Next week: Cancer becomes the catalyst for man’s decision to make a 1,503-mile river journey.
When ‘Officer Pat’ was run over by a fleeing suspect, he didn’t realize the emotional damage he sustained would rival his physical injuries.
The night he felt death coming for him, Patrick Apoian had a talk with God.
But first, he had a talk with his son.
“Always remember, I love you more than anything,” Apoian said as he lay bleeding on the concrete outside a College Avenue barbershop. “No matter what happens. Promise me.”
It was a muggy evening in late July 2011. He should have been heading home soon. Instead he was calling, maybe to say goodbye.
The Atlanta police detective had been working an off-duty security shift in the Kirkwood neighborhood when he heard a call over his police radio. Something about a stolen cellphone. He offered to respond and soon spotted a man fitting the suspect’s description in the barbershop.
Apoian walked in to question him but the man bolted, jumping into a Honda and slamming into gear. Apoian grabbed the passenger side door but the car didn’t stop. It ran over him and dragged him across the parking lot before roaring off.
Stunned and bloody, Apoian could feel his hips and spine out of alignment. He pushed on his chest and felt things move around. His radio had been crushed. His cellphone still worked. He didn’t call for help. He called home.
“I’ve had an accident,” he said when his wife answered. “I don’t know if I’m going to make it.”
“Why didn’t you call 911?” Sandra Apoian screamed.
“I am 911,” her husband gasped, then asked, “Can you put Joey on the phone?”
Sandra summoned their son. She tried not to let him see her cry.
“I need to know that you know how much I love you,” the detective told his son. Joey, then 7, didn’t seem to understand. His dad kept repeating the words. “I love you more than anything. Do you know that?”
As sirens screamed toward him Apoian flashed back to a time when he was about Joey’s age. He and his father and brother had been struck by a car that jumped a curb and even though his father had been hurt, all he cared about in that moment was his family. Were the boys OK?
Apoian felt that way now. The pain crept away, leaving him with thoughts of his wife and only child. Above him, paramedics talked about him as if he wasn’t there.
“He’s low,” someone said, referring to his vital signs.
Apoian refused painkillers. If the end was coming, he wanted to see it clearly. What he saw now, staring into the sky, was a hazy image of his son’s future.
Who will raise my boy? Who will help him became a man?
“You ain’t taking me tonight,” he told his maker. “If you do, you’re not going to be happy when I get there.”
Law and order
I met Apoian (a-POY-an) the night Mark Wahlberg came to town. The hunky star of “Ted” and “Boogie Nights” visited in January to promote the cop thriller “Broken City.” As the AJC’s entertainment and celebrity writer, I cover the red carpet. Joining Wahlberg on it that night were former Atlanta Falcons player Warrick Dunn, whose mother was a police officer killed in the line of duty, and Apoian. The movie cop paid tribute to the real cop in honor of Humble Heroes Foundation, an organization Apoian started in 2010 to aid ill or injured officers.
“Maybe I’ll get to play you in a movie some day,” Wahlberg said.
“They’ll have to ugly you up first,” Apoian quipped.
Fans aimed their cellphone cameras at the actor, but I wanted to hear more about Apoian, who’d hushed the cheering crowd with his story. Since that night, I’ve spent hours talking to him, his colleagues and his relatives about his experience. I would say Wahlberg’s onto something.
A Long Island native with family and friends in blue, Apoian seemed born for the badge. Once he joined the force he quickly became known on the beat as “Officer Pat,” the guy who would follow up with crime victims even if another officer was working the case. He’d fold his 6-foot frame into a library chair for story time at the elementary school in his zone.
He once patiently “investigated” when an elderly woman dialed 911 to report terrorists had placed deadly powder in her mailbox. No ma’am, he reassured her, a bird took a bathroom break there.
The youngest of six kids, Apoian, 42, showed an early inclination toward law and order. It didn’t serve him well at first.
“I used to get in fights at school. Say a kid was walking down the hall and someone knocked his books out of his hands, I would fight the bullies,” Apoian said. “(School officials) told my father to sign me out. They said, ‘this kid’s going nowhere.’”
