LINCOLN, Neb. – Nearly two years ago, three Lincoln Police Officers were involved in a deadly shootout with an armed suspect. The incident left the 29-year-old suspect dead, two officers shot, and sent all three LPD members on a path to recovery. For the first time, two of those officers, Angela Sands and Brad Junker, talk about the incident, and share their story with 1011 News.
A term used by Lincoln Police Officer Angela Sands to represent her emotional state following a cold, deadly night in a Lincoln neighborhood.
Sands, now the Public Information Officer for the Lincoln Police Department, had been on the force for three years when she took a bullet to the chest outside a home near 73rd and Adams streets.
Without the protection of a Kevlar vest, it is likely her story would have to be told a different way.
She recalled the events of the frigid night with precision – a story undoubtedly looped in her mind without relief.
From the initial call, to the deadly conclusion, Sands remembered.
The Incident — November 29, 2015
Lincoln Police Officer Angela Sands
“I was at the substation on the northeast team working on reports when Sergeant Junker called out with a vehicle near 73rd and Adams. He said the vehicle had stolen plates and he would be out with it."
Shortly after Sands arrived, the situation progressed. Sergeant Brad Junker went back to his cruiser to run the stolen plates supposedly belonging to 29-year-old Zachary Grigsby.
He discovered Grigsby had an outstanding warrant for attempting to hit a police officer with his vehicle in Central City, Nebraska the week before.
Junker alerted Sands and a third officer on scene of the outstanding warrant, told Grigsby he was under arrest, and told him to sit in the back of a cruiser.
"Grigsby stated 'I'm not going back to jail,'” Sands said. “He turned around and started to walk straight toward the house, which was straight toward me as well, because I had placed myself between he and the house."
Grigsby, a man Sands described as “much larger than both Sergeant Junker and I,” approached. Sands stood her ground, placing her hands on his chest.
Junker’s demands grew stern, until the sergeant first contacted the resisting suspect.
“When Sergeant Junker grabbed a hold of him it spun us all to the ground. We ended up in the street right behind one of the cruisers," Sands said. "We fall to our knees. Grigsby is in the middle, Sergeant Junker is on his right, and I'm on his left. And we're in a row, all facing the same way on our knees.”
Grigsby’s next move changed the dynamic of the situation.
"I saw Grigsby's hands go for his waistband, and I already had a bad feeling about the interaction just based off his body language. Things he was doing, and not doing."
Lincoln Police Sergeant Brad Junker
“He wasn't following some of the normal human behaviors given the elements. (Angela) noticed a lump in his coat, waistline area, which I hadn't paid much attention to. But she focused on it and as it would turn out, that's likely where the gun was retrieved from."
Sands and Junker found themselves pressing down on Grigsby’s hand, which now held the firearm.
Recalling the unsuccessful struggle to shake the gun loose, Junker reflected on his thought process.
First, he noticed the abnormal behavior of Grigsby. It was later determined he had methamphetamine in his system.
Next, Junker sensed Grigsby’s intentions.
"It was very apparent that this guy was not fighting to get away,” he said. “He had his moments where he could have run. He could have pushed us away and gone."
The first shot fired from Grigsby’s gun went just inches past Sands’ head, striking a third officer on scene in the arm.
The struggle continued, with Sands and Junker attempting to subdue Grigsby as he rattled off shot after shot.
"He was able to fire the gun, he was able to rack the slide, he was able to fire again,” Junker said. "Why can't I get this gun out of this guy's hands? Why can't I stop him from racking the slide? Why am I not strong enough to get this away from him?"
Junker, a SWAT team member who had been on the force for 10 years at the time of the altercation, explained how each time Grigsby would prepare to fire, he would aim over his shoulder.
“It appeared to me that he was trying to turn the gun to shoot Angela in the head, and was probably trying to systematically take us off of his back," he said.
Lincoln Police Officer Angela Sands
"That first shot, it deafened me. It blinded me. It's like an explosion just going off in your face. A flood of emotions and feelings and thoughts when you think you've just been shot in the face. I thought – well I'm going to die.”
