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'There's only one thing you could do in that situation': Stillwater officer reflects on 2015 shooting

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Editor's Note: In the original version of this story, Officer Cody Manuel was referred to as a lieutenant. The O'Colly has made a correction and Manuel is now referred to as sergeant.

It was an early Thursday morning in 2015, and Officer Cody Manuel was working in Stillwater Police Department's criminal investigations unit. 

His radio sounded on the corner of his desk, and the fire department was dispatched to a structure fire in the 100 block of West Scott Avenue. He perked up; structure fires in Stillwater were rare. The fire department soon called the police department to the scene.

Firefighters found William Marg, 64, stabbed to death in the ground level of the subdivided two-story apartment. Only the top apartment was ablaze. Witnesses told police the upstairs tenants had fled on foot just before the fire was noticed. 

Manuel, then 33, learned the tenants’ names, Ralph and Rachel Willis, and began searching for more information about the couple. He compiled an email with the homicide suspects’ pictures and information and sent it to department and city officials. After gathering a team of five officers, he headed to a local hotel, Rachel Willis’ last known place of employment.

On the way there, he heard a code enforcement officer call out on the radio, saying he had seen the couple walk into the garden center entrance of Wal-Mart on Perkins Road.

“I thought, ‘There’s no way,’” Manuel said. “‘That’s not how these things play out.’”

Officers covered their police gear and went into Wal-Mart undercover, searching for the suspects. Manuel’s radio was drawing attention to him, so he turned the volume down, “maybe a little too far down.”  An officer posted outside called on the radio, saying the suspects had fled and he was in foot pursuit, but Manuel didn’t hear it.

When he eventually checked his radio, Manuel ran from Wal-Mart and joined in the chase. The suspects were “bounding” across a nearby field, ducking down in the tall grass every once in a while to hide from officers. Rachel got caught on a fence, and when Willis couldn’t free her, he continued running. Police took Rachel, then 37, into custody.

Later in an interview with investigators, Rachel said Willis had told her that morning that he wasn’t going back to jail, no matter what.

Willis jumped the backyard fence of a house on Maple Avenue and ran toward the front fence as if he were going to jump it, but he stopped when he saw other officers closing in on him.

“I think that’s when he realized, mentally, that he’s not getting away,” Manuel said. “Obviously, as a murder suspect, I already have my gun out, and we’re giving him verbal commands and all that, but he kind of just paced around for a matter of seconds, and then he seemed to calm himself, almost. He turned around and faced us.”

Manuel said two officers beside him holstered their guns and began to jump the fence to arrest Willis, but Willis made “an exaggerated drawing movement from his waistband” as if he were drawing a gun.

Manuel said time seemed to slow.

“It was like a matrix type of deal,” Manuel said. “It was really exaggerated of me looking and saying, ‘Wow, it looks like he’s drawing a gun. Is this really happening? This is kind of crazy.’

“I remember the grittiness of my trigger, taking the slack out. Whenever I saw he had something in his hand is whenever I broke my shot.”

Manuel shot and killed Willis, 42, on Jan. 29, 2015, according to O’Colly archives. The object Willis pulled from behind his back was a wallet.

In an interview with the O’Colly last week, Manuel, now 36 and a sergeant, said he knows people who aren’t expecting to be shot don’t react the way Willis did. He said Willis threw his arms in the air and immediately fell to the ground.

“I believe he knew that was going to happen,” Manuel said.

While officers hopped the fence and ran to handcuff Willis, Manuel said he called “shots fired” on the radio and requested an ambulance. The officers on scene went into “work mode.”

“There was no emotion involved in any of it at that point,” Manuel said. “That’s all completely out the window. You just start doing work. Get on the radio. For everybody else’s benefit who’s already responding to this deal, (say) that officers are OK, suspect is down, so everybody doesn’t lose their mind and crash on the way over there.”

Manuel said Willis was “in bad shape” from his chest wound, taking his dying breaths, so officers told him to go to the front yard.

‘I just wanted it all over’ŸŸŸ

Manuel said when an officer shoots someone, his or her gun becomes evidence in a homicide investigation. He said studies have shown that the action of taking an officer’s gun carries a connotation of wrongdoing, so at SPD, officers switch guns. In Manuel’s case, SPD Chief Ryan McCaghren switched his gun with Manuel’s when he arrived on scene.

Manuel said Stillwater City Manager Norman McNickle, then the Stillwater director of public safety, arrived on scene and drove Manuel back to the department.

“I sat in the small training room directly behind this wall for two hours,” Manuel said. “It was odd; very, very eerie.”

Manuel said his wife, Sarah Manuel, was unable to answer a phone call, so he sent her a text: “I’m OK. Give me a call whenever you get this message.”

“She called me and was like, ‘What do you mean you’re OK?'” Manuel recalled.

Sarah joined Manuel in the training room for a while, and Manuel said he left with the understanding the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation would interview him at some point. He said he wanted to “get it over with right then.”

“I just wanted to get all the facts out, and I was confident that they would show that I had done the right thing,” Manuel said. “I just wanted it all over.”

He said OSBI completed the ballistic tests on his gun that same day, and a couple of his fellow officers returned it to him that evening. He said he didn’t think it would be meaningful to him, but it was.

