Kansas City detective remained on force despite life-threatening leg injury

Friday, October 28, 2011 | 4:12 p.m. CDT

KANSAS CITY — Kansas City police officer Rob Blehm lay on a dark street, watching as blood from his bullet-torn femoral artery spurted three feet into the air.

A few yards away, his unarmed partner wrestled with the gunman, who fired again at Blehm.

He almost died that night 15 years ago, but didn't. Almost lost his leg, but kept it.

His doctors gave him zero chance of returning to work as a police officer. But Blehm made it back.

He went on to investigate some of the city's most notorious murders. In the interrogation room, he earned a reputation as a closer.

Now, at 39, he's moving on.

"The shooting finally caught up with me," Blehm said. "At least I got to work 17 years. That's 15 more than they thought I would make it, so I have nothing to complain about."

His doctors convinced him that the long, unpredictable hours and the physical demands of being a police officer could worsen his condition. His leg still swells when he stands for long periods. And he suffers constant pain from broken screws and bullet fragments that remain in his body from the shooting and 13 subsequent surgeries.

The fact that he returned to police work at all impressed his peers, including his partner who was shot in the chest, Derek McCollum, now a sergeant. McCollum's injuries were less severe than Blehm's.

"He's been a great inspiration to me," McCollum said. "To see what he went through, how he came back to work through great pain that we didn't even know about because he never complained."

Blehm could have retired with 75 percent of his salary after his shooting but instead chose to work, said Police Sgt. Mike Hutcheson. He worked shifts as long as 38 hours and spent more waking hours with his homicide squad than his family.

"This is what he wants to do," Hutcheson said. "He didn't want to do anything else. All he wanted to do is be a cop."

After graduating from Blue Valley North High School, Blehm joined the Air Force and traveled the world.

But after several years, he was ready to stay closer to home. He entered the police training academy on Sept. 18, 1994.

He was immature, he now admits. He goofed around. He got in trouble.

In his second week, he jokingly pushed the emergency button on his radio during an exercise. One of his instructors, Mark Hatcher, gave him a serious chewing-out. After that, Hatcher never took his eye off Blehm. He made Blehm run faster and train harder.

They hated each other, Blehm said. After he graduated from the academy, they didn't talk.

Blehm eventually was assigned to the overnight shift in an area east of Prospect Avenue from 39th to 87th streets. He was reunited with McCollum and several other officers from his academy class who would become his best friends.

He fell in love with the job.

"We had fun every single night," he said. "We were the most active sector. We put a lot of people in jail for guns and dope. I was 100 percent sure I was in the job I was supposed to be doing."

Blehm and McCollum were finishing lunch at 4 a.m. on Sept. 18, 1996 — two years to the day after they entered the police academy — when they were dispatched to check out a burglar alarm in the 5900 block of Swope Parkway.

On 55th Street, they passed a car surrounded by three men and saw a "hand-to-hand" drug transaction, but they couldn't stop.

Ten seconds later, the dispatcher told them the call was a false alarm. So McCollum whipped around the patrol car to tend to the drug deal they had just witnessed.

The car sped away and pulled into a driveway. The driver ran into the woods and McCollum followed.

As those two ran parallel to 55th, Blehm ran down the street, knowing they would have to surface soon because of a large fence.

The suspect and McCollum emerged from the woods and both tripped on brush, landing on the sidewalk directly in front of Blehm.

Blehm grabbed the suspect's left arm, and McCollum grabbed his right. But the man was wearing a slick jacket and slipped from their grip. He rolled on his back and started to sit up. Blehm, who was crouched in front of him, saw a muzzle flash.

Blehm smelled gunpowder as his body hurtled backward. The bullet vaporized a 2-inch section of his femur. He landed in the street, his leg twisted unnaturally toward his head. The outside of his boot pressed against the inside of his neck.

But that wasn't what scared Blehm. What terrified him was the blood gushing from his leg in sync with his racing heart.

He reached to his leg and "felt a huge hole and warm blood." He couldn't move as blood sprayed over his body and pooled around him in the street. With his gun in his right hand, he pushed his left thumb into his wound and pressed his severed artery against his pelvic bone to try to stem the bleeding.

The suspect had already shot McCollum, who was grappling with him as he tried to shoot the officers again. McCollum, whose gun had been knocked from his holster during the foot chase, was unarmed.

"Rob, shoot him!" McCollum yelled.

But Blehm was seeing double. McCollum and the suspect's bodies were indistinguishable as they wrestled for control of the suspect's gun.

