Kristina Ripatti’s Story
By Brent Hopkins
Officer Kristina Ripatti grabbed the Ford Crown Victoria’s door and gave it a shove, springing forth into the hot June night.
She was with Joe Meyer, who’d been her partner for six months, and they were searching out gangsters in the Los Angeles Police Department’s violent Southwest Division halfway through 2006. As Meyer whipped 3 Charles One to the curb near Leighton and LaSalle avenues, Ripatti tore down the block, chasing hard after the suspicious looking man in the hooded sweatshirt.
James Fenton McNeal had just knocked over a gas station down the street from the police station, but Ripatti didn’t know that yet. All the veteran gang officer thought about as she raced after the 52-year-old robber, who’d spent much of his adult life in prison, was that he was disappearing down the dark block.
Around a corner, across the lawn, up the steps of a four-plex apartment—Ripatti caught McNeal right at the door. As she grabbed him high, McNeal broke free, produced a .22 and shot her just below her arm. In the struggle, the shot pierced just above her ribs, a weak spot not covered by her bulletproof vest.
She collapsed, her blood gushing forth in waves. McNeal took aim again, piercing her gun arm with a second shot, then a third, disabling her defenses. As he drew a bead on her head, preparing for the kill, Meyer caught up, drew his .45 and, aiming by the flash of McNeal’s pistol, killed the man with a volley of shots to the chest.
"The next thing I knew, I was falling to the ground, and Joe's on top of me, holding me,” Ripatti said. “I just kept screaming for him to get off of me."
Meyer, a shaven-headed ex-soldier, furiously worked to staunch the blood flow, using his big hands to plug the wound pumping blood from her torso. Keeping one eye on the prone McNeal, Meyer keyed his radio and broadcast the words that strike fear and trigger immediate response in every cop’s heart.
“Officer down!” he yelled. “Requesting assistance!”
Not far away, Tim Pearce, another 10-year veteran gang officer, heard the frenzied yell in his patrol car. He looked nervously at his partner, who punched the lights and siren, and swung the cruiser onto the freeway.
Pearce knew the area all too well—he’d worked it as a young officer coming up in a gang unit. Back then, he’d partnered with the tough chick named Ripatti who wore her hair spiked and spent hours in the gym, hardening her physique and training for just such an emergency. Her brash manner had put him off at first, but he’d softened in time and grown fond of her.
So fond, years later once they’d split off into different divisions, he’d married her.
As they screamed toward the scene, Pearce tried to listen for his wife’s voice among the cacophony of calls coming over the radio.
“We're not hearing her," he said. "She's either winged or she's dead.”
Then he got the call – Ripatti was down and bleeding out. As they pulled up at the scene, Pearce leapt out and fought his way to the front of the crowd. When he found her, she was white as a sheet and her eyes couldn’t focus.
He kissed her tenderly, heart in his throat. Hoping for the best and fearing the worst, he worried it would be their last goodbye.
It wasn’t. By the time she reached California Hospital Medical Center, she’d lost 80 percent of her blood. Ripatti kept battling. Trauma surgeons labored to keep her alive, telling her over and over that she needed to fight.
"What do you mean, fight?" she said. "I'm not going anywhere."
No one heard her—she was slipping away. After furiously working to patch the holes and stabilize her, doctors finally got the wounds under control. But as they looked at the X-Rays, they realized they had a more serious problem with which to contend: McNeal’s first slug was still inside her body, lodged in her spine.
It was too dangerous to try to pluck it out – she was paralyzed.
For Ripatti, the diagnosis could hardly have been worse. She loved the physical part of her job and trained rigorously, so hard that she worked out nearly all the way through her pregnancy with their daughter, Jordan. An avid surfer, off-road enthusiast and runner, she could no longer move any muscles below her chest. She would have to spend life in a wheelchair, her doctors warned her.
But the willful copper had other plans. After a few days of private tears and heartache, she and Pearce decided they would not give in to the injury. This was just a new adventure.
Within two months of the shooting, Ripatti began intense physical rehabilitation at Long Beach Memorial Hospital, not far from her Redondo Beach home. Therapists stretched her once powerful legs, keeping them limber as the muscles withered. She learned to navigate the world on wheels and built up her arms so the angry, red scars became mere dots amid the muscle.
"When she first got here, she could feed herself and sit up in the bed, but that was about it," said Dr. Ann Vasile, the hospital’s medical director of spinal cord rehabilitation. "She needed 100 percent assistance; now she's about 25 percent or less. In the next few months, she should go back to doing things with no assistance.”
But Ripatti was not content with just learning to put her shoes on without a nurse’s help. She’d led a strenuous, physical life before that fateful June night, so she reasoned there was no need to back off. By the fall, she struggled into a black wetsuit and blue flotation vest at Bolsa Chica State Beach and rolled slowly in a wheelchair with oversized tires toward the waterline.
Pearce eased her into the water as a brother officer produced a 10-foot, red and yellow surfboard.
"Great, Tim, what have you gotten yourself into?" Pearce thought. "This is gonna be like some bad `Baywatch' episode.”
