Against all odds

Cutrone’s recovery defies expectations

Chris Cutrone had no sense of foreboding as he walked toward the beige sedan on a spring afternoon in 2003. For the Colorado State Patrol technician, a canine specialist who had his drug-sniffing dog in his vehicle, this was a fairly routine traffic contact.

Another state trooper had called to report a car driving in an unsafe manner north on Highway 160/666. Cutrone had spied it near the Ute Mountain Casino and stopped it for following another vehicle too closely.

Cutrone had called in the 1996 Buick’s license plate to dispatchers, but they were still running the numbers when he stepped up to the car. Thus he did not know both the license plate and the LeSabre had been stolen, separately, in Texas. He had no inkling that the driver was dangerous.

“I was just getting ready to greet him,” Cutrone recalled. “I hadn’t said a word yet.”

But 26-year-old Brent Derrick, a burglar on the run after assaulting another law officer in Texas, pulled a .45 Ruger handgun and fired. The bullet tore through the center of Cutrone’s right wrist and smashed into his chest. Derrick fired again and yet again. One bullet hit Cutrone’s left ring finger, and, as the trooper staggered and turned to the left, one hit him slightly behind and below his right armpit, plowed through his body and came out the front of his chest. Then Derrick took off.

That day – Thursday, May 8, 2003 – marked the start of a journey that would take Cutrone to the brink of death more than once. Doctors at one point would tell his wife that he probably would not live and that, if he did, he’d likely be brain-damaged and partially paralyzed.

Yet today Cutrone has back at work for eight months. He is not yet on full duty, but that goal – once so remote it seemed unattainable – is always in front of him, driving him onward. His recovery demonstrates that love, faith and determination can sometimes prove doctors wrong.

A feeling of disbelief

As is standard procedure, Cutrone was wearing a bulletproof vest that day. It saved his life, he said, blunting the impact of the bullet that hit him in the center of his chest. But the bullet that slipped in under his armpit missed the vest and did extensive damage, so much so that doctors could never tell whether he’d been hit by four bullets or just three.

Oddly, he didn’t feel a lot of pain, just a sense of amazement.

“I was shocked – not in shock, but in disbelief,” he said. “I knew I had been shot and my first reaction, just from training and stuff, was that I needed to get help.”

Cutrone ran across both lanes of the highway and past the flagpoles in front of the casino, toward its main entrance. He met a woman coming out; seeing the blood and realizing he had been shot, she notified security. Other casino patrons gathered around the fallen officer. A worker on the casino’s ongoing construction project who had heard the shots ran over with his cell phone and called for help.

“I remember him talking to 911, standing over me,” Cutrone said. “The dispatcher is (Cutrone’s wife) Cathy’s best friend, Tamira Osbourne. She hears me in the background and he’s telling her that a police officer is shot. She tells him, ‘Give him the phone,’ so I got it from him and talked to her directly.”

Cutrone was able to tell her that he’d been shot on a traffic stop and that there had been one white male in the vehicle. A massive, multi-agency manhunt ensued.

Soon an ambulance arrived at the casino. Despite his severe wounds and blood loss, Cutrone still was not in much pain except for his hand, he said. “I think the reason was because I had such a difficult time breathing. The bullet that went through my chest hit my right lung. My whole chest cavity was filling with blood. It didn’t allow my right lung to expand. I couldn’t take a breath of air – it was getting tighter and tighter.”

Paramedics stuck a needle into him to relieve the pressure, but he was still struggling to breathe as the ambulance rushed him to Cortez. Finally they gave him a shot that rendered him unconscious. The last thing Cutrone remembers is passing Woody’s convenience store on the highway.

Another shooting

Meanwhile, Derrick had sped north on the highway, then turned left onto County Road A, which winds through the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation toward some water reservoirs.

Derrick was wanted on warrants from Texas for an April 30 incident in which he was allegedly caught burglarizing a home, knocked down the police officer who came to apprehend him and fled. Later that day he allegedly broke into another house, threw the elderly woman who lived there to the ground, and stole her car, the ’96 LeSabre. Several days later, he apparently nabbed a license plate from a ’92 Buick and put it on the stolen vehicle, then headed for Colorado.

