San Diego, California - Reflecting back on one of the most difficult days of his 18-year career with the San Diego Sheriff’s Department, Deputy William Dunford said he was grateful for his training because it allowed him to help two fellow deputies wounded by a suicidal gunman last year.
For putting his own life at risk while bringing them to safety, Dunford recently was awarded the Charles “Bud” Meeks Valor Award for Deputy Sheriff of the Year – the highest honor a deputy sheriff can receive -- at the National Sheriff’s Association annual conference in Fort Worth, TX.
“I personally am not in the job for the accolades. I look at that day as being fortunate enough to be there, fortunate enough not to freeze up and being fortunate enough to survive,” Dunford said. “It’s a great honor, don’t get me wrong, but I think I’m still the same guy who wants to do his job and go out and make sure all my beat partners are going home at the end of the night, too.”
He added he was honored to be in the same company as some of the other recipients of the award after reading up on their heroic actions.
“Words cannot express my gratitude for Will Dunford,” said Deputy Colin Snodgrass, one of the wounded deputies. “He’s deserving of all the awards and recognition he has received and will receive as a result of that unfortunate day. His actions were nothing short of heroic. He didn’t hesitate for even one second to put his life in danger to help others.”
February 20, 2013: Dunford wasn’t even on duty yet, but as he headed into work, he heard a radio call sending deputies to the home of a man whom he had dealt with on several other occasions and was known to dislike law enforcement. He decided to report to the scene in case he might be able to help defuse the situation if things escalated, and he also had his K-9 partner with him.
The man, now holed up in the attic of an Encinitas home, had a history of drug abuse and auto theft. His mother had taken out a restraining order against him, but he showed up at her home anyway and refused to leave. The man’s mother told arriving deputies he had no weapons or access to any unless he had grabbed a kitchen knife, Dunford said.
Deputies tried to persuade the man to come on his own, but he refused. Dunford started to put his K-9 partner up into the attic but stopped when the man told him he’d stab the dog if it came at him. Now, they knew he was armed, but they didn’t know the extent.
Sheriff’s deputies decided to shoot a pepper ball into the attic to drive the man out. Before they could do so, they heard Deputy James Steinmeyer cry out. Steinmeyer had been standing on a table with his head up in the attic trying to talk the man into surrendering. He jumped down holding his head.
Dunford ran to him and saw wounds from birdshot pellets on his face and head. Dunford ran him out of the house and called for an ambulance. As they waited, Dunford reassured him and told him his wounds were not too serious.
Deputies began taking up a perimeter around the house. Deputy Snodgrass took a position in a neighbor’s yard unaware that the suspect could see him through a vent. Suddenly, a shotgun blast struck Snodgrass in the right knee and leg.
Two other deputies, Justin Cheney and Amber Reeves, were the first to run out in the line of fire to try to help Snodgrass. Dunford quickly ran out there, too.
“He’s on the ground with blood all over the place, the two other deputies were trying to stop the bleeding, but it’s just not working,” Dunford said.
Dunford remembers looking at Snodgrass and thinking of his son, who was about the same age. He jumped up and ran to get a kit from his car. He’d recently taken tourniquet training and used it to help Snodgrass. All four of them were in the line of fire as they worked furiously to stop the bleeding. Then he and the other deputies ran with Snodgrass to the ambulance.
Meanwhile, although wounded, Steinmeyer had heard the shots and knew a deputy had been wounded so he got out of the ambulance and ran to a perimeter position with his rifle. The suspect had also fired at deputies in the house through the attic floor into the room below, but none were hit.
When the deputies ran up carrying Snodgrass, the paramedics were able to take Snodgrass to the closest trauma hospital immediately, Dunford said.
Then, Dunford said he noticed Steinmeyer in the distance and he appeared to be having some difficulty in his position which was now in the line of fire. So, once again disregarding his own safety, Dunford ran to him and helped move him to a safer area and eventually to medical attention.
The Sheriff’s SWAT unit arrived on scene shortly afterward, and Dunford and others were released from the scene. Ultimately, the man was discovered dead of a self-inflicted wound after an hours-long standoff.
In the aftermath
When asked what he was thinking during those moments when he continued to put himself in danger to help his fellow deputies, Dunford said: “I wasn’t thinking. Your training kicks in and you know to get small when you’re moving and to get to cover versus concealment because cover will stop a bullet, concealment won’t.
“I didn’t want anyone to die that day,” Dunford said.
The National Sheriff’s Association wrote: “Deputy Dunford demonstrated calm, supreme leadership in the face of extreme danger and his actions during this critical life or death incident epitomize everything associated with the word courage. His actions during this incident are a testament to his dedication and courage as a law enforcement professional.”
Only after it was all over, did he allow himself to think about the danger to his fellow deputies and himself, Dunford said.
Deputies Snodgrass and Steinmeyer both recovered from their injuries and returned to work.
“Both James and Colin were beat partners at the time and you know you’re friends with the people that you work with, but (now) I feel a duty of protection to make sure nothing happens to them again,” Dunford said. “James and Colin both are great people and deputies.”