Apoian dropped out in 10th grade and worked at a health club owned by a former teacher who urged him to get his GED. He also worked at a pizza joint, tire store and bakery. He and Sandra were just dating then, and when she moved to metro Atlanta with her family in 1996, he followed. They married the next year. Initially he worked for a shoe distributor and started a landscaping business. Then 9/11 happened.
“I wanted to join the armed forces,” he said. “Sandra said no way.”
So he joined the Atlanta Police Department in 2002, determined to live up to the example of Bill Murphy, a childhood mentor. Murphy was a Nassau County, N.Y., police officer who’d led fundraising efforts for the Police Athletic League.
Apoian pinned on his badge with Officer Murphy’s mantra in his mind: “Always be remembered for the good that you do.”
The night her husband was hurt, Sandra Apoian reached the Grady emergency room to find a sea of blue. It seemed every officer in Atlanta was there. She was shaking, frantic that she was too late. She had left home a wife. Would she return a widow?
Atlanta Police Sgt. Janice Sturdivant, who met Apoian when he was a recruit, was there, too.
“Not another one of my children,” she thought when she got the word.
Senior Officer Gail Thomas, struck and killed by a drunk driver in 2012, and Officer Russell Stalnaker, fatally shot while struggling with a suspect in 1999 — both had been Sturdivant’s recruits, too. Her rookie partner, Officer Gregory Lavance Davis, died in a 1988 shootout with a serial burglary suspect. Gregory L. Davis Plaza in Little Five Points is named for him today.
She shoved all that from her mind when she went to Apoian’s emergency room bedside.
“I went in and told him how tough he was,” she said.
And doctors had good news. The car that ran over Apoian had nearly torn off his foot, broken his leg, damaged one hand, ripped his sternum from his rib cage, fractured his pelvis and spine and tore the muscle from one shoulder before speeding off. But it did not kill him. His body was bashed and battered, but he would heal.
That night, Apoian called his buddy, retired Washington, D.C., Detective Mike Brooks, now a CNN contributor.
“I’m at Grady,” Apoian told him. “I got run over.”
Then Brooks heard a scream.
“They were trying to sew part of his foot back on when he was on the phone with me,” Brooks said. When Apoian came back on the line, it was to apologize: He’d been wearing a T-shirt he had borrowed from Brooks, and the medical staff had to cut it off him.
“He’s one of a kind,” said Brooks. “There’s certain people who are wired to be a policeman.”
After about a week at Grady Hospital, Apoian was transported to Emory University Hospital, where he spent two weeks. He came home for three weeks, then needed more surgery and was at the Shepherd Center for more than two weeks.
At last, the hospital stays ended. For months Apoian was confined to a wheelchair, slept in a hospital bed in the living room and endured demanding physical therapy, but at least he was back with his family.
Apoian never personally benefited from Humble Heroes, the 501 c(3) charity he’d started the year before he was injured to assist public safety officials whose injuries or illnesses created financial need. But his wife noted that her husband’s volunteering efforts were repaid by a flood of people wanting to help after he was hurt.
“He had done so much for so many other people,” Sandra said during a Humble Heroes lunch at Fox Brothers Bar-B-Q in Decatur earlier this year. “It came right back at him. The support that we received from APD, families, friends, you name it, the support was just amazing.”
But pain stalked her husband like a predator. It felt like there was a shard of glass in his foot. He began to think that losing it would be better than the constant suffering. He called his best friend from New York, a double amputee who had lost both legs to diabetes, to ask what it was like.
“Am I going to be a cop again?” he wondered.
Mercifully, a doctor found the cause of the pain and further surgery finally helped. But he realized that while he body was on the mend, his emotional state was frayed. He wasn’t sleeping. When he did, he dreamed about the night he was hurt. He’d flinch when other cars approached in parking lots. Even the support of his loved ones started to depress him.
“I was tired of people waiting on me,” he said.
