ST. LOUIS — Laughter.
It’s a little piece of normalcy St. Louis Officers Colin Ledbetter and Nathan Spiess treasure, especially with their fellow officers in the city’s Sixth District.
It’s where the sign above the door reads: “Home of the Real Police.”
And it’s where a moment many feared might not ever happen unfolded Tuesday.
“Oh man, it’s been a while, you hero you,” one officer said Tuesday as Ledbetter and Spiess walked into a report writing room, shaking hands with their fellow officers three months to the day after they survived a shooting many feared they might not survive, especially Ledbetter.
A bullet from a homicide suspect they chased on Jan. 26 pierced his femoral artery.
When he arrived at the hospital, Ledbetter had no pulse.
And no heartbeat.
“The question wasn't really, ‘How is he doing?’ It was more so, ‘Is he alive?’” Spiess recalled as he sat next to Ledbetter to tell their story publicly for the first time.
Ledbetter has been with the St. Louis Police Department for four years.
He said it’s a profession he pursued after working at his father’s car dealership in his hometown of Cahokia, and realizing his passion was helping people.
“One day I was like, ‘I really want to be a police officer in St. Louis because they're the best,’” he said.
Spiess comes from a police family with a history at the St. Louis Police Department.
His twin brother is a firefighter.
“Growing up here, being from St. Louis, being such a great city,” Spiess said. “And then one of the reasons why I wanted to be a police officer, as cliche as it sounds, is I'm able to make at least a small difference in the world.”
On the day of the shooting, the officers were riding together in a patrol car.
They had already been given a description of a car connected to a homicide that happened the night before.
When they spotted it, the chase was on.
“I think I speak for everyone when I say how well of a job he did on the radio, too, especially pursuing a vehicle into the county, which we're not familiar with,” Spiess said. “He was able to give such precise directions, that’s why there were officers around us as quick as they were.”
One bullet shattered Spiess’ femur.
Another struck Ledbetter’s femoral artery.
“I have no recollection at all of that day,” Ledbetter said “I actually lost memory back to last summer.”
Spiess remembers everything.
“At first, I said a prayer for myself, ‘Forgive me and my sins or any wrongdoings I have,’ just in case it would happen to be my time, too,” Spiess said. “And then, after that, I just started praying the Hail Mary.”
They rode in the same ambulance.
“I wanted the medics to know, don't worry about me as much, focus on Colin, because the more attention that's on me, the less is on him,” Spiess said.
Ledbetter had eight surgeries.
“I know that one of them was just strictly to reroute my femoral artery, they also cracked my chest to massage my heart to get it to start going again,” Ledbetter said.
Ledbetter started defying the odds, sitting up, getting up and then walking.
His father took videos of his progress.
Ledbetter said he doesn’t remember many of those moments.
“It's really weird to see yourself on a video and not remember that,” he said. “I was very loopy and just wasn't really all that normal for a while.”
Spiess could tell, especially when Ledbetter started texting him.
“None of it made sense, which I was perfectly fine with,” Spiess said. “It not only made my day better, just to be able to text him and hear from him, it was also very comical.”
At one point, Ledbetter sent Spiess a message saying he was going to sneak out of the hospital and be back the next day and not to tell anyone.
Ledbetter laughed as Spiess recalled the moment.
Spiess was at Ledbetter’s side when he actually did walk out of the hospital.
So were the doctors and paramedics who saved his life.
“It was just, it was overwhelming,” Ledbetter said.
Spiess finished his thought.
“There's nothing we can really say or do that that can express our gratitude and appreciation for communities, our families, friends, even strangers we've never met before,” Ledbetter said.
A police escort accompanied them to Ledbetter’s home, and passed by police headquarters first where Chief John Hayden came out to shake Ledbetter’s hand.
“I remember looking back and there was some construction going on for the new soccer stadium, and all the workers had come out and they were clapping,” Ledbetter recalled, tears welling in his eyes.
Emotion returned to Ledbetter’s face when he talked about his fellow officers.
“I would like to reiterate that the support from the community, my family and my coworkers, especially the guys that went back to work after all this happened the next day, back on the streets,” he said pausing. “So there's a lot of respect there for that.
“I can't imagine them watching me get loaded into the back of an ambulance like that and then having to go back and do the same thing the next day.”
Spiess has already returned to light duty.
Ledbetter hopes to join him in a few weeks.
He still struggles with short-term memory.
“I’m going to have to carry around a notebook with me to write everything down,” he said.
His chest where doctors went in is still numb, and so are his leg and foot.
“Some days I have feeling in my leg and foot and then, but it's very rare,” he said. “There was like a week where I had feeling in my whole leg, but it's kind of like off and on.”
This week, he started running for a few minutes at a time.
“Just one foot in front of the other,” he said.
Along with the physical healing both officers continue to work on, they also stress the importance of their mental health recovery.
“The confusion was the more traumatic thing for me,” Ledbetter said. “I feel like for me the mental side of things was really leaning on my family and obviously the other officers for support, but I know I probably will never struggle with it as much as Nathan will.”
Spiess said he’s learned a lot about processing his feelings.
“Whether it was scary, whether it was happy, no matter what the feeling is that I was feeling at the time, talk about it,” he said. “The more I would talk about it, the more I could express my emotions and my feelings instead of holding it all in.
The best mental medicine for both officers has so far been going back to the station and seeing their fellow officers.
“A lot of people that say, ‘Take your time, recover,’ and I think the recovery process is fine, but part of the recovery is also getting back to working and doing what we love and being around the people that we work with and see every day,” Spiess said.
“I think it's important for both sides, me and them, to get a sense of normalcy back into everyone's life,” Ledbetter said.
And to laugh together again.