As the waves crested her blonde head, Ripatti bobbed in the surf. Quickly, she acclimated to the motion and asked for the board. A good swell came up, Pearce grabbed her and threw her into the churning foam and soon, she was hurtling toward the beach.
Near the shore, she slipped from the 10-foot Dewey Weber and beneath the water. Ever watchful, Meyer came running, his powerful legs splashing through the surf.
"You OK?" he demanded as her head popped back into the air.
She spat water and grinned.
"Yeah," she coughed. "Get me out there again."
Her refusal to submit to the injury’s confines made her and her extended family into reluctant heroes in the next year. The Los Angeles Dodgers asked her to throw out a ceremonial first pitch before a game. Maria Shriver invited her to speak at the California Governor and First Lady’s Conference on Women. The television reality series “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” selected their tiny home near the beach for a radical fix-up, turning Ripatti and Pearce into nationally recognized figures.
In May of 2007, Meyer won the LAPD’s Medal of Valor, the department’s highest honor, accepting it wracked with guilt. Ripatti, who earned the Police Star for giving chase to the gun-toting crook, delivered an emotional speech that left many hardened officers in tears.
"Joe did not want to accept this award tonight. He believes he does not deserve it because I'm paralyzed," she said. "But Joe's actions are nothing less than heroic. He gave me a second chance at life."
But that second chance wasn’t quite what she wanted it to be. A few months later, unable to return at the standard at which she believed was acceptable, Ripatti retired from the LAPD with a full medical pension. Chief William Bratton, who closely monitored her recovery, reluctantly bid her farewell from the department. Inspired by her courage, he remained close with her and Pearce, who went onto accept a less-risky promotion as a gang detective.
"What drew me in was that they're both such compelling people," Bratton said. "They're just good people. If there were ever two people who are able to deal with this, it's them."
And as she continued to publicly struggle with rebuilding her life, Ripatti also labored in secret on another, more radical plan.
In addition to her heavy load of physical therapy and gym time, Ripatti also spent time working with the charismatic rehabilitation guru Taylor-Kevin Isaacs. The long-haired, soft-spoken trainer put her through a rigorous series of exercises away from the public eye at a Northridge gym, forcing her to reawaken old muscles that she could no longer feel.
By June 2, 2007, nearly exactly one year to the day she’d lost the use of her legs, Ripatti, Pearce, Isaacs and Meyer returned to Dockweiler State Beach. Each year, cops gathered there for the Los Angeles Police Department Memorial Run and she’d always made it a point to participate. Only hours before the shooting, she’d run the course with her fellow officers in Southwest Division.
This time, she’d do it from her chair, with Pearce running alongside to ensure she made it all right. Five kilometers later, face flushed from exertion, she approached the finish line. Forty meters from the end, she pulled up short and paused as the rest of the crowd pushed ahead.
It was time to make a statement. From her feet.
Pearce and Isaacs helped her into a set of leg braces and she locked her fingers around the grips of a walker. Breathing deeply and wincing in pain, she began to push forward.
Months of training with Isaacs took hold. By flexing her powerful upper body, she could redirect the energy through the braces into her deadened legs. Slowly, jerkily, haltingly, she lurched toward the finish line.
Her old squad followed behind, their claps and calls of encouragement growing with each hesitant step. Shaking with the pain of exertion, she willed herself forward, grimacing with determination.
By the time she reached the finish line, barely able to stand but still defiantly jerking onward, a swarm of 1,200 cops gathered around. Their amazed cheers rose to a deafening crescendo. With one, final, determined step, she made it across. Pearce grabbed her in a mad embrace, looking deep into her ice-blue eyes and kissing her.
As the emotional crowd milled around, the fitness trainer helped his protégé into her chair, proudly smiling at her progress.
“That was quite a breakthrough for you," Isaacs told her.
LAPD Assistant Chief Jim McDonnell, the department’s second-highest ranking officer, squeezed her shoulder and gently disagreed. He’d become close with the family and watched Ripatti’s evolution from her bed-ridden days to her triumphant return.
"No," he said. "That was a breakthrough for all of us."
Another word came to mind: miraculous. But she found a way to top even that stunning moment.
Eight months later, she found herself back in a Torrance hospital, surrounded by a team of doctors and nurses. Even after the countless hours in the gym and under Isaacs’ direction, Ripatti still couldn’t feel a thing beneath her chest as the doctor barked commands.
“Push!” the doc growled.
She had a scalpel and a suction machine at the ready in case something went wrong. This would be one for the textbooks if it worked out.
Ripatti struggled and tried to force her body to respond. Her deadened muscles began to flex. It was happening.
A tiny head appeared.
At 4:37 p.m. Feb. 13, 2008, the paralyzed ex-cop gave birth to a blue-eyed, black-haired, 5-pound-8-ounce, 19-inch, healthy baby. Nurses swabbed and swaddled him and the family went back up to her private room at the Little Company of Mary Hospital.
“Now I can say it,” an exhausted Ripatti murmured. “I wanted a boy.”
Pearce stood at her side, beaming as he looked down at his newborn son. He leaned over and kissed his old partner’s forehead, knowing how hard she’d worked to fight her way back to that proud moment.
“I could see it in her eyes,” he said. “This made her whole again. When she had this baby, she took back her life.”