In the spring of 2012 he was finally cleared to drive again. He was motoring around one day when darkness began hovering like a backseat driver. He pulled off the road and then sat a parking lot, alone with his thoughts.
“I felt like a burden to my family,” he said. “I really thank God my dad was gone before this. It would have killed him to see me like this.”
The darkness moved out of the back seat, right next to him, reaching into his spirit, slipping a bone-white thought into his mind.
“I wish I had died that night,” he thought. “I just wish I had died.”
A son’s memory
At first Joey Apoian, now 9, insisted he did not remember the night his dad was hurt.
“I have a short memory,” the third grader said. “Seriously.”
“I think he blocks a lot of it out,” his dad said.
So Joey discussed other pressing issues during a recent Sunday afternoon visit, while he alternately ate one chocolate bar after another and then raced around to burn off the sugar rush. He is good at math. He is great at Minecraft. That sort of thing. Then a thought came to him, a moment from that horrible night. Memory swept over his face like a storm cloud crossing the sun.
“I thought he was about to die,” Joey said, suddenly still for a moment. “I wish I didn’t see his foot. His foot was a weird color.”
Standing in his father’s hospital room that night, Joey had said there was something in his eyes. No, he wasn’t crying. He had wondered if he was about to become the man of the house. “That was going to be weird.”
You know what else was weird? Seeing Dad on television.
“They kept saying the whole thing over and over again,” Joey said, referring to news reports of the incident. “I’m pretty sure people in China have seen this by now. When is this thing going to be over?”
Then he turned to his father.
“The person that ran you over? I hope they get pushed off a cliff.”
Since the night he was injured, Apoian has had at least eight surgical procedures. Doctors have worked on his wrist to repair nerve damage, on his shoulder to repair a torn rotator cuff and torn bicep tendon, on his spine and on the muscles encasing his upper right torso. He’s had a number of surgeries on his foot and may face more.
While the doctors and physical therapists worked to repair his body, counseling for post-traumatic stress disorder helped him mend on the inside.
“It’s amazing what your brain can do to you if you’ve been through a traumatic event,” Apoian said. “At first I’d feel uncomfortable talking about it. When I started with therapy, I started reading about the psychology of it.”
What he learned was that the mind can ache just as the body can.
“Biologically, it’s normal,” he said. “If your arm is broken, you go to the doctor. If you’re feeling down, you need to talk about it. I feel better opening up. I’m not too tough to cry.”
Throughout his recovery, Apoian reached out to other officers going through struggles of their own, urging them to seek counseling. One colleague texted recently to let him know what a help counseling had been. When Apoian is able to return to work he’d like to continue assisting his fellow officers, encouraging them to work through trauma as he has.
“I think I will be better for other officers,” he said. “To be able to recognize when they’re going through something.”
During a recent Sunday afternoon visit to Le Petit Marché, a cafe on Hosea L. Williams Drive not far from where he was injured, residents who hadn’t seen him for a while greeted Apoian like a conquering hero. Keep Atlanta Beautiful board president Jeff Childers spotted Apoian from across the street and dashed over for a handshake outside the cafe. Margie Yondorf, vice president of the Kirkwood Neighbors’ Organization, stopped to say hello as she left the salon next door.
“He cares and it shows,” cafe owner Marchet Sparks said. “He’s part of the fabric here.”
Moving slowly on crutches, Apoian lumbered inside and took a seat, strategically positioned so he could watch the door. His eyes darted out the windows, registering everything. A jogger trotted past. A past robbery victim, Apoian noted.
From the start he’s made it a point to know everyone on his beat in Zone 6. Everyone. Darrell White, who lives here and there and is known to most as just “D,” shared a table with Apoian for a few moments.
“Being homeless, he helps me out,” White said. “He tries to point me in the right direction. He’s concerned about people. He talks to people. It’s hard to find officers like that.”
As the two caught up, Apoian asked White to relay a message to a troubled area resident they both know.
“If you see her, tell her I hope she’s clean,” Apoian said. “Tell her not to let the demons win.”
