I serve as the Executive Director of Guns Save Life, a successful and aggressive regional grassroots gun rights group that meets in six cities each month in Illinois. Each month, our meetings feature a main speaker and we bring in some fascinating people. One month last year at our Champaign, Illinois meeting, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources Deputy Police Chief Joe Morelock visited. After giving a summary of IDNR programs and news, Joe shared with us his very personal story of defending himself and his children from a home invader. His self-defense story came loaded with practical lessons for us all.
The incident took place in December 2012 and lasted nearly nine minutes. The aftermath lasted considerably longer.
Deputy Chief Morelock prefaced his remarks by telling us he was going to move around the room while he talked; he wanted to be open and not keep a podium between himself and the listeners, because he had nothing to hide. He also warned us that it might get emotional, as the incident involved his family and this was the first time he had ever spoken about it publicly.
To frame his decision-making that night, he gave us a summary of his background and training. After high school, he served in the U.S. Marine Corps, seeing active duty in Operation Desert Shield/Storm, Operation Eastern Exit (Somalia), Cuba (Operation GTMO-2 tours in support of the Haitian Migrant Crisis), and Puerto Rico. While in the military, he had MP and SWAT training.
After his service, he worked as a part-time police officer while going to college. When he was through with school, he applied to the Illinois State Police and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. He has also gone to the State Police Academy and the DNR academy, and has since worked his way up to deputy chief of the law enforcement division of IDNR. He was part of a team that went to New Orleans for a few weeks to assist after Hurricane Katrina.
He has had to discharge his weapon three times in the line of duty; twice at animals, one a Bengal tiger. He was also wounded in the face and legs by shotgun pellets during the apprehension of a armed robbery suspect in one incident. “I know guns from both ends,” he said.
He wanted us to know about his previous training and experience because if any of us are ever involved in an incident like he was, we might well make different choices about how much to intervene, and when or when not to use our firearm.
December 16, 2012 was a good day for Joe and his family…until that night. Extended family stopped by their home in Decatur earlier in the day, and later his wife left for an overnight with other relatives at a bed and breakfast in another town. He took his kids Christmas shopping — they were 10 and 6 at the time — and when they got home, he let them stay up late watching movies and camping out on the living room floor. He was with them in the living room late that night, sleeping, when he heard a loud noise.
Joe looked out his front door and saw a woman sitting on his front lawn, and a man standing over her choking her with both hands. Both appeared to be in their early 20s. Joe opened the front door and forcefully told the guy to go away. The guy walked to the end of the driveway where Joe’s squad car was located. He then stopped and began pounding on the woman’s car, yelling and cursing at the woman and at Joe.
Joe ran upstairs and retrieved a gun – a 1911-style pistol. Running back down to the front door, he found the woman pounding on the door, pleading and begging to be let in. Her attacker had lost interest in battering the woman’s vehicle, and advanced toward her and the front door, clearly intent on resuming his attack.
Joe let the girl in, ordered her to stand in one corner, and secured the door. He decided at that point that he needed a different weapon. He thought his duty belt with his duty sidearm was downstairs, so he ran down to get it, only to find that it wasn’t there. He remembered that he had left it in the trunk of his squad car. He found his GLOCK duty gun downstairs, however, with which he had shot thousands of rounds over the years. “It was an extension of my hand” he said of his familiarity with the weapon.
Running back up the stairs, he was on the phone with 911, describing what he was wearing (not much, just green shorts and a t-shirt). Why tell them that? Because the police were on their way and he wanted them to know what the good guy looked like before they showed up, so he didn’t get shot by responding officers. “Decatur Police,” he said admiringly “don’t miss much.” He wanted them to know who not to shoot before they arrived on scene.
As he returned to the main floor, the cursing assailant had begun trying to kick the front door. Joe told him to stop but the attacker wasn’t listening. Moments later, the aggressor forced his way into the house and began advancing on the woman. Joe had his firearm pointed at the assailant from the moment he entered the house, and kept giving repeated commands to the assailant, all of which the angry invader ignored. The man began attacking the woman again and Joe continued to tell him to get away, get on the ground, etc.
You can hear all this on the 911 call, which was released publicly after the incident, and is nearly nine minutes long. Joe gave the man every opportunity to cease the attack, probably more opportunity than most of us would. Joe said he was trying to buy time for responding officers to arrive. The assailant, instead of backing down or complying, stripped off his hat and shirt, and advanced on Joe, puffing his chest in the classic pre-violence posturing. He kept challenging Joe to “shoot me.”
Joe kept himself between the assailant and his kids who were still in the living room and did his best to keep the girl behind him as well. Joe kept giving ground, hoping the police would get there in time.
The assailant backed him all the way into his living room, where his kids had been sleeping. They were awake now, and the older boy was covering his younger sister with his own body to protect her, hiding both of them under a blanket. Joe kept giving verbal commands. He kept giving ground – until he stood with his children at his feet behind him.
Then Joe fired his weapon, striking his would-be assailant with a single .40 S&W round dead center mass, ending the immediate threat.
The girl became hysterical, of course, and ran to the dying man. It turns out she was his estranged wife, and despite him trying to choke her minutes before, she still loved him.
