Disfigured Former Phoenix Cop Was Incredulous When the State Recently Declared Him Fit for Duty
Retired Phoenix police Officer Jason Schechterle got some unexpected news on the eve of the 10th anniversary of the horrific car crash that should have killed him.
It came in a March 23 letter from the Industrial Commission of Arizona, signed by Antonio Escobar, Awards Specialist II.
Escobar informed Schechterle, who was burned beyond recognition in the crash and has undergone more than 50 surgeries in the past decade, that he is fit for duty as a cop.
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"Information in your file indicates that your injury is not affecting your earning ability at this time," the state employee wrote. "If you have any questions about your award, we will be glad to explain anything that seems unclear."
Schechterle says his first reaction to the letter was to scratch his bald head and utter a few choice expletives.
"I was kind of confused at first, and, then, as you can imagine, I got pretty upset," he tells New Times. "I loved my job and miss it like crazy, and I'd go back in a heartbeat if I could. I'm not milking the system. Take a look at me. My injuries are obvious. But apparently not to Mr. Antonio Escobar, the award specialist."
By the way, this story really isn't about the money. Schechterle and his family (hopefully) are set for life, the result of a large civil settlement he won several years ago against Ford Motor Company resulting from the accident. And, he says, the Industrial Commission hasn't cut him a check since that court settlement.
Jason Schechterle is one of Arizona's most recognizable and beloved individuals, both for what he endured after the March 26, 2001, crash and the grace with which he, his wife, Suzie, and family dealt with an impossible situation.
The night it happened, Schechterle was stopped at a red light at North 20th Street and East Thomas Road when a taxicab rear-ended his squad car at a speed estimated at about 100 miles per hour. The Ford Crown Vic that Schechterle was driving burst into flames, and his heroic extraction from the burning car by police and fire crews took about eight minutes.
The intense heat burned off much of Schechterle's skin and face, and doctors placed him in a medically induced coma for more than two months. He was blind for about eight months, and his eyesight to this day is tenuous. His face, neck, head, and hands are permanently disfigured.
Schechterle's recovery was very public, and he became an inspirational figure.
He sued Ford for a design flaw in the Crown Vic that previously had caused the deaths of several police officers around the country.
The case settled out of court for an undisclosed amount (it is believed to have been several million dollars), and Schechterle says he repaid all his uncovered medical bills to the Industrial Commission.
"I'm taking care of all my future surgeries out of my pocket for the rest of my life," he says. "Everything was worked out through my attorney, and I thought it turned out very fair to everybody involved. I've never tried to 'screw the system.'"
Remarkably, Schechterle returned to police work less than four years after his catastrophic injuries, and in 2005, joined the PPD's homicide unit as a murder detective. One of the cases on which he assisted was featured on the A&E television show The First 48. He also was a player in the New Times story "The Case of the Fatal Femme (March 7, 2006)," about the investigation of a robbery-murder in far west Phoenix.
Schechterle worked on dozens of violent crimes during his 18 months with the unit. Over time, he earned the respect of his colleagues for his investigative abilities, as they forgot (almost) about his monumental physical handicaps. But his supervisors could never allow him to be a lead case agent because he could not, and still cannot, handle a service weapon properly because of his injuries.
"They called it 'safety concerns,' and I saw their point," he says, "but it still broke my heart. No, I couldn't operate a gun like I had to, but it wasn't for lack of trying. I tried my best to be productive with what I still have with the department, and with the rest of my life."
In mid-2006, Schechterle retired from the agency he loves. He took medical retirement because his already shaky eyesight was deteriorating further and his body was wearing down because of the long hours and stress.
His retirement made big news, but Schechterle has chosen not to leave the public eye. The father of three remains active in charitable activities (especially those involving fellow fire victims), and does public speaking around the nation telling listeners his uniquely personal motivational story.
Schechterle says he hadn't been getting benefits through the state Industrial Commission for years, so the recent letter came as a surprise.
Award Specialist II Escobar concluded in his denial letter that Schechterle is doing just fine: "No permanent work restrictions noted."
Then came the bureaucratic kicker: "There are no medical contraindications which would preclude [Schechterle] from returning to the same or similar work, thereby sustaining no loss of earning capacity."
Schechterle says it took him a while to chuckle at the absurdity, and then only briefly.
"The guy made it sound like I have to go to a chiropractor every now and then to get tuned up," he says. "The unspoken side of it was that he must think I'm pulling a fast one on them, or something. Let's put it this way: I can't imagine that Specialist Escobar did any investigation of any sort."
Laura McGrory, director of the Industrial Commission, reviewed the file at the request of New Times before responding to questions.
"Basically, this file and this case need to be re-evaluated," she says. "Our staff was provided insufficient information by the parties [Schechterle, the city of Phoenix, and the city's insurance carrier, SCF of Arizona]. But staff is expected to try to obtain further information to be able to make the proper determination in every single case. That didn't happen here."
McGrory says she instructed another staffer (not Escobar) to contact Schechterle after going through the paperwork.
"Jason doesn't have to do anything," she says. "We will re-evaluate his case, period, and go from there. Let's just call this a teaching moment."
Like most Valley residents who have lived here a while, McGrory says she is well aware of Schechterle's saga and was touched when she heard him speak a few years ago.
"He is quite a guy," she says.
Schechterle says he intends to go about his post-police-career business as long as his health holds out. His new nonprofit, Beyond the Flames, is just getting going, and he recently started to blog on his website, www.beyondtheflames.com
"I'm sitting here late on Easter Sunday wondering where to begin," he wrote recently. "I started this journey a little over 10 years ago, and am so looking forward to the next 10 years."