustomed to publicity, working in a community usually patrolled by two officers.
"As police officers, we don't realize how many people really care because we usually see the bad; we don't usually see the good," White said. "I think it's made me and all my co-workers and other officers (realize) how many citizens really do care."
Through the difficulties he also gained a renewed appreciation for his wife, Robin, and their 16-year-old daughter, Olivia. He's also the father of two adult daughters.
"I think our relationship has grown tight, more solid," he said, leaning forward in a chair covered with a patriotically-adorned blanket sent to him anonymously. "She's very, very proud of how I responded and how I reacted. I see the love and concern from her above and beyond, and with my kids, too. I think we appreciate each other a lot more."
White's partner that night was cleared in the fatal shooting. A Stark County grand jury reviewed evidence in the case, including watching the police body camera footage. A grand jury review is customary when a fatal shooting involves law enforcement.
White admitted he was like most people prior to spending three weeks in the hospital. A stretch of days that included sleepless nights and flashbacks to gunfire.
Little, insignificant things bothered him, stressed him out. Just like the people who get annoyed when a fast-food order is incorrect or shout at the television when their favorite sports team loses.
White knew the inherent job risk. Each time he left for a work shift, he might not return home. But he didn't dwell on it. Those thoughts dissolved into the routine of life.
"Everyone sweats the little stuff," he said. "I don't sweat the trivial stuff anymore. Life can change in the blink of an eye. It can be gone in a heartbeat."
White realizes he's one of the police officers who made it. Others don't get to see another sunset or their children mature into adulthood.
"You don't have to be a cop in Cleveland or Los Angeles or New York to get hurt or shot or stabbed or assaulted," said White, who previously worked in the Rittman and Lakemore police departments before spending the last 15 years with Uniontown.
The desire remains
White is determined to return to the job. When? He's not sure, possibly May or June. It depends on his recovery.
"I want to retire on my terms," White said. "I feel I need to prove it to myself that I can do it and I'm tough enough to come back from all this. I've come this far — I want to see it all through."
The effects of July 9 linger. A twinge shoots through his upper spine when he touches the area below his neck. Pain surges through a wrist that suffered two gunshots wounds, scar tissue left behind, a tendon inflamed. He plans to begin treatment once he gets approval through workers' compensation.
His stomach muscles are tender. Muscle fibers were damaged from blood loss and dehydration. Multiple hernias also resulted. Concealed underneath a shirt and protective wrap is a grim souvenir of his days in the hospital: A 12-inch long incision, pinkish-red in color. Another stomach surgery is scheduled for February.
Overall, considering what happened, White said he's doing well. Now he sleeps better, although he has "ups and downs."
Counseling helps with the emotional aftermath. The bullet at the end of his necklace is always there to echo silently, refusing to let him forget the most dangerous police call of his career. And he doesn't want to.
"I earned it," he said of the squat bullet that was removed during surgery. "It's just a reminder of what went on and what happened and how things can happen in a blink of an eye."
Reach Ed at 330-580-8315
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