"Push off of him!" Blehm yelled, hoping to get a clear shot.

McCollum, weakening, gave up trying to control the suspect's gun and instead focused on applying a neck hold that would render him unconscious within seconds.

The suspect shot again at Blehm. The round hit the asphalt between Blehm's legs and sprayed gravel into his face. Another bullet whizzed by Blehm's head.

The suspect then bit a chunk out of McCollum's arm, put his revolver to McCollum's head and said, "I'm going to kill you, cop."

He pulled the trigger, but it fell on spent shells. McCollum pushed away from the suspect, who ran. Blehm unloaded his magazine at the man, hitting him twice in the legs.

Both officers lay in the street, crying out for help. Their radios couldn't get a signal to summon other officers.

McCollum hobbled up the hill to call for help. A speeding car nearly ran over Blehm as he lay in the street, his empty sidearm on his chest. He felt no pain. The shock prevented that.

"When you're hurt that badly," he explained, "it doesn't hurt."

The ambulance crew slipped "air pants" on Blehm to push what little blood was left in his body to his torso. Doctors would later say he was within seconds of dying.

McCollum was falling in and out of consciousness and throwing up. Everyone thought he was more seriously injured, so he went to the primary hospital and Blehm went to the secondary hospital, St. Luke's, which he now believes was fate.

The vascular surgeon at St. Luke's had called in sick, so the head of the department took the call. Six doctors agreed the leg had to be amputated to keep Blehm from bleeding to death. But the head of the department disagreed.

"No," the surgeon said. "He's 23. I think I can fix this."

The doctor spent four hours repairing the artery. Blehm had lost half his blood and required 50 units of donated blood.

Hatcher, the instructor, was among the first to visit him in the hospital. And Blehm finally understood what Hatcher had been trying to teach him.

Blehm believes Hatcher's extra attention might have helped save his life.

"He rode me the whole way," Blehm said. "Because of that, I was in great shape."

Blehm returned to full duty seven months after the shooting.

But then the screws holding steel plates in his leg snapped, and his femur broke again.

Over three years and 12 surgeries, Blehm worked off and on. Then his leg broke a third time. Doctors finally realized the bone was not healing because it didn't have a good blood supply.

A 13th surgery in 1998 lasted 23 hours and pushed his medical costs beyond $1 million. His femur finally healed, but his right leg was one inch shorter than his left. He wears a shoe insert to compensate and walks without a limp.

The surgeries left more than six feet of surgical scars on his body.

After Blehm returned to work for good in 1999, he went into investigations. He impressed supervisor Rick Smith by "always going the extra step," Smith said.

Blehm had a knack for talking to people, so Smith sent him to interrogation schools. His skills in the interview room — keeping suspects talking, getting confessions — only grew.

His boss called him back from a family vacation in 2004 to interview Terry Blair, the Prospect Corridor killer. Other detectives were convinced the hardened criminal would refuse to speak. Blehm kept Blair talking for more than eight hours and extracted several key pieces of information.

Blehm also investigated the killing of John Friedmann, the Jackson County Sports Authority director, in a botched robbery at a car wash in 2003. Blehm flew to Detroit, where the suspect had fled, interviewed him in a former broom closet in a 115-year-old police building and got a confession.

"He can get people to confess," said Sgt. Doug Niemeier, who also supervised Blehm in homicide. "Everybody would say, 'It's not going to happen,' but he would keep going. He probably has more confessions than anyone I know."

The man who shot Blehm and McCollum, David C. Humphrey, surrendered two days later. He was convicted and given a 40-year sentence.

A few weeks ago, Blehm sat shoulder to shoulder with him at a parole hearing. It was the second time Blehm had testified to try to keep Humphrey behind bars.

Blehm brought a petition with 1,000 signatures and the dispatch tapes, which revealed the horror he and McCollum endured the night of the shooting.

Blehm cried as he listened to the tapes. He hadn't cried in years.

"I just relived it," he said. "I thought about how close I came to watching my partner get his head blown off in front of me. I thought about my mom getting that call."

The board declined to parole Humphrey. His next hearing will be in five years.

Meanwhile, Blehm, married and with two young sons, has started a new job as a civilian employee of the police department's crime lab.

His new co-workers might not know about his near-fatal encounter because Blehm doesn't bring it up. He never wanted to be known as the "guy who got shot," friends say.

"He came back time and time again," Hutcheson said. "You talk about heroes. Rob is my hero."

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