Maria M. Moreno
Express-News Staff Writer
He miraculously survived two bullets from an AK-47 that left gaping holes in his neck and leg.
He endured weeks on a hospital bed and months of rehabilitation to regain the ability to drive, shower, walk.
Early Friday, about nine months after he’d finally recovered enough to return to patrolling the West Side, Officer John Wheeler died, trapped in his burning patrol car.
He was the first San Antonio police officer to die in the line of duty in nearly four years.
Police said Wheeler, a 12-year veteran, had finished a traffic stop and was parked on the side of the 7400 block of Northwest Loop 410 when a Chevrolet Caprice going at least 90 mph rear-ended Wheeler’s Crown Victoria. The impact caused the patrol car to spin around and collide again with the Caprice, nearly head-on.
The rear-end impact caused the Crown Victoria’s gas tank to explode, setting both cars on fire, police said. The front-end impact crumpled the cars’ hoods, pinning both drivers inside their cars.
At about 1:51 a.m., Wheeler pressed the emergency button on his radio. His wife, Kim Wheeler a dispatcher who, in 2003, had heard her husband send the same call for help when two robbers shot his patrol car 21 times with a semiautomatic rifle again received the distress sign and sent officers to his aid.
Sgt. Gabe Trevino, a police spokesman, said officers used the global positioning system to locate Wheeler. Officers and firefighters tried to pull Wheeler and the other driver out of their burning cars, but couldn’t pry them free.
Both died at the scene. Wheeler was 41. The other driver was so badly burned, he hadn’t been identified as of Friday night.
In the early morning of Sept. 29, 2003, Wheeler was shot while responding to a robbery call at a Shell gas station involving two suspects. The officer was struck twice. He then rammed the robbers’ getaway vehicle with his patrol car, rendering it useless. The suspects ran off with cigarettes and $300. Both later were caught and recently convicted.
The affable Wheeler called his survival a miracle.
"With 21 bullets, I don’t know how I’m here," he said about two months after the shooting.
Wheeler didn’t wear his uniform again until July 9, 2004, when the department awarded him a purple heart and his wife a certificate of appreciation. He didn’t return to full patrol duty until January 2005.
His easygoing demeanor and perseverance made him well-liked and respected by his peers, said Sgt. Frank Martinez, who also works out of the West Side substation. Everyone at his substation was aware of all he had endured after the shooting just to be able to get back to work. Martinez said that showed Wheeler’s dedication to his job.
"That was his passion," said Martinez, who wore black tape across his badge Friday.
Wheeler’s sudden death shocked the police department. Martinez said the mood at the substation was somber as officers grappled with the painful example of how even routine tasks can be deadly.
"It’s just a grisly reminder of how dangerous your job is," he said. "Everybody is kind of in a state of shock. One thing we did tell the officers is not to lose focus."
In addition to his wife, Wheeler leaves behind two daughters.
To help the officers deal with Wheeler’s death, a chaplain led a prayer during morning roll call and made himself available to anyone who needed to talk.
Martinez said, "We are dealing with emotions that are very natural."