After fleeing onto the reservation, Derrick wound up at a reservoir called First Lake. He drove the car into it, submerging it completely, and ran away. The vehicle was later recovered.

Around 5 that afternoon, residents of Towaoc began calling to report a white man banging on doors and asking to use a telephone. When BIA Officer Tallas Cantsee caught up with Derrick and tried to take him into custody, Derrick pulled the Ruger and shot himself in the chest.

Hopes rise

Cutrone had been taken to Southwest Memorial Hospital in Cortez. He was supposed to be flown by helicopter to St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center in Grand Junction, but he had to be stabilized first.

“I didn’t know how bad he was when he was shot,” said Cathy Cutrone. “Nobody told me. The next thing I know, he’s having emergency surgery at Southwest Memorial and the doctor comes in and says he would never have survived the flight to Grand Junction without it. That was my first wake-up call to how serious this was.”

Surgeons at Southwest – which has a Level IV trauma certification, only enough to allow doctors to evaluate and stabilize trauma patients – stopped the blood loss and got him in condition to fly, Chris Cutrone said. “They did a fantastic job.”

At St. Mary’s, Cathy, along with friends and family, sat up all night in the waiting room, praying and hoping as doctors worked on him. But he hung on, and hopes rose that he would eventually be fine.

“I heard the Grand Junction doctors talking about his finger and wrist,” Cathy said, “and I thought, ‘Well, that’s not bad. If their biggest concern is whether they’re going to save his finger, I’m OK with that’.”

But on Saturday, May 10, things took a sudden turn for the worse.

‘Worse than the first day’

“I was talking in his room,” Cathy recalled. “They were starting to wake him to move him upstairs. The next thing I knew, they were ushering us into a private room and a neurosurgeon was saying he had had a catastrophic stroke. I couldn’t believe it. I said, ‘I just saw him and he was fine!’ ”

But Cutrone had indeed had a major stroke. To this day, he said, doctors don’t know exactly what caused it. There was no evidence of a blood clot, and he was a strong 29-year-old. Doctors have told him it most likely was caused by the sheer trauma of his injuries and blood loss.

The situation was critical. His brain was swelling and he needed surgery to relieve the pressure. That meant cutting out a piece of his skull so the brain would have room to expand.

“The neurosurgeon said if we didn’t do surgery right now he would die, and if we did, he might survive but he might die anyway,” Cathy said. “So it was looking pretty grim. In a minute it went from, ‘He’s going to be just fine’ to, ‘He’s likely not going to survive.’ That was worse than the first day.”

The neurosurgeon operated, and Cutrone pulled through. For several days afterward, he lay in a drug-induced coma while everyone wondered how much brain damage he had sustained.

Cathy said doctors were gloomy about his prognosis, but nurses were more optimistic. “When I’d see a doctor I’d want to run the other way,” she said. “They weren’t giving any glimmer of hope at all.

“But the nurses were very positive. They kept saying, ‘He’s a strong man. Keep positive thoughts’.”

Doctors warned Cathy he might not be able to walk or even talk. Tests indicated he was paralyzed on his left side, but Cathy had her doubts.

“I had my hand on his left biceps one day when they were testing and I felt a little twitch,” she said. “A couple days later he started moving his left hand. I said, ‘I told you I felt something!’ I felt like I could finally take a deep breath.”

Cathy said Cutrone woke up on May 13. She rushed to his room, not knowing whether he would recognize her, or even whether he would be able to speak or see.

“He wasn’t really coherent yet,” she said, “but he looked at me and said, ‘Hey, babe.’ I thought then that he was going to be OK.”

A long road back

But a long, uncertain road still lay ahead. Cathy’s stepmother had been staying at the Cutrone home in rural Montezuma County, looking after the couple’s two boys – Ryan, then 2, and Tyler, 1. Cathy decided to rent a home in Grand Junction where she could live while Cutrone recovered. Doctors told her to choose a one-story house because Cutrone would probably always be in a wheelchair.