Joe did what he had to do when he had no other option.
The Decatur police had rolled up and were just approaching the front door when they heard the gunshot’s report. The Deputy Chief had high praise for how the local cops handled things.
He learned later that the cops took the kids out, keeping them covered with the blanket so they wouldn’t see what was on the floor in their home.
If you’re involved in a use of force like this, you will be a suspect until proven otherwise. Joe knew this, and complied with the officers who arrived. He was put in the back of a squad car and eventually taken to the police station. Joe said that after such an incident, your thinking will be cloudy. It’s best, after answering the basic questions of who you are and where you live, to assert your right to counsel and stop making statements until later, when your body has recovered and your mind has had a chance to clear.
As he sat in the back of that patrol car in his driveway, a jumble of thoughts were crashing through his head:
“I just killed someone in front of my kids.”
“I just ruined Christmas.”
“The house is ruined.”
“We can’t come back here.”
The kids, of course, would have to go somewhere as Joe was being detained for questioning. Their mom was out of town. They asked Joe where she was. He didn’t know the address, but he was able to tell them the name of the bed and breakfast and the town.
They asked for his wife’s phone number. In his post-incident confusion, he couldn’t remember it. A number he used every day, but so much was going on in his mind he just couldn’t remember it. They said that was all right, they would figure it out.
He suggested the boy’s basketball coach, who lived nearby and had kids about the same ages as his, as someone who could take care of the kids for the night. He was able to give a name, but again, not an address or phone number. Decatur Police figured that out, too, and the kids were taken care of.
He noted how the confusion he experienced just reinforces earlier advice of asking for counsel and not making a statement about the event immediately. His mind wasn’t up to giving accurate information that soon after the incident. He couldn’t accurately recall his wife’s cell phone number, much less exact details of what had just happened.
He was taken to the police station and the police again asked him what had happened. “I very respectfully told them that I hoped they understood, but the police union I was a member of had a lawyer available to me and I wanted to talk to them before saying anything else.” The investigator was not upset with him, and no undue pressure was put on him to talk before he was ready.
They had been able to find his wife and told her that the few clothes he was wearing were likely to be taken as evidence. Later that night, he was allowed to leave, wearing the clothes his wife had purchased at Walmart in the middle of the night on the way to the station.
He couldn’t go home. Not only was his front door broken and his house a mess, it was still a crime scene and investigators were still there. Also, threats from the family and friends of the “suspect” were already coming in.
Counseling; don’t go it alone – After the incident, Joe got counseling for the kids, and for himself. “That was a very good decision,” he said. One of the first things the psychiatrist told him was to get out of that house. Sell it and move. He told Joe that he would never be comfortable there again; that he’d never be able to relax; it would slowly destroy his family. It could cost him his marriage. It might cost him his life, too. So Joe took the advice and called a couple of friends and relatives on the way home.
Joe was grateful that brother officers from his department and others stood by while Joe and friends moved belongings out of the house.
The press is not your friend – The initial reports in the media were that someone had been “murdered” at his house. They sensationally reported the event, and not to his benefit. Later, he and some friends came over to the house to move out personal belongings. He asked the press people to please not film them as they took stuff out of the house; they ignored his requests, and filmed anyway. The press will say what they want to say and do what they want to do, and it probably won’t be good for you.
The local television media shot video rather intrusively as Joe and his family packed up some of the essentials and carried them out of the house. They ran the footage on the local evening news as well.
Expect threats – The family members and friends of the “suspect” not only communicated threats to Joe and his family, they harassed his neighbors looking for people to testify against him.
The suspect’s “friends” found a guy to kill Joe and his wife. The would-be killer, who was suffering from terminal cancer, went to police when he found out the friends wanted him to kill Joe’s children, too. That led to around-the-clock security for about three months.
It’s expensive to shoot someone, even justifiably – The incident saved Joe’s family from harm…and cost them about $40,000 to $50,000 all told. Hotels, counseling, and relocation all cost money. Immediate repairs had to be made to the house, and because of all the press coverage, the market value took a nosedive. Joe took a $17,000 loss when he sold the home. There were relocation expenses, too.
He had to live with his mother-in-law for a year.
Results of the Investigation
The case went to a coroner’s jury where the family members of the deceased again appeared and brought accusations against Joe. The jury came back, and in a very unusual occurrence, made a statement before delivering their verdict: “The safety and sanctity of the home shall not be violated.” They then ruled this as a case of justifiable homicide.
Joe summarized his experience this way: “I’m glad I had a gun. I’m glad I had all that training. Be vigilant. Complacency kills.”
Joe said he kept a copy of everything that was written about him or the incident. When GSL asked him to speak to our group, he remembered the support he had gotten from us at the time on our website, both in the story we published and the comments from GSL members supporting his actions that night. We were perfect strangers, yet he said the support came when he needed it most. He reread that stuff and decided to accept our invitation.
We’re grateful that he did. It was a heartfelt talk that drew a long standing ovation at the end. Joe gladly answered questions, both during the presentation and for a half hour or more after the meeting. We’re lucky to have such a man as this in law enforcement and as a neighbor. Thank you, Joe, for coming to speak and for doing what you do.