Blue Crush

To outsiders, the Phoenix Police Department's Special Assignments Unit is meant to be an overwhelming show of force. The inside story is much more powerful.

Warner is drawn to the excitement of the job and the camaraderie of the unit. "Our lives depend on each other and it's such a cliché to say that but it's true," he says. "Right before a barricade, you're keyed up. That's when you feel most alive, I guess."

Victor Rosado has been on the SAU just over a month. He and Darrin Hood are the rookies of the unit. They replaced Jeff Green and another officer who also was promoted to sergeant.

Rosado has been a cop for 10 years, five in New York and five in Phoenix. He's had experience around guys like these, and had spent time with the SAU -- "test-driving it," they like to say -- before he was chosen for the assignment.

SAU officers Jerry Kilgore (on end of row) was shot a few years ago by a suspect in a probation case. He was back on the job two months later.
SAU officers Jerry Kilgore (on end of row) was shot a few years ago by a suspect in a probation case. He was back on the job two months later.
Jim Kliewer was shot a few years ago by a suspect in a probation case. He was back on the job two months later.
Jim Kliewer was shot a few years ago by a suspect in a probation case. He was back on the job two months later.


Photography by Jackie Mercandetti

So you'd think he'd know better than to put a framed photograph of himself on his new SAU desk. It was immediately seized and blown up into a very large poster with a nametag that reads "SWAT GOD." Someone hung it on the wall of the squad room. Rosado's head also is pasted atop the cartoon body of a muscle-bound weightlifter on another wall by the back door.

If this bugs him, he doesn't let on. "The people here are among the best people you're going to find in this business," he says. "Just the fact that you test well says something about these guys."

Rosado says he wanted the SAU because he's not the kind "to sit at a desk and work a caseload." Sure, the SAU is more risky, he says, but it's also more rewarding.

And now the pressure is on. "You don't want to be the one that messes up and gets someone hurt," he says.

On September 17, 1997, Jim Kliewer and Jerry Kilgore knocked on the door of a second-floor apartment on Ninth Street, just north of Van Buren, looking for a guy that adult probation services wanted them to pick up. They didn't even expect him to be there.

But he was, half hidden behind a dresser in the small living room. He pulled a gun and shot them both as they stood in the apartment doorway. Then he ran, but not before witnesses said he stood over one of the officers and tried -- unsuccessfully -- to fire again.

One bullet hit Kilgore in the ear but stopped in the thick muscle below the back of his head, muscle he'd built up through years of weightlifting and strength training.

The first patrol officer on the scene found a stream of blood flowing from the upstairs landing. He initially reported that Kilgore was "901H," the police code for dead. It was an honest mistake, but one that still angers Kilgore's SAU buddies when they tell the story.

Kliewer took a shot to the back. The bullet traveled up and came to rest in his neck; the scar now "blends in with the wrinkles," he jokes. He couldn't move his left arm.

"I thought, Oh, man, don't die right here in this crummy little place.' I got about 10 feet and went to my knees," Kliewer says. "I thought, Get back in the game, do something.' And then I saw Jerry lying there."

It was Kliewer who radioed in that the officers had been involved in a shooting and needed help. He sounds remarkably calm on the tape of that call. But the dispatch sent his squad mates, who'd been spread out on other assignments, into shock.

As soon as he got off the radio, he heard the sirens headed his way. By then he'd crawled over to Kilgore, who was bleeding from his ear. The woman who lived in the apartment brought him a towel.

"Jerry was out of it," Kliewer says. "His eyes were like a cuckoo clock, like a Tweety bird thing, you know, where those stars are spinning around. But I could see him breathing."

Two months to the day later, Kilgore and Kliewer walked back into the SAU squad room and returned to full duty with the Special Assignments Unit.

You've got to wonder why.

"What else?" Kliewer, now 48, shrugs. "I had every intention of coming back. I couldn't retire, financially. And I like the job. These are good people, well, most of the time."

Kilgore, 49, and Kliewer have known each other for 14 years, as long as Kliewer's been on SAU. Kilgore's been on the unit for 17 years.

Their desks are next to each other in the SAU office. Once he gets to know you, Kliewer is chatty, with the witty cynicism of a veteran cop. Kilgore is sweetly quiet but often very funny; he's the guy with the quick comebacks on the radio, the one who draws a laugh from the back of the room during briefings.

Kilgore is reluctant to talk about the shooting, but the other guys goad him into it. So, for just a few minutes, he explains why, with 20 years on the department at the time, he didn't just retire.

"It's the only thing I know how to do. It's my job," he says simply.

And neither he nor Kliewer would settle for a desk job. They say they don't know how to use a computer. So they helped each other through weeks of recovery and rehabilitation. And then they came back, together.

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