The story of a hero

Jerry Bonkowski

KANSAS CITY, Kan. – A year ago Monday, Susan Brown lay dying in a pool of her own blood.

You see, just hours after Tony Stewart limped across the finish line to take the checkered flag at Kansas Speedway, two masked men with guns stormed into the speedway's vault and demanded what was inside. Only Brown, a detective with the Kansas City, Kan., police department, didn't want to hand over the roughly $1 million that was inside.

Instead, she stood strong, directing employees into another room as a shootout ensued. Bullets flew back and forth. Several hit Brown. But even as she lay bleeding on the floor, Brown did not give up the fight. She returned fire and forced the robbers to flee – empty-handed.

When they did, Brown was finally able to radio for help.

"10-60," she said weakly.

Officer has been shot.

Greg Schneider got the call in his car and raced to the vault. On the way, he spotted the alleged getaway vehicle with the alleged offenders in it. He quickly radioed the description of the vehicle to other nearby officers, then continued into the bowels of the track where he was the first officer to find Brown.

He still vividly remembers what he found.

"The door was closed and locked," Schneider recalled. "I tried to knock and announce, stating my name over and over. I thought it was another officer in there, and finally one of the inside personnel unlocked the door.

"It was quiet. Then I heard noise coming from within the area where she was."

Schneider, not knowing whether it was an active hostage situation or if anyone was armed, entered and secured the area.

Then he saw the officer was down.

"At that point, I realized … that it was Susan," he said. "This is my friend."

Brown will be the first to admit she's not a NASCAR fan.

"I just never got into it," she said with a shrug of her shoulders.

Petite, attractive and in her 40s (she won't reveal her exact age), Brown doesn't look like a street-hardened, 27-year veteran of the police force. She's an active member of her church and enjoys participating in Cub Scout activities and camping with her son and husband Kelly.

In fact, the weekend the shooting occurred, Kelly and their son were on a Cub Scout camping trip.

"I tried to get her to come along with us, but she said no," Kelly said. "She wanted to be where all the excitement was – and she got all the excitement."

At the race track, when Schneider found her that day, Susan Brown was in critical condition. A medical helicopter airlifted her to nearby Kansas University Medical Center.

Initial news reports from the scene had Brown dead. Miraculously, she survived.

"When we first heard that Susan had been shot, it was like, 'Susan? Why Susan?' " said Captain James Brown (no relation to Susan Brown), public information officer for the Kansas City police. "She's the most friendliest, nicest police officer on the department. Why her? It was a shock."

As it turned out, the alleged perpetrators weren't professional crooks trying to make a quick score. According to track president Jeff Boerger, the alleged perpetrators – Fredrick Douglas and Nolden Garner – were longtime volunteers who worked various events at the track over the years.

"They were truly bad guys," Boerger said. "In addition, these guys obviously weren't very smart. We had over 20 police officers around the area on-site. When they made an attempted robbery, they didn't get far. They were apprehended immediately."

Douglas and Garner remain jailed on attempted capital murder and attempted armed robbery charges. A court date has yet to be set.

Immediately after the shooting, officers from as far as several hundreds of miles away sought to donate blood for Brown and helped raise money for her family.

Local restaurants donated food to Brown and her family, as did the score of officers who worked on her case.

Brown's father came from his home in Texas to stay with her for most of the last 12 months, while her mother, stepfather and stepmother were constant companions, assisting her with tasks both large and small.

The outpouring of emotion came from all over the country. NASCAR fans logged onto the Kansas City police department Web site, posting messages like, "Hey, I'm a NASCAR fan living in Florida. I heard what happened up there and hope she's doing well."

While most Cup drivers were never aware of what happened – most having jetted back to Charlotte by the time of the shooting – Elliott Sadler sent emails of support, while his mother sent Brown flowers and a note saying their prayers were with Brown and her family. Several NASCAR officials also have regularly kept in touch.

"It was an outpour of love," Brown said. "You don't know how many friends you really have until something like this happens."

"So many people knew Susan," said Kansas City mayor Joe Reardon. "She's a great person. When this occurred, the community rallied around her like a small town would rally around someone when something like that happened."

For her heroics, Susan endured six surgeries to repair wounds to her arm, wrist, leg mouth and chest. She also still has one bullet lodged in her upper chest. Doctors say it's still too risky to remove.

Earlier this year, Brown received the department's Valor and Purple Heart awards, and she also is in the running for several more state and national awards still to be handed out.

In April, after six months of recovery and exhaustive physical therapy, Brown finally returned to light duty. On Aug. 20, she went back to work full time as a financial crimes investigator.

"I have constant pain," she said. "Will that ever go away? I don't know. It's been a year and I'm still in pain."

She tries to block it out, but tiny grimaces serve as reminders. Still, she says, she has a lot to be thankful for.

"I'm just glad that my family is OK (and) I'm OK," Brown said. "I've had tremendous support throughout this from my church, the police department, my family members and from NASCAR.

"It's going to be difficult, but life goes on and this doesn't normally happen in NASCAR. For a very bad situation, this turned out to be (good). I'm able to go back to work."

Brown has returned to Kansas Speedway several times since the shooting. Saturday, she was back again. As she drove into the speedway, numerous colleagues greeted her with countless hugs.

"She's a fighter," Schneider said. "She's just a strong person. I think a lesser person wouldn't be where she is today right now. Just tremendous fight, zeal. She worked harder than what (doctors) wanted her to work a lot of times."

Brown didn't stick around for Sunday's race, though not because of what happened last year or because she's not a NASCAR fan. Rather, it has everything to do with some of the life-changing lessons she's learned since that fateful day.

"With such a drastic thing that's happened, my priorities have changed," she said. "Last week and this week have been family reunions and Cub Scouts, so family is more important right now to me."

Brown doesn't like the attention the shooting has brought her; and she shyly demurs when friends and colleagues call her a hero.

"I did what my training taught me to do," she said. "I protected lives. That's what we do. I was here to protect lives and property – and I think I did a pretty good job."