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Policeman Left a Quadriplegic in Gunfight Returns to San Diego

Shot in the neck, he spent four months at Colorado treatment facility for spinal cord injuries.

March 12, 2004|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — To the cheers of hundreds of his colleagues, Police Officer Dan Walters, left a quadriplegic by an on-duty shooting, returned home Thursday after four months at a rehabilitation hospital in Colorado.

"It was a long trip," Walters said softly as his wheelchair was rolled to a waiting van at Lindbergh Field for a trip to a rehabilitation center in San Diego.

Walters, 37, who was a catcher for the San Diego Padres before joining the police force, had stopped to help an officer who was questioning a domestic violence suspect on a busy street Nov. 12. The suspect, Jaime Contreras, 26, of National City, exchanged gunfire with police, striking Walters in the neck. Walters was then struck by a car. Contreras was killed.

Left in near-total paralysis, Walters had intensive therapy at Craig Hospital in Englewood, Colo., a highly regarded center for the treatment of spinal cord injuries. Progress has been slow, but his fellow officers said they were encouraged.

The sight of the once-robust athlete left some officers shaken, even as they clapped and cheered.

"It's very frightening to see what can happen to us," said Officer Jonathan Wiese, who attended the police academy with Walters. "The only thing we can do is learn from this incident."

Walters was accompanied on the flight from Denver by his parents, Darrell and Roberta Walters of Escondido.

"This is wonderful," the officer's tearful mother said as she surveyed the well-wishers, banners and news cameras.

The couple had been in Colorado during their son's rehabilitation, which was paid for by Padre owner John Moores and the San Diego Police Officers Assn.

"Bert is one of those moms who want to take care of things forever," said family friend Marilyn Ryder of La Mesa, a San Diego suburb. "If she could, she'd have Dan come home so she could do everything for him."

Police Chief Bill Landsdowne, who greeted the officer at the airport, said the shooting had shown officers that "we're all vulnerable."

"We really are a family," he said. "We'll work through this. It's just good to be together again."

Walters played for the Houston Astros' farm system from 1984 to 1986.

After stints with the Padres' farm teams, he earned a spot on the roster in 1992 and 1993, and was known as a good defensive catcher and capable of power at the plate.

A spring training injury in 1996 ended his baseball career. In 1999, he joined the San Diego Police Department.

"It's a tough thing to watch," Officer Sedonia Weathersby said after embracing Walters' mother. "But we still have a job to do."

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