Liberty County sheriff’s deputy recalls moments leading up to shooting that left him paralyzed

Liberty County Sheriff's Deputy Richard Whitten is pictured at TIRR Memorial Hermann in Houston where he was undergoing physical therapy last year. He died unexpectedly on Feb. 3, 2020.

By Vanesa Brashier,

Liberty County Sheriff’s Deputy Richard Whitten says he is at peace even though he may never fully recover from a shooting that has left him paralyzed. Whitten was shot on May 29 while trying to apprehend a murder suspect in the Cleveland area.

“Life has changed but I am not dead,” said Whitten, who is currently undergoing rehabilitation at the TIRR Memorial Hermann in Houston. “I know the odds are that I am not going to get out of here in the condition I want to be, but I still feel blessed. I am a God-fearing man. I believe that He is going to do for me whatever needs to be done. I pray to Him all the time.”

Whitten was shot once in the neck by murder suspect, Pavol Vido, as Vido was fleeing the scene of B Dependable Plumbing in Cleveland where he fatally shot one person and critically injured two others, one of whom has since passed.

On the fateful morning of the shooting, Whitten was on his way to law enforcement classes. He recalls passing the plumbing business and seeing a group of people standing outside. He said the situation “didn’t look right,” but he kept on driving. A minute later, a call came over the police radio frequencies that three people had been shot.

“It still took a minute for it to register with me. This is something that doesn’t happen in Liberty County. I had just passed the place where it happened, so I responded. I did what I had to do, and got shot, but it’s like I told my wife, I would do it all over again,” he said.

As he responded to the business where the shooting took place, he was told the suspect had fled the scene, driving past Whitten as he made his way toward Tarkington. Whitten took off after him with Cleveland ISD Police Capt. John Shannon joining the chase.

“I thought he was going to make a run for it but instead he turned onto CR 2248, whipped into the back of Big Thicket Veterinary Clinic and stopped. I was thinking, ‘Wow, this is strange.’ I did what I was trained to do in a felony takedown – someone who had just shot three people,” he said. “I opened my door, jumped out with my gun. I was bent over and standing behind my door for protection.”

From the corner of his eye, he saw people leaving the vet clinic and grew concerned that they might be injured if he engaged in an exchange of gunfire.

“I worried that if I took a shot and one of them was injured, then I was liable, but I kept my focus on him. He was acting really strange. He opened his car door, turned sideways in the seat and put his feet on the ground. I hollered at him a couple of times to show me his hands. The next thing I knew he pulled a gun up on his right side – the side I couldn’t see – and shot at me, hitting me right in the neck,” Whitten said. “When he pulled that pistol up to fire at me, he never really aimed. It appeared that he had a lot of training in the past. I heard rumors later that he was ex-special forces and defected to the U.S., but I can’t say if that rumor is true or not. It definitely seemed like he had a lot of training in the past.”

Instantly paralyzed, Whitten was helpless to respond. He recalls looking under his patrol car to see Vido exiting his car and walking in his direction. Whitten recalls Shannon taking a shot at the suspect, who then fired back at Shannon.

“Then he turned around, got back in his car and drove off. When I say he just drove off, he took his time, like it wasn’t a big deal,” Whitten said. “Thank God, Capt. Shannon was there.”

Vido was killed hours later in a standoff with law enforcement in the Tarkington area.

As law enforcement scrambled to the scene immediately after Whitten was shot, he recalls getting first aid from Pct. 5 Deputy Constable Laci Pierce, who has a background as a military medic.

“Thank God she knew what she was doing. No one even knew I was shot at first. When Laci figured it out, she wrapped my neck in bandages to stop the bleeding and then called for LifeFlight. I was conscious. I know this is going to sound crazy, but from the moment I was shot and fell to the ground, I was at peace. When I say that, I mean I wasn’t panicking.”

He was calm enough to share contact information for his wife of 26 years, Kami, who was at work in Kingwood.

