On Aug. 4, 2019, a little after 1 a.m., a 24-year-old wearing a bullet-proof vest. Here is the story.
DAYTON Tom McMurtry stood in front of Ned Pepper’s Bar and Grill, where he once used a fingerprint reader to try to identify a man who had just killed nine people. A year later, as he recounted his experience, it started raining. His wife called.
McMurtry didn’t answer. He said this is not a place he would bring his wife. She would be too worried about him.
“I’m fine,” he texted her.
A short time later, McMurtry ate a pulled pork sandwich, feet from where he once placed yellow caution tape. The tape would become the edge of the shocking crime scene in Dayton’s Oregon District, an area known for its bars and quirky shops.
On Aug. 4, 2019, a little after 1 a.m., a 24-year-old wearing a bullet-proof vest stormed Fifth Street with a .223-caliber high-capacity rifle and 100-round drum magazines. He fired 41 shots in 32 seconds before Dayton police, stationed nearby, shot him dead.
It was McMurtry’s first night shift of the year. He worked as an officer a few blocks away at Sinclair Community College’s police department. He had just finished checking the locks on the buildings and was making small talk with the overnight dispatcher when the call came in.
Active shooter. Multiple persons down.
McMurtry was one of the first officers to arrive. It was loud. There were screams, sirens and the music hadn’t stopped.
“Is anyone hurt?” he yelled, as people ran by him.
“Lots of them,” someone responded.
Nine would die, and at least 17 were injured. The first person McMurtry tried to help screamed as McMurtry looked for a bullet wound, turning the man over while he screamed again. There was no bullet wound. He would live.
McMurtry left him.
At the end of his shift, after 7 a.m., the 65-year-old pulled off his bloody uniform and placed it in a trash bag. He went to church with his wife later that morning.
A week later, he ate lunch on the patio of Blind Bob’s, near where he and others performed CPR on the gunman’s sister. Near where he tightened a tourniquet on her arm, because muscle and bone fragments had blown out her sleeve. Near where he eventually placed a white sheet over her body and another white sheet over another victim in the alley he had not seen during the chaos.
“I’ll be fine,” McMurtry said, a few days from the one-year anniversary of the shooting. He’s said that at least a dozen times in a few hours. He eventually laughs about it and clarifies his wording after describing how he found the gunman’s sister, legs folded up under herself like a rag doll.
“I’ll be fine,” he said. “Notice I didn’t say ‘I’m fine,’ because it’s a process.”
McMurtry saw a psychologist a few months after the shooting, something he has never done before – even after his military service in Iraq. The doctor told him to write about his experience. In the Army, he kept a journal and wrote angry emails he never sent. They helped him turn the trauma of war into something manageable, something more like facts from his past.
After the Dayton shooting, he wrote about how a grilled steak sandwich put him right back in the Oregon District. It was the smell. The smell from a taco cart that was abandoned when the shooting started.
And so what of Dayton, the city and its people? Can the shooting ever become just a fact from the past?
In 2019, residents suffered through the turmoil and media coverage of a tornado, a Ku Klux Klan rallyand a mass shooting. Now, in 2020, the city is filled with signs about masks and markers on the ground noting 6 feet of distance.
“The past 15 months, from the tornado to the pandemic, have been incredibly difficult,” said Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley. “It’s national issue after national issue laying bare locally, with these huge implications that are life or death.”
At Smokin Bar-B-Que, the one-time edge of the crime scene, McMurtry ate his sandwich. He talked about how he wished he was still a police officer, but how he promised his wife years ago he would retire when he turned 65. He talked about how he wanted his story to promote hope, not horror.
On the restaurant’s wall was a framed newspaper article from long ago:
DAYTON’S NOT DEAD, it said.
In the Oregon District, some of the bullet marks are still there, near the entrance to Hole in the Wall bar. And next door, at Ned Peppers, where the shooter was killed feet from the door, there is a large memorial in the shape of a heart.
In an apartment above, a sign in the window says “Love Lives Here.”
This week, when McMurtry retraced the same 50 steps he had taken a year ago, from one dead body to another, a car slowed and a former colleague waved.
“How you doing?” the man asked.
“Happy to be here,” McMurtry said.
Amber Hunt contributed to this story.