Khalif Kareen Edwards, 30, was arrested on Aug. 15, 2011, on charges related to Apoian’s injuries. They include aggravated assault, aggravated battery, obstruction of officers and simple battery. Warrants were issued for him the night Apoian was injured. He turned himself in at the DeKalb County Jail three and a half weeks later and he has been there ever since.
He has pleaded not guilty. His attorney, Thomas Stubbs, issued this statement on his behalf: “Officer Apoian is a good man. Not a day goes by that I do not keep him and his family in my prayers. I fully appreciate that does not begin to help the pain he and his family have endured.”
Apoian isn’t necessarily hoping the case goes to trial. If the suspect takes a plea deal, fine, but if Apoian is summoned to testify, he wants to see the whole thing through. He’d like to be completely healed physically, though.
“I don’t want to walk in on crutches,” he said. “I don’t want to give him the satisfaction.”
From the first time we talked about it, Apoian voiced no hatred for the man allegedly at the wheel the night he was hurt.
“It’s unfortunate for his family. They miss him,” he said. “But he almost took my son’s father away from him that night. For him I’ve got no sympathy.”
Several weeks after we first talked about the suspect, Apoian had softened further.
“Me hanging onto anger is ridiculous,” he said. “I want to let go of that. Just let it go. For my own peace of mind I’ve got to forgive him.”
At some point he’d like to talk to Edwards.
“From what I understand he really feels bad,” Apoian said. “I want to know he’s truly remorseful. If he can be the man his lawyer says he wants to be, I’m up for (a plea deal). I want to sit with him and say, ‘If I give you this chance, just be a good father.’”
Apoian hopes to wear the badge again soon. It’s not clear when that will happen.
“Some days it takes a long time to get out of bed,” he said. “Some days it’s hard to straighten up.”
As he continues his long journey back to his beat, he has come to realize that police work is what he does, not who he is.
“The job is not my life,” Apoian said. “I want my son, my family to define me.”
Walking out of Northside Hospital-Forsyth following a wound-care appointment, Apoian moved at a slow shuffle. A few times we had to stop to let other people, walking at a normal pace, pass by. As we walked out the automatic door and into the sunshine, a lady was struggling to get her husband’s wheelchair over the threshold. Apoian bent down and lifted the chair over it.
“It feels good to help,” he said.
HOW WE GOT THE STORY
I learned about Pat Apoian in 2011.
Personal Journeys didn’t exist then, but the AJC had a reader feature called Holiday Heroes. Some of our readers nominated Apoian for his volunteer work with a foundation that helped injured police officers. In fact, Apoian didn’t receive one nomination for Holiday Heroes, he received dozens, so inspirational was his story. Staff writer Jennifer Brett was similarly smitten when in January she chanced to hear Apoian’s story while covering a red carpet event in Atlanta for the cop thriller “Broken City.” Brett wrote about the evening’s glitz (“Ted” star Mark Wahlberg was in town to promote the movie) but was more interested in the real cop, Apoian. Brett spent time with him, his family and colleagues, went with him to physical therapy and “story time” and exhaustively researched his story. The result is today’s gem.
Assistant Managing Editor
About the reporter
Jennifer Brett has been at the AJC since 1998, and has worked a variety of beats including education, crime, politics, development and the 2008 Beijing Olympics. She now writes about celebrities, entertainment and Atlanta’s growing movie and television scene, frequently in 140-character bursts on her active Twitter account, @AJCBuzz. She is from eastern North Carolina and graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
About the photographer
Bita Honarvar has been a photojournalist at the AJC for nearly 14 years. She was born in Detroit, Mich., but spent most of her childhood in Atlanta, save three years in Shiraz, Iran. She is a graduate of Boston University, and has been a photographer at the Cherokee Tribune in Canton and freelanced for the Chicago Tribune, The New York Times and a string of papers around Boston. Her work has taken her around the United States as well as abroad, including stints in Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran. But she firmly believes there are compelling images to be made and stories to be told anywhere.
Next week: Cancer becomes the catalyst for man’s decision to make a 1,503-mile river journey.