“Sometimes you wish they would never tell you things like that,” Cutrone said, “but I guess that’s what they have to do – prepare you for the worst.”

At that time Cutrone had no thought of returning to work; he was just trying to get through each painful moment. “When I woke up, I had a cast on my right arm, a cast on my left arm. I had broken ribs. I couldn’t sleep, I was so uncomfortable.”

But before long he was out of intensive care, and rehabilitation soon began. He had to be taught how to eat, talk, and walk, but it all came back quickly.

“It didn’t take long, in the grand scheme of things,” Cathy said. “The first time I watched him try to walk, I thought, ‘Yikes.’ But it was probably just a week and a half or two weeks before he could walk without assistance. He just got stronger and stronger.”

On May 29, Cutrone had surgery to replace the bone piece that had been removed from his skull. He continued to make rapid progress, working on dexterity in his injured finger, doing cognitive therapy to recover the skills he’d lost because of the stroke.

By then his sons had been brought up to see him, as well as his canine partner, Tucker, who survived the shooting unscathed. Those were happy reunions.

Cathy said the boys had been concerned about their dad and confused about where their parents were. “I talked to them on the phone. They knew something was wrong, but they weren’t really old enough to be traumatized.” But Ryan, the older boy, chewed his fingernails to the quick, she recalled.

When they finally saw Cutrone in the hospital, they were a little put off by his appearance. “He had things hooked up to him, and bandages and casts,” Cathy said. “They were a little leery, but they got over it.”

Cutrone said his wife “did an outstanding job putting them in an environment where they could live as normal a life as possible, considering the situation. It shows now,” he added. “They’re fine. It’s like it never happened.”

After weeks of grueling rehab, Cutrone came home for good at the end of July. He still didn’t imagine he would be able to return to work. But as months passed and he began to feel like a normal person again, the idea crept into his mind.

“Once I was fully healed, once I was out of the everyday-doctor-appointment mode, once I started driving again – it all made me feel, I can do this,” he said.

On Jan. 5 of this year, he returned to work, though not as a regular road trooper. Instead, he is on-call for K-9 searches. He works full-time.

‘People really do care’

He said a few positive things came of the tragedy. “It’s made a much stronger bond between my wife and me and the immediate family,” he said.

Also, the outpouring of support and money from the local community and around the country was a blessing, he said.

“Everybody’s been great,” he said. “I’ve received thousands and thousands of cards from people. I’ve received phone calls thanking me for what I do. It’s made me realize that people really do care about law enforcement.

“In the profession I’m in, it seems like you go to work every day and deal with the negative, with people that don’t like you. But I’m still the police officer I was before the shooting that I didn’t think they liked, but I found out people really do care about the officers who serve them and the community.”

Not yet 100 percent

Derrick survived his self-inflicted gunshot wound and pleaded guilty this year to attempted first-degree murder of a peace officer. He was sentenced to 36 years in prison.

Cutrone’s left ring finger is crooked, but otherwise undamaged, and he has a new wedding ring to replace the one that was shot. His right wrist has healed. He still has pain in his ribs, but overall he is strong.

Still, Cutrone said he hasn’t entirely recovered from the stroke, though no one looking at him would be able to tell. “It slows things down a bit. I feel great and I’m doing better than expected, but the level we have to operate at as a police officer is so much greater than an average citizen that I feel like I need to get to that level before I can go back to full duty. That’s my goal.

“I’m still not 100 percent and I don’t know if I ever will be,” Cutrone said, “but I’m at a point now where I feel really good and really fortunate. I know that at any time I could have died.”

Cutrone joined the state patrol in January 1998 after working two years in law enforcement at Mesa Verde National Park. He plans to remain in law enforcement for the rest of his career.

Cathy says she is not worried about him being back on duty, at least not for now. “I’m just really excited and proud,” she said. “I may feel differently if he’s back in uniform. But I know Chris and I know he can do this. He’s a smart person with great common sense. He handled this so well – getting help, getting the person caught, keeping a cool head. I think he’s pretty amazing.”

From September 2004.