“I didn’t even know he was shot at first. I thought he had been in an accident when they first called me,” Kami recalls of the moments after the shooting. “The sheriff’s office said it was going to send a deputy to me and that Richard was being taken by LifeFlight to Memorial Hermann. I was in a meeting and I just remember dropping the phone.”

Not willing to wait for the deputy to arrive, Kami had co-workers drive her to Houston to be by her husband’s side as he arrived by helicopter.

“I didn’t want to call family members until I knew what was going on with him. I was told he was talking and alert, so that reassured me. I felt some relief. When I got a phone call from the chaplain, I asked if Richard had been T-boned or hit head-on in an accident. The phone went quiet for a moment and the chaplain said, ‘Sweetheart, he has been shot.’ That was the most awful feeling. No one ever wants to get that call,” she said.

As she began replaying the last moments she had with her husband as they both rushed out of the house to start their days, she wondered if she had kissed him goodbye and if that would be the last time to kiss her husband.

“I couldn’t even comprehend what was happening. Fortunately, I got to see him right away. I can’t remember everything. I just remember that the room was full of law enforcement officers. There were a lot of people coming up, and I got to sit there and be with him,” she said.

The Whittens credit Houston Police Department’s Asst. Chief T.R. Finner with smoothing the way for them at the hospital.

“He was able to clear a whole floor for all of the officers to have an area to wait. We were all there as part of one team. It is a brotherhood,” she said.

Whitten spent a month in the intensive care unit at Memorial Hermann. He has yet to undergo a surgery to remove the bullet that is lodged in his vertebrae.

“The doctors won’t touch it. The fragments that are in my spine are hindering my mobility and who is to say if I will ever get it back,” he said.

Much of the first month after the shooting is a blur for Whitten as he was kept in a medically induced coma to help him recover from pneumonia. Kami said there were many days when she was uncertain if he was going to pull through. Whitten credits his faith in God and his wife’s faith in him for giving him the will and strength to survive.

“My wife has been great. Until she knew I was able to sustain myself without something bad happening, she wouldn’t leave my side,” he said. “With me now in TIRR, she feels comfortable enough to go to work two days a week now.”

Currently, Whitten only has use of his right arm and is still struggling to use his right hand. A left-hander, Whitten hopes to learn to write with his right hand once he regains full use of it. The rehab is geared toward improving his motor skills and he spends 90 minutes twice a day in therapy. Therapists are working with him to see if he can stand, which is requiring him to reacclimate his body to motion.

“The biggest problem we have is when I get up to like 70 degrees, my blood pressure starts to drop. They say this is normal. Over time, the more we do it, it will get better. Once we are able to do that, then they will have me standing for however long I can tolerate,” he said. “With a spinal cord injury, particularly one caused by a gunshot wound, there is no telling what will happen. Some of the feeling may come back but it may not. It’s been a tough road, a really tough road.”

The goal of TIRR, he said, is to help him prepare for life at home.

Whitten knows it is unlikely he will ever be well enough to work again as a peace officer, but he is not giving up hope, even telling Liberty County Sheriff Bobby Rader and Sgt. Tommy Koen that he will be back in some capacity. Giving up is simply not an option. After getting licensed as a peace officer at the age of 47, following another successful career, Whitten is used to overcoming challenges.

“I enjoyed working in the community, trying to get rid of the bad guys so it would be a safer place for everyone else to live. I really enjoyed my job. I don’t know how to say this, but I ate, drank and breathed law enforcement,” he said. “My goal is to come back, but it could take two years. Granted, I don’t know in what capacity, but I will be back.”

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  1. My condolences to the Whittens family . I sure did think that he had beaten the odds and on the way to a full recovery. Well, rest assured that you did a fine job, so now it is your turn to rest up for the journey home. The officers that are serving with you, will welcome you with open arms. Thank You for your service.

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