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Officers awarded police department's highest honor

Police officers live with the ever-present risk they could be hurt or killed. It's part of their job -- a risk they accept.

Six Merced Police Department officers -- Rodney Court, Daniel Dabney, Jeffrey Horn, Curt Gorman, Paul Johnson and Jobe Sandhagen -- have received the department's highest honor for putting their lives on the line.

Court, Dabney, Horn, Gorman, Johnson and Sandhagen were given Medal of Honor awards Thursday night from Police Chief Russ Thomas and Mayor Ellie Wooten at a 30-minute ceremony in Merced City Council chambers. Thomas said he was glad to give the medals to the officers themselves and not to surviving family members.

"It's only by the grace of God I'm giving this to officers, not to families," Thomas said. "We know these individuals are willing to sacrifice their lives to protect you, by confronting people who would do them harm if given the opportunity."

Gorman, a sergeant who has 14 years with the department, was injured Aug. 30, 2006, when he and other officers chased a man into an Edwards Avenue duplex and the man, Dean Tully Wright, shot him from inside a closet. Officers killed Wright, and Gorman was saved by his ballistic vest.

The 43-year-old Gorman, who supervises the Gang Violence Suppression Unit, said the impact of the gunshot "hurt a little bit." He says he thinks about the incident from time to time.

"It (shooting) has definitely caused me to rethink my life all over again," Gorman said. "I do not take things for granted and live life to the fullest. When it comes to people that I work with, I know that they are true heroes, and the men who were present that day acted with courage and unselfishness."

Court, Johnson and Gorman pursued Wright after he drove away from them and then ran into the Edwards Avenue house. Court and Johnson returned Wright's gunfire while pulling Gorman to safety into another bedroom.

Johnson, 41, has 20 years with the police department. When he has to look into a closet during a home search, the memories come back.

"After the altercation, I look at my personal and professional life differently," Johnson said. "Life is so short; slow down and enjoy it. You never know when ..."

Court, 40, has been a Merced police officer for 15 years and also spent five years with the Department of Justice. He saw Gorman get shot and is glad the vest spared him serious injury.

"This single event in my life has shown me how dangerous this job can be and how vulnerable we are each day we go to work to provide safety for the city of Merced," Court said. "It has strengthened my relationship with my fellow officers and has made me extremely proud to work here and work for the citizens of Merced."

Court said he thinks a lot about what happened that day in August but doesn't dwell on it. He said he had been involved in several critical incidents, but nothing like the Edwards Avenue shooting.

Dabney, 36, made a traffic stop Feb. 2, 2002, in the 500 block of West 8th Street. While being issued a ticket, the driver drove off in the patrol car, hitting Dabney and throwing him over the hood, off the windshield and onto the road. Dabney pursued the fleeing driver who was caught several blocks away.

Dabney received a separated shoulder, hand injuries, cuts and bruises. He was off work two months and had to have shoulder surgery a year later. He has been with the department nine years.

"I am pleased to know the training we receive regarding fight-or-flee tactics and shooting skills are not in vain," Dabney said. "In my incident, what were trained skills were more like natural reactions. This incident reaffirms that training plays a critical role as to the possible outcomes of a critical incident."

Since this case, Dabney said, he has made a conscientious effort to be more aware of his surroundings, never knowing when he might be attacked. He serves in the department's Traffic Division and is a member of the Bomb Squad.

On July 19, 2003, Horn and Sandhagen responded to a domestic violence call in the 500 block of K Street. The man was holding a sharpened corn dog stick and lunged at the officers. He was pepper-sprayed but continued menacing the officers before he was shot by Horn.

A Merced officer since September 2001, Horn said the incident made him realize how big a responsibility officers have and cherish the time he spends with his close family. He said he put the July incident behind him and doesn't think about it.

Sandhagen, 30, said he doesn't think about the incident too much anymore either. He said the risks of being an officer are part of the job. He has been with the police department five years.

Thomas said the Medal of Valor ceremony was long overdue. He just attended a police chiefs' conference where 10 fallen officers were memorialized and said it was a very emotional time.

The chief said he is extremely proud of the Merced department and has never worked with a finer group of highly competent officers.

"This is just a sample of the bravery and work ethic of this department," Thomas said.

Associate Editor Doane Yawger can be reached at 209 385-2485 or dyawger@mercedsun-star.com.

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