Dazed by the sound of gunshots inches away from her head, Sands thought about her training and her fellow officer also fighting for his life.
“Even if you're going to die, you got to keep going,” Sands said. “Because now others' lives are at risk. Sergeant Junker is a father. That was one of the thoughts I had. I can't let an 8-year-old lose his father tonight."
Moments later, that fear became an imminent reality.
Sands recalled Grigsby twisting the gun back to the point she was “fairly confident” Junker was going to get shot in the head.
Sands was forced to make a decision. She quickly drew her weapon, lined up a shot, and fired.
The bullet struck Grigsby in the back, severing his spine but only temporarily disabling him.
“I'm thinking that we're done,” Sands said. “And little did I know it was about to get much worse."
After being struck, Grigsby jerked violently. The sudden movement threw Sands to the side and allowed Junker to break free.
Sands attempted to roll to the right. But Grigsby grabbed her, pulling her into a spooning position with his firearm in hand.
“I feel his gun come up to my head. So I can feel the coldness of his gun on my face now."
In an attempt to either break free or reduce the impact of a bullet, Sands shifted her body. Grigsby fired, striking her in the chest.
"It's like the wind had been knocked out of me, and I can taste blood,” Sands recalled.
The bullet hit her badge, seared through a pen, and deflected off her Kevlar vest. It proceeded to strike her radio and send the entire device flying into her mouth.
Sands suffered multiple broken teeth, among other injuries.
Seconds later, Sands felt Grigsby’s grip loosen.
“I felt his grasp let go of me. So I rolled to my right and I look up, and I still can barely see and I can't hear,” Sands said. “But I can see Junker a few feet away, and I can see him motioning and I can see that he's saying something, even though I can't hear it.”
Lincoln Police Sergeant Brad Junker
"It's not like you see on the movies. I fired my weapon. I saw where it was impacting him in his chest. And the guy's facial features aren't even changing. I just don't understand what's going on."
Once Sands shot Grigsby in the back, Junker was able to break free and draw his firearm.
The sergeant unleashed a few shots into the armed man's chest, but the methamphetamine-fueled Grigsby barely reacted.
And with a fellow officer in the perpetrator's grasp, a clear shot was difficult.
"He pulls Angela on top of him. My platform and my point of fire is no longer there," Junker said.
But eventually, Junker is able to neutralize the threat.
"So I stand and then I move toward the middle of the street and my only option left is to shoot at the top of his head," Junker explained. "A final shot is fired, from me. At that point I see him release his arms. Angela kind of rolls out of his grasp."
The situation was nearly resolved. But with the scene still active and unsure if any other suspects were present, Junker visually located the third officer. He made sure he was safe, and began to assist Sands.
“I tried to get her to come to me,” he said. “I didn't know that so many gunshots had gone off next to her head, and it didn't dawn on me at the time that she probably couldn't hear what I was saying."
Sands was eventually able to crawl toward her fellow officer. Junker evaluated her for gunshot wounds, and assured her she was going to make it through.
"One of the things that I really remember from that night was Angela crawling toward me to get around a car,” Junker said. “I could hear the sound of her metal firearm dragging across the concrete street, and the sound of her pushing Zach's gun (away from him). That's just kind of burned into my mind."
The altercation was over.
But the path to recovery, both mentally and physically, was about to begin.
Last month, Sands flew to Philadelphia to become the first woman accepted into the IACP-DuPont Kevlar Survivors’ Club.
While she looked confident giving a roughly seven-minute acceptance speech in full uniform, the path from Nov. 29, 2015 to Oct. 20, 2017 was not an easy one.
From a PTSD diagnosis, to unrelenting nightmares and setbacks, Sands has been climbing toward normalcy ever since that bullet ricocheted off her vest.
Lincoln Police Officer Angela Sands
“It's a lot of emotions to deal with. Taking a human life. Someone trying to kill you. Those are things that will impact you forever. It will affect your life forever."
Her recovery started in the hospital. And after receiving treatment for cuts, bruises, and multiple broken teeth, she was released.
