News

RIDDLED BY BULLETS AND QUESTIONSBUILDING CONTRACTOR FIGHTS BACK FROM A SNIPER'S ATTACK

On the morning of September 4, building contractor Nick Klipa was repairing the shower tiles in one of his rental apartments near 20th Street and Indian School in east-central Phoenix when he heard what sounded like firecrackers. When he walked out to investigate, he saw two police cars parked on either side of his property. Officers shouted: "Get down! Get back!"

Klipa didn't know there was a man with a .22-caliber semiautomatic rifle in the house across the street. He turned to run away, but a bullet struck his right leg, knocking him to the ground. A second shot entered his left thigh and exploded. He tried to adjust his leg to ease the excruciating pain, but every time he moved, the sniper shot him again. He says he lost count after the third bullet pierced his groin.

Klipa recalls thinking: "`I am an open target. And there's nothing I can do.'"

He remained conscious throughout the hour and a half he lay propped against a chain-link fence in the driveway on the west side of his property.

He never did see the gunman, who shot Klipa a total of eight times from a house across the street. What Klipa remembers seeing is the blood spurting from his own legs before rescue workers dragged him to safety behind an armored truck.

During gunman Barry Kaiser's five-hour siege, Phoenix police officer Leonard Kolodziej and tourist Jane Finney, a bicyclist who just happened to ride by, were killed. Klipa was the most seriously injured of six others wounded by Kaiser in a second round of shooting. When police stormed Kaiser's house hours later, they discovered that the gunman had shot himself to death.

Almost three months later, Nick Klipa still finds himself trapped. His physical injuries have been devastating and he has had plenty of cold-sweat nightmares. And he and his family are miffed at city officials, who they say are ignoring the family's pain.

Bullets shattered bones in both of Klipa's thighