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Widow Talks About Life After Kansas Deputy's Death

May 29--A Sedgwick County Sheriff's deputy had been shot. "I just wanted to make sure Brian is OK," a friend on the phone told Sarah Etheridge, whose husband had been a deputy for less than a year.

Sarah tried to reach Brian just after noon on that final Monday in September 2009. He didn't answer.

She called 911, telling the dispatcher she wanted to make sure Brian was OK.

"She said, 'Can you hold on just a second, Mrs. Etheridge?' I heard her put the phone down, I heard her pick up another phone and say, 'His wife's on the phone. What do you want me to tell her?' "

She slumped to the kitchen floor in their small house in southwest Wichita, thinking, "What am I going to do?"

The worst fears of a law enforcement officer's spouse -- the moment she had dreaded since Brian announced he wanted to be a cop -- had become a reality.

The dispatcher kept talking to her, but most of the words went unheard.

"All I remember her saying is, 'They're sending officers to your home now. I need you to stay there.' "

She didn't want to, though. She wanted to jump in her car and go to Wesley Medical Center, where Brian had been raced by an ambulance escorted by patrol cars.

But she waited. And waited.

"I changed my clothes, brushed my teeth, let the dogs outside, paced around the living room, called my mom, called my best friend, talked to Brian's mom on the phone... and still nobody was there."

Brian's mother had called after she tried to return to work after lunch and discovered Rock Road had been blocked. She turned on the radio and heard a deputy had been shot, then called Sarah after she couldn't reach Brian.

"I didn't know what to say to her," Sarah would say. "I felt terrible. I felt bad that I didn't call her right away, but... I had no information.

"I asked the dispatcher, 'Is he alive?' Nobody knew."

A sheriff's deputy finally got her to Wesley at about 12:45 p.m., less than an hour after Brian was shot.

Waiting for Sarah in the emergency room was Justin Maxfield, one of Brian's classmates at the law enforcement training academy.

"They just took him to surgery, Sarah," he told her. "You just missed him."

Brian had been sent to a house on South Rock Road to take a larceny report and was shot twice -- once in the back and once in the foot, Maxfield told her. The man who shot him had called in a false report and waited to ambush the officer who responded, authorities said later.

But Brian was alert and had given officers information about the man who shot him.

And he was talking before he went into surgery, Maxfield told her.

"That's a good sign, right?" Sarah asked.

Law enforcement officials were encouraged enough to tell reporters gathered on South Rock Road near the shooting scene that they were optimistic about Brian's chances of recovery.

Sarah was taken to a small waiting room next to where Brian was undergoing surgery. Soon, her parents and Brian's parents joined her there.

---

The sound of the sirens shook Derek Purcell awake at his house in southeast Wichita, not far from McConnell Air Force Base.

He didn't think anything of them at first. He is a police officer, and sirens are the soundtrack of his profession.

When he checked his cellphone, however, it was jammed with messages: a deputy had been shot.

"At first I thought it was kind of a joke. It was my birthday, and I thought, 'That's not even that funny.' "

Not funny because Purcell had been shot twice by a man on Maple near Meridian on July 11, 2008.

One of the bullets shredded the femoral artery in his right leg, and Purcell nearly bled to death. Doctors said he was less than a minute from death when he reached the hospital.

After months of recovery and intensive therapy, Purcell returned to street duty the following January -- back to the same night shift and the same streets he worked the night he was shot.

He called dispatch on that Monday in September to find out what happened.

"I didn't know what to do," he said. "My thing coming out of having been shot was the thought that if anybody went through that same thing again, I was going to go there and at least make sure that they knew that they could get ahold of me" and be there to help them navigate the road to recovery.

"You're feeling frustration and anger all the time" on that journey, he said, because you're constantly reminded of what you can't do anymore.

He was told the deputy had been taken to Wesley, so he started driving there.

"Then I thought, 'This is stupid. If he's going there, he's going to be there a few hours and all I'm going to do is be in the way.' "

He called a friend, another law enforcement officer, and learned the shooter was still on the loose. He went to his friend's house, where they monitored a police scanner to learn the latest developments.

Then he went home to change for the part-time job he had on his days off. By then, he had learned the wounded deputy was Brian Etheridge, whom he had met earlier that year.

While he was at his second job, he began getting updates via text message from an officer at Wesley who had been in the police academy class with Brian.

The news was not good.

---

Not long after the surgery began, Sarah, her parents and her in-laws were moved to a hallway leading to the surgical intensive care unit.

"That way I would be able to see him when they brought him out of surgery," Sarah said.

She had a tendency to worry about things a lot, and Brian had always been the one to remind her that things weren't that bad. She kept telling herself that as they waited: It's not that bad. He's going to be all right.

They both grew up in Derby, but didn't really become acquainted until they were seniors in high school and worked together at El Paso Animal Clinic in Derby. Even though they worked together, Brian was so shy he didn't start chatting with Sarah for months.

"He was just so quiet," she said. "He was hard to get to know."

But when he finally did start talking, she discovered a man who was thoughtful, funny and caring. They started dating shortly after they began attending Kansas State University, and married the spring after they graduated.

Their daughter, Natalie, was born about a year later.

Brian's desire to be a police officer made Sarah nervous. She knew how dangerous the profession could be. But she did her best to set aside her fears.

"When you love someone, you support their dreams," she said.

When he applied for the police academy shortly after they were married and was rejected, he was crushed. Maybe, he told Sarah, he wasn't meant to have a career in law enforcement. But she encouraged him to keep trying.

He got a job at the juvenile detention facility and reapplied for the police academy in 2009. This time, he was accepted -- by the sheriff's office.

He began the 22-week course on July 7, 2008. Days later, a Wichita police officer nearly died after being shot.

"I remember that very well," Sarah said, though she couldn't recall the officer's name at the time. "I wasn't very happy about it."

It was a reminder, she knew, of what could happen. But Brian found the words to calm her.

It could happen to anyone, he said. People get killed simply driving to work.

Besides, the chances of something actually happening to him while he was on duty were so small they were hardly worth worrying about.

She talked herself into believing him, but still called occasionally while he was on duty just to assure herself he was OK.

As she waited in the hallway, she kept telling herself Brian would be OK. It wasn't that bad.

When a surgeon emerged shortly after 2 p.m., however, his words stunned her.

"Sarah, he's hurt really, really bad. He's bleeding a lot."

They were doing all they could to stop the bleeding and bring his body temperature up, he said, but it was going to be tough.

"He needs your prayers," the surgeon added. "There's a real good chance he's not going to make it."

Brian died at 4:20 p.m.

"I never got to see him before he died," Sarah said. "I never got to tell him, 'I love you' one last time.

"I'm sure he knew, but... "

---

Shortly before 6 p.m., Sarah was escorted to a room where Brian had been taken after he died. She sat by her husband in silence, stunned at how abruptly the life they built together had been torn apart.

Suddenly, the deputy who had driven her to the hospital poked his head into the room: "We got him!"

"Are you sure?" she asked.

She hadn't really paid much attention to the details of the search for her husband's killer.

"I was too focused on Brian and on whether he was going to be OK," she said.

But as she was leaving the hospital a short time later, she bumped into Lt. Mark Pierce, who had trained Brian at the academy and had become a good friend.

"Are you sure he's dead?" she asked him. "Are you sure it's over?"

Yes, he assured her. It was over.

As she made her way home, it began to sink in: life as she knew it was over, too.

But healing and rebirth would come in ways she never could have imagined.

Reach Stan Finger at 316-268-6437 or sfinger@wichitaeagle.com.

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