But the emotional healing didn't start until she returned home, and the challenge of putting her life back together was harder than Sands could have imagined.
“I would tell you, it broke me. The year following was probably the worst year of my life,” she said. “I would have a nightmare and basically be in a fight for my life every night. It wears you out. So then you don't even want to go to sleep.”
Sands attempted to come back to work roughly a month after the shooting. But it was too soon.
She requested to enter training for criminal investigation when on duty reminders became too much to handle. The change took her off the streets, and put her in a position inside police headquarters.
“Things would trigger me,” Sands explained. “Like if I had to go to the range, and I had to smell the gunpowder. Because both shots that went off next to my face, I could taste them. I could smell them.”
Sands sought out counseling and support groups. And as she attempted to piece herself together, an objective emerged.
“Trying to get back to a place where I was healthy enough to work was my goal,” Sands said. “I didn't want this to break me to the point where I could no longer be a police officer."
Sands started to recover, but it was a slow process. For months, two steps forward were met with a crippling step back.
But through counseling, determination, and unwavering support from Sergeant Junker and fellow officers, Sands regained her strength.
She returned to the force, switching teams, which allowed her to patrol a different part of the city. She tapped into her love for the job, and nearly a half a year later, she felt some semblance of normalcy.
“It took another six months and I felt like I was good. I could really do my job on my own,” she said. “I felt confident to go into dangerous situations where someone had a gun. So I would say all in all it was probably a year and I felt like I was 100 percent at my job again."
Right when Sands got back into the swing of things, her life took another turn.
Sands applied for, and eventually earned the Public Information Officer job for the Lincoln Police Department.
Now with her fingers on the pulse of the city, she continues her recovery.
“I love being a police officer. I grew up in Lincoln. I love this city. I knew I was broken but I was determined that it wasn't going to be a permanent thing.”
Lincoln Police Sergeant Brad Junker
"Angela and I were never more than a couple feet apart but there are two different points of view from the time we get hands on with Zach to when we go to the ground. There are a lot of differences in our thought processes – even though we are literally shoulder to shoulder most of this entire time."
Sergeant Junker embarked on a different path than Sands in the months following the incident.
Once a mandatory leave of absence had concluded, Junker returned to the force, taking only a few weeks off.
“I felt like I needed to come back to work to heal,” Junker said. “Being away from work was hard. Even though I still had people reaching out to me and occasionally somebody would stop by. But I wanted to put my uniform back on and come to work.”
While Sands needed distance, Junker needed routine. He explained how he leaned heavily on his “big blue family,” even speaking to a few officers who shared similar experiences.
“The Lancaster County Sheriff's Office had a few guys that had been involved in their own officer-involved shootings over the course of their career reach out to me,” he said. “And I needed to be around those people because I didn't know what the path ahead was going to entail.”
As expected, that path was difficult.
But Junker, a former high school teacher, battled through, formed an unbreakable bond with Sands, and focused on his recovery.
“Staying here, being here, getting back to work is what I needed. And that's what worked for me. That was kind of my therapy -- was being here."
Two Years Later
Approaching two years since the deadly incident, both Junker and Sands are venturing down new walks of life.
Sands, now the Public Information Officer for LPD, and Junker, a Personnel Sergeant, work in offices just feet away from each other.
Carrying a “Brangela” nickname around police headquarters speaks to the closeness of the two, who shared what can only be described as a life-changing experience.
The duo teaches young recruits about how to handle themselves in life-or-death situations, and how to deal with the personal difficulties that follow.
Junker said he plans to eventually return to patrolling the streets of Lincoln, but is currently enjoying a five-year term working day-side shifts and having weekends free.
For Sands, almost everything has changed since November 29, 2015. But one thing has remained the same. She still wears the same Kevlar vest that saved her life.
“I feel fairly confident in saying I would have a round in my chest right now if I wasn't wearing that,” Sands said. “I think it's a good lesson for officers to hear that they may be in that situation one day and they owe it to their family, their coworkers, their loved ones, to wear their vests.”