A hero cop’s dark trip to the brink…& his desperate scramble backBy Charles Remsberg |
Looking back over a 20-year police career that came close to claiming his life, Anthony Espada recalls a moment in his academy training that puzzled him at the time.
“Half of you are here because you want to do good,” the department’s psychologist told his class. “Half of you are here just for the badge and the gun and the paycheck.
“All of you will never be the same again because of this job.”
“It was like a slap in the face,” Espada says today. “I sat there and wondered why. I didn’t really understand what she was trying to get through to us.”
Five years in, he knew full well what she meant. But ironically it took an event that marked the pinnacle of his career when he was widely acclaimed as a hero, to bring him face to face with just how dire that change could be.
Recently as part of a personal mission, Espada shared a gripping account of his experience—and its invaluable lesson for cops and their families—as the keynoter at the National Law Enforcement Officer Hall of Fame induction ceremony in Ohio and as a guest speaker at a Calibre Press Street Survival Seminar in Illinois.
A 5-Year Education.
Anthony Espada, an eight-year Marine veteran who’d seen heavy combat in Desert Storm, was 28 years old when he hit the streets in a Cleveland PD squad car in the fall of 1998. He would work the same patrol zone on the city’s West Side for the next two decades, and as an urban cop the “everyday crap that police have to deal with” came at him fast and furious.
“Within five years you experience just about everything police work has to offer,” he says.
“I grew up with a lot of domestic violence in the home, and now I was going to domestics where it felt like I was in the fight with them.” There were dead bodies—homicides, suicides, the decaying anonymity of friendlessness. About two years on the job, two fellow officers killed themselves within two days—“people I’d sat next to in a police car, people I drank with.” An academy classmate, responding to a “loud noise” call, was shot to death, the fatal round entering just a fraction below his ballistic vest. Espada remembers vehicle accidents with “ejections, limbs ripped off, decapitation.” A doctor showed him x-rays from a child-abuse case in which a father had broken the legs of his three-year-old in half. “You sit with people who are sobbing—torn to pieces—because they’ve lost a loved one. Sometimes you’re crying too….
“You go on to the next run, the next shift. But you take a little bit of every assignment with you. It piles up.”
Like many officers, Espada scrupulously avoided sharing his street life with his family. He didn’t want his wife Vivian and their two sons dunked in the human cesspool. But they felt the consequences nonetheless.
Passing the five-year point, “ I knew I was changing, and they knew it too,” Espada says. He was growing increasingly short-tempered and withdrawn, brusquely refusing to participate in normal household activities from helping with homework to socializing with friends. “I just wanted to be left alone.” He’d shoot the shit in a bar with buddies after work, but at home, he unrelentingly sought isolation.
He and Vivian established a déjà vu scenario that went on for years: she insisting that he needed to get help to stop the alarming erosion of his “normal self,” he refusing even to consider it. “Sucking it up and moving on was just a part of the job,” he believed. “Seeking help was a sign of weakness.”
Espada’s personal code of silence continued even through an OIS. In 2011, he and other officers fired on a drug-addled offender who had shot his girlfriend in the neck and then had turned his gun on responders in a suicide-by-cop attempt.
No officers were injured and the suspect—the girlfriend too—survived. But the life-threatening encounter “had a big emotional impact on me,” Espada says. “At home, I acted angrier, more aggressive. Any little thing—the kids running around—would set me off.” Even though he still rebuffed Vivian’s urgings, “I just felt overwhelmed, but I held it in. I felt like my glass was filling up.”
Then on May 6, 2013, came what seemed like a blessing of glory.
House of Horrors.
Late that Monday afternoon Espada and his partner responded Code 1, “the highest priority,” to a 911 call from a young woman who said she’d escaped from a nearby house of horrors after being kidnapped and held in captivity there for 10 years. She’d kicked through a screen, crawled out, and run to a neighbor’s after her captor left the premises on an errand without restraining her. She said two other young women, also kidnapped prisoners, were still inside.
Gun drawn, Espada led a tense search of the dusky dwelling. Ear-splitting music blared from a stereo; windows were covered with plywood; some doors were welded shut; stacks of furniture blocked some passageways. After what seemed an eon, Espada and a fellow officer with a flashlight located the other frightened captives, thin and pale, in upstairs rooms. One had been held prisoner for nine years, the other for nearly 12. When the latter fearfully peeked out from hiding and saw Espada’s uniform, she leaped on him, her arms around his neck, her legs around his waist, screaming in his face: “You saved us! You saved us!”
“It was like being hit by a Mack truck,” Espada recalls. “Emotionally overwhelming! I had to take a couple of deep breaths before I could key my mic, or I think I’d have broken down.”
By day’s end, the captor, a middle-aged school bus driver, self-described as a “sex addict,” was in custody, and the chilling depth of his perversion had begun to emerge. When they were as young as 14, he’d lured each of his victims into his car and then dragged them into his barricaded torture chamber. He kept them in chains at times, forced them to share an often-overflowing plastic bucket as a toilet, shoved their food through a hole cut in a locked door or starved them when it suited him, raped them repeatedly and savagely, demanded that one bear him a child and pummeled another in the stomach with fists and dumbbells to abort at least five pregnancies.
