He spent eight weeks in four hospitals, fighting infections that spread from the gunshots that ripped his abdomen, wrist and thigh. For days at a time, he drifted in and out of consciousness in a slow and deliberate struggle for life.
And on Saturday, CHP Officer Rafael "Ralph" Casillas finally came home.
With amber and blue lights flashing, a CHP motorcade escorted Casillas through the San Fernando Valley, from a Northridge hospital to his parents' home--only a mile or two from the doorsteps where he was shot July 24 by a suicidal ex-convict.
Wearing a black T-shirt and white jeans, the thin but determined young officer walked into his parents' yard, past hand-painted signs reading "We Love You, Man" and "Welcome Home, Ralph" to hug his mother and father, brothers and sisters. His CHP colleagues and bosses were there too, waiting in the shade of a huge inflated Pepsi can--Casillas' favorite drink.
"I've had the prayers and support of everybody," Casillas said, speaking quietly as he sat in an armchair with his young nieces stroking his arm. "You don't realize how important it is--you see people every day and you don't think twice about it. I just realized how important it is."
Small children giggled and followed Casillas' every move. At one point, the officer, listening to them, said their laughter was the most beautiful sound he'd heard.
His fiancee, CHP Officer Tanya Kuykendall, brought shopping bags full of Casillas' belongings into the house. She had held a daily vigil at Casillas' bedside.
"I couldn't be anywhere else," she said.
Even though he is far from fully recovered, Casillas said he longs to be back on the job, working his usual graveyard patrol shifts.
"Just seeing the motorcycles and the cars made me want to get my arm healed and jump back into that uniform," said Casillas, 31, who has worked for the Highway Patrol for eight years. "I miss the uniform. . . . It's already in my heart to go back."
First, though, Casillas has to regain the full use of his right hand and arm. Bullets hit his wrist and thigh and pierced his stomach just below his bulletproof vest. He was shot by Terry James Parker, who failed to stop his automobile for Casillas and his partner, leading the officers to his home where he opened fire.
Parker fled into the neighborhood, where he shot himself once before being killed by pursuing police.
Casillas, clinging to life, was dragged by his partner from the doorstep to safety.
CHP officials said at the time they were unsure whether Casillas would survive.
Since Monday, Casillas has improved dramatically, his family and CHP officials said. He was removed from a respirator just a week ago.
The party Saturday was an especially poignant event for Casillas' partner, James Portilla.
"The last time I talked to him was that night," said Portilla, who accompanied him home. "I held him in my arms. . . . I'm not a real emotional person but I feel a lot of emotion right now."
Casillas, sitting across the living room from Portilla, looked his partner in the eye and said quietly: "I owe you my life. I haven't forgotten."
In a lighter moment, Casillas asked what he could do for Portilla. Root for the Padres, the partner said. No way, came the response from the die-hard Dodger fan.