Manuel said no one really knew what to say to him, but everyone seemed to be watching him, like he was in a fishbowl. He said he learned to be thankful that people around him cared enough to try to console him, but he was focused on another dilemma.

“I was trying to figure out, at that point, how to tell my daughter, who was 7 at the time,” Manuel said. “I didn’t want her to go to school and find out something about it not from me. I just wasn’t able to wrap my brain around how to talk to her about it.”

Manuel said he was scared his daughter would be afraid of him after he told her what he had done. He said whether it was lawful or followed policy doesn’t matter to a 7-year-old. He decided to tell her the day after the shooting.

“She knew something was up, but I had built it up in my mind to be this huge thing,” Manuel said. “She kind of wanted to know what happened, but when she knew it was a bad guy that was trying to hurt me and the guys that I work with, and that it had to be done, she was on to, ‘Can I go play now?’”

Manuel said he felt relieved after the conversation was over, and his only lingering concern was whether any of her classmates at school would say something to upset her.

OSBI’s investigation was ongoing at that point, and Manuel’s name was under wraps. Manuel said he preferred it that way, but not for his benefit.

“It was for my kids, for my child, at that point, mainly,” Manuel said. “My family and the people I was close to, they knew what had happened, and I wasn’t worried about my name in the media for a stranger, necessarily.” 

Manuel said he couldn’t help but get online to read the social media comments on news stories about his shooting. He said he wishes he could disregard what people posted, but he was curious about it, too.

“Twenty percent of the population loves the police no matter what, and 20 percent of the population hates the police no matter what, and everybody else is just in the middle waiting for the facts to come out,” Manuel said. “I think just knowing that, you realize there are going to be the naysayers and self-appointed experts, and you just have to go with it. It’s not that aggravating. I find it somewhat interesting.”

Prosecutors ruled Willis’ death as a justifiable homicide about two weeks later, and after SPD’s administrative investigation was complete, Manuel said he was cleared to go back to work.

ŸŸŸ‘There’s only one thing you could do in that situation’

Manuel, from Cushing, said he graduated from the Council on Law Enforcement Education and Training Academy in 2005 and started as a patrol officer at the Cushing Police Department. Three years later, he joined SPD as a patrolman, and he was promoted to the Criminal Investigations Division in 2012.

Manuel said officers are not taught definitive situations when they're supposed to use lethal force.

“It’s all very situational,” Manuel said.  “It depends on policies, legalities, your own personal ethical standards … learning what the law says, what your department’s policies say, and then the case law of what courts have looked at and have decided what is reasonable force by an officer.

“Learning about those things helps you form your own ideas of what, as a police officer at the Stillwater Police Department, is reasonable force and what is not.”

Besides the factors influencing an officer’s decision to use lethal force, Manuel said his training only “touched” on how officers can cope if they kill someone.

Manuel said he largely attributed his ability to cope with killing Willis to retired Army Lt. Col. Dave Grossman. Manuel said he attended Grossman’s seminar, The Bulletproof Mind, in about 2011, where Grossman spoke about how killing affects people who have to kill, such as soldiers and law enforcement officers.

“(The Bulletproof Mind) really put a few question marks I had in my mind to bed,” Manuel said. “I think that was a big step in me coming to terms, before this all happened, with the fact that it would be OK if that happened, that I would be OK afterwards.”

Manuel said he had questions like he believes anyone else would: “Would I be able to do this?” and  “I’d be able to do this if…” He said people always seem to have a “tough guy” mentality.

“But do any of those people really know?” Manuel said. “I thought that I would be OK afterwards, if it ever did happen to me. But you don’t really ever know. (Willis) made that decision then and there that he was going to draw a reaction from the police. There’s only one thing you could do in that situation, and that’s what I had to do.”

Immediately after his shooting, Manuel said officer Justin Reedy offered him a bottle of water from his patrol car. Manuel said he had “cotton-mouth” from chasing Willis.

“I think (Reedy) was on the lookout for any kind of adverse reaction from me over the deal,” Manuel said. “Which is good, to have somebody there looking out for that.”

Manuel said when McNickle drove him to the department, he didn’t want to know anything about what happened, he wanted to only make sure Manuel was OK.

Manuel said he felt like he was OK, but he felt bad for not feeling terrible. He decided to schedule an appointment with Dr. Kathy Thomas, a clinical psychologist specialist in Stillwater who does a lot of the critical incident counseling with SPD officers.

Manuel said he asked Thomas whether he should feel worse, and her answer took a load off his shoulders.  

“She said, ‘No. Everybody’s just a little different,’” Manuel said.   

A couple of police officers, including Reedy and officer John Latzke, have formed an informal ad hoc support team for officers involved in shootings, Manuel said.

“They generally will come in and just be there as a support system for the person,” Manuel said. “To get you whatever you need or just listen to what you have to say at that point, walk you through maybe what’s going to happen next if you have a bunch of questions.”

Manuel said he's come to terms with what happened that chilly January day and has talked with many people about it. He said he spent his paid administrative leave remodeling one of his parents’ bathrooms, and when he went back to work, his shooting seemed to be old news.

“It was strange how quickly after the 29th that it died down,” Manuel said. “It was just gone. Nobody was asking me about it, nobody was writing any stories about it.

“Everyone had moved on, it seemed like.”