The more that was revealed, the more that international news reports hailed Espada and fellow rescuers as heroes. “What were the chances of finding one girl in circumstances like that…and we’d found three,” he says. “The whole world seemed grateful. It was such a positive moment!”
“Within two weeks, I started feeling different,” Espada says. “I wasn’t feeling that pride anymore. It started all going away.”
First, there was a growing weariness and impatience with the media. “They were literally knocking on my front door, wanting interviews, wanting the story—almost to a harassing level.”
Then feelings of guilt and second-guessing tormented him. The women had been imprisoned in his patrol zone. “I’d driven by that house probably hundreds of times while they were in there. Why hadn’t I seen something or sensed something? If I’d just looked harder, maybe they would have been freed years sooner. When people wanted to talk to me about the rescue, I’d get up and walk away.”
The worst developments, though, were terrifying flashbacks and dreams that began to haunt his days and nights. “They were just fragments that would come suddenly,” he explains, “images I couldn’t really define or assemble into any cohesive package. It seemed like I was a child, being restrained and dragged somewhere, my life somehow in jeopardy.”
These menacing intrusions became so persistent he finally phoned his mother in Florida and described them. And she dropped a bombshell.
She was surprised he didn’t remember, she said. When he was six years old and the family was living in a borough of New York City, Anthony himself had been kidnapped.
Two young, female strangers passing through his neighborhood had coaxed him away from the stoop where he was sitting with a friend and led him to an abandoned warehouse nearby. Inside, each grabbed one of his arms and told him they were going to drown him in a river. He struggled, cried, screamed, begged them to let him go but they responded only with lashes of verbal abuse. After what seemed like hours and a certainty he was going to die, one had second thoughts and they eventually set him free. Tears streaming down his face, he raced home and leaped into his mother’s embrace, arms around her neck, legs around her waist—just like the terrified woman in the Cleveland house of horrors had clutched him decades later.
“All those years, I’d completely suppressed any conscious memory of that experience,” Espada says. Now with it fresh again, he “fell further into a funk.” He switched to working nights, hoping “a change of pace” would help him feel better. “But as soon as I’d pull into the station parking lot, I’d feel anger coming on. I hated coming to work more and more and more.”
One day in September 2015 his cauldron of distress finally overflowed.
With Vivian at work, “I woke up that day tired, hurting, overwhelmed. Nothing special about that, but that day it just hit me: I’m done. I’m done fighting. I’m done with the struggle.”
Alone, he sat with his service pistol in one hand, the telephone in the other. He would take his life “and make the pain go away,” or he would accede to Vivian’s relentless urgings to call for help.
“That phone felt like it weighed a thousand pounds,” Espada remembers. “It would have been a lot easier to pull the trigger. But God was with me that day. He helped me lift that phone and make the call. That’s when my road to recovery started.”
Work in Progress.
“That journey is still going on,” Espada says. “I still have my bad days.” But overall he describes his current state as one of “post-traumatic growth.”
His call was to his department’s confidential Employee Assistance Unit, where a detective who answered first talked him down from his suicidal precipice and by that afternoon had helped guide him into long-term professional counseling. He was diagnosed with “PTSD, major depressive disorder, and general anxiety.”
As he dug into research on these conditions, “I recognized that many other officers are going through the kind of struggles I did. But in law enforcement, we discourage admitting it or coping with it in healthy ways.”
That led him to training and service as a peer-support officer and to pursue what he considers a God-given mission: to share his story as widely as possible through bare-all speaking engagements to help troubled cops and their families find a peaceful coexistence with one of the world’s most challenging professions.
“I’m out to get that officer who’s one drink away from pulling the trigger,” he says. At the core, he delivers a simple but empowering message: “Seeking help is not weakness, but a sign of strength.”
During his candid presentations, Espada tends still to choke up at times, but he reports heartening progress and the profound enjoyment of peace of mind. His tattered personal relationships have been mended. The women he rescued are today leading productive lives. And the monster who trampled them as human beings is no longer a threat. He was sentenced to life without parole plus 1,000 years on 937 criminal counts. He actually served only one month—before hanging himself with a bedsheet.
A year ago, Espada retired from Cleveland PD and moved to Nevada. He and Vivian framed his Marine dress blues in a shadow box and hung them with his military medals and ribbons on a wall of their new desert home.
Vivian suggested he do the same with his police dress uniform; side by side, they’d make a striking display. Espada flatly refused. “The job screwed me up too much,” he said. In retirement, he intended to stuff everything associated with his police career in the garbage.
“She kind of tricked me,” he says. “First she persuaded me to save my badge and one shirt with the patches, just tuck it away somewhere. That got us talking. I remembered the times citizens had thanked me for my service. It was a lot of times when I really thought about it—maybe some little thing like helping track down a towed car or maybe a bigger thing like comforting them on the worst day of their life. And of course, there was a rescue of the women. I could feel proud of all that.”
His syntax is a bit fractured but the sentiment is crystal clear when he explains: “Thinking more clearly, I got to where I felt I helped more people than the job hurt me.”
His police blues got their shadow box.
©2019, Calibre Press., LLC. All rights reserved.
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