Hero in Tonopah-Area Shooting That Saved State Trooper's Life Had Gun Rights Restored in 2003

Thomas Yoxall (left) and state DPS Director Colonel Frank Milstead (right).
Thomas Yoxall (left) and state DPS Director Colonel Frank Milstead (right). Arizona Department of Public Safety
The man who shot and killed an assault suspect on a dark highway in Arizona, rescuing a state trooper, said on Wednesday that he doesn't think of himself as a hero.

The Good Samaritan had requested media anonymity since the early-morning January 12 incident on Interstate 10.

Today, he made his first appearance since the incident at a news conference at the headquarters of the Arizona Department of Public Safety.

He identified himself as Thomas Yoxall, 43, a maintenance supervisor with a passion for photography and reading.

And he mentioned that he has a "past."

"I would not hesitate to respond in exactly the same fashion." — Thomas Yoxall, who shot and killed a man attacking a state trooper on January 12.

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As court records show, that past includes a 2000 conviction for felony theft.

Fortunately for DPS Trooper Edward Andersson, whose life hung on the edge before Yoxall showed up on January 12, Yoxall had his gun rights restored in 2003 after he successfully completed probation.

Yoxall has paid back his debt to society — big-time.

"That morning, I never would have dreamt that I was going to save somebody's life, let alone take the life of another individual," Yoxall said. "I don't recall any thought or feeling of fear. It happened very quickly. There wasn't necessarily time for me to react, or think logically. I don't consider myself a hero that day."

Yet DPS officials describe Yoxall's actions in terms that could, in fact, best be described as heroic.

The incident began at about 4 a.m. on a lonely, rural stretch of Interstate 10 west of Tonopah, a small town about 50 miles west of Phoenix.

Trooper Edward Andersson was responding to a rollover crash when he noticed a man and an injured woman near the wrecked vehicle.

As he approached, the man fired a handgun at him. The bullet went through the trooper's shoulder and exited his torso.

His attacker wrestled him to the ground and began slamming his head repeatedly into the asphalt.

Enter Yoxall.

click to enlarge Leonard Penuelas-Escobar, 37, attacked a state trooper on January 12 and was shot dead by Thomas Yoxall, who stopped to help. - ARIZONA DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC SAFETY
Leonard Penuelas-Escobar, 37, attacked a state trooper on January 12 and was shot dead by Thomas Yoxall, who stopped to help.
Arizona Department of Public Safety
On Wednesday at the news conference, dressed in a black T-shirt, glasses, and a baseball cap, with a medium build, he didn't carry the same swagger as a gun-wielding Hollywood hero.

He has no law-enforcement training or military background.

A shooting enthusiast, he had his loaded handgun in the center console of his vehicle — something allowed in Arizona, but illegal in many other states.

"I noticed the suspect on top of Trooper Andersson, beating him in a savage way," Yoxall said. "I immediately pulled over. My commands were ignored by the suspect as [Andersson] called out for help. And I alleviated the threat to him."

As DPS Director Colonel Frank Milstead revealed last week, Yoxall positioned himself in a way to avoid further harming Andersson, then took two shots at the suspect.

Another Good Samaritan, Brian Schober, drove up and used the trooper's radio to call for help.

While Yoxall tried to comfort Andersson, the attacker got up and came at Yoxall, who fired once more, hitting the man in the head and killing him.

Milstead identified the suspect last week as former Mexican federale Leonard Penuelas-Escobar, 37, who was living in the United States illegally.

His girlfriend, Phoenix resident Vanessa Lopez-Ruiz, 24, was killed in the rollover crash.

Milstead labeled them as meth users and accused drug dealers.

Yoxall described his actions as "very visceral and instinctive."

Emotions flooded in later.

"My primary concern was the life and wellness of Trooper Andersson, first and foremost," he said. "There was no choice. I had no opportunity to even think about it rationally. I responded in the only way I know how to respond."

click to enlarge DPS also released this photo from LinkedIn of Thomas Yoxall. - ARIZONA DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC SAFETY
DPS also released this photo from LinkedIn of Thomas Yoxall.
Arizona Department of Public Safety
He said the incident had a strong impact on him, Andersson, and their families.

Even though he may have saved Andersson's life, he pointed out, he still took someone else's life.

"It's difficult to reconcile," he said.

He keeps replaying the scene in his mind, he said, and "it hurts."

Not that he would change a thing.

"Doing the right thing sometimes has a price, and sometimes that price is severe," he said. "I wouldn't change it because another man gets to go home to his family. I would not hesitate to respond in exactly the same fashion."

Though he has no official training, Yoxall feels "it's a right and a privilege to be a private gun owner," and that comes with responsibility.

He goes out shooting in a desert area twice a year to hone his skills. He wouldn't call it "tactical practice," he said, but he's not out there "to joke around or horse around."

Milstead, also at the Wednesday news conference, said he's very humbled to know Yoxall, "because we're having this conversation about a hero and not a line-of-duty death."

Andersson, he said, lost part of a bone in his surgeries and is still recovering.

Yoxall didn't go into detail about his past, but said his moments of poor judgment nearly 20 years ago "have not dictated my future, nor are they representative of the person I am today."
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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.