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Anatomy of a Bullet Wound : People are shot in Southern California every day. But, experts say, few of us comprehend a bullet's impact. Here, the last 58 seconds in the life of a gunshot victim.

January 14, 1990|PAUL DEAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Juan Antonio Mendez never felt what hit him. A bullet does that. The small lead plug moving close to the speed of sound shocks and deadens the tissue and organs it crushes. Fear and confusion heighten the torpor of a gunshot wound. And at this point in his armed robbery of an electronics store in Koreatown, Juan Mendez is in full panic.

The plan has come apart. A young Brinks guard, Ramiro Garcia, isn't showing scared. Mendez's partner was able to grab the canvas cash sack from Garcia's left hand. But the guard isn't flinching, and that could mean he is ready to shoot it out.

Mendez has no time to change moves, to control the next moments of his life, to run, to yelp, to back down or cancel his commitment to violence.

He does have one moment to cock the hammer of his own gun, a museum piece--a rusted, single-action, frontier-style .44 six-gun made by Remington in the 1890s.

But the guard is faster. Garcia's left hand sweeps the barrel of Mendez's handgun aside. His own revolver, a Brinks-issue Smith & Wesson with a four-inch barrel and a full load of six .38 Special rounds, clears its black leather holster.

Boom! Garcia's first shot hits Mendez high in the left chest. The range is so close that flakes of unburned gunpowder are forced through Mendez's brown sweater. They tattoo the edges of the chest wound.

Boom! Mendez fires, but it is more of a reflex. The shot goes wild and slaps sideways into a store wall.

Boom! A second bullet hits Mendez's chest, dead center. He stumbles, turning. Boom! A bullet in the right arm, from triceps through biceps and into the left knee. Mendez falls.

Flat on his back, eyes fading, Mendez's dirty sneakers twitch against a display case of home security systems. "Double Entry Security" promises the sign. "Because Your Security And Peace of Mind Are Important."

Mendez flops an arm across his bleeding chest.

It is three days before Christmas.

Juan Mendez has just 58 seconds to live.

Massad Ayoob is a former police officer and, as founder / director of Lethal Force Institute of Concord, N.H., a guru of combat competition shooters.

From South Africa to Long Beach, police departments seeking to improve their effectiveness--and ordinary civilians afraid that police will never be able to do enough--pay up to $500 per person for Ayoob's courses in self-defense by pistol and shotgun, knife, night stick and Kubotan baton.

He blames the media--from George Peppard's fully automatic "A - Team" on television to Mel Gibson in gun-toting newspaper advertisements for "Lethal Weapon II"--for fitting America with a "an insulating, subconscious callous that keeps us from recognizing the horror of it.

"The guy (on television) gets hit in the head with a club and he passes out. He never retches, never vomits, never sees double, never goes into grand mal seizures . . . all of which occurs with people who have been struck in the head with blunt instruments. If they don't die.

"With gunshot wounds, the guy swoons and falls to the ground. There is no blood. Probably the height of the bull was the old Mannix series. At one point, Mannix is shot in the shoulder with a .458 elephant rifle by the millionaire villain. In the next scene, Mannix has got his arm in a little black sling and is hugging his new girlfriend.

"In real life, nobody has been shot with a .458 elephant rifle. But we have one case where a subject with a 45/70 (hunting) rifle shot a police officer wearing a bulletproof vest.

"The rifle was so powerful that it carried the vest into the wound channel, halfway through the body. The bullet struck at the right nipple, and there were ruptured blood vessels in the brain just from the backed up shock waves through the cardiovascular system.

"Of course, death was instantaneous. This is a whole lot more in line with what happens when you get shot."\f7

After Juan Mendez falls, there is a second of silence at ITC Electronics, 2772 W. Olympic Blvd. Minds respond in the pause, trying to understand and deciding what might be next. The stench of gunpowder is everywhere. Then shouts and movement.

Garcia is crawling and sliding toward the store's counter. His bravery has been expensive. While rapid-firing against Mendez, the armored car guard put one round through his own knee. Garcia desperately needs cover and time to reload.

Mendez's partner, however, isn't waiting for a rematch. He has the sack holding more than $20,000 in cash and checks. He sprints and shoves through shocked shoppers to an open door and the crowded street.

By this time, even the flutter of Mendez's breathing has stopped.

The first bullet, a flat-nosed lead slug weighing 10.2 grams, or less than 1/2 ounce, went into his chest angling down. It fractured the fifth rib on the way in, bored through both lobes of the left lung, and fractured the seventh rib on the way out.

Not always a fatal wound. Not if the round avoids larger blood vessels. Not if the bullet hole seals itself and air doesn't enter the chest cavity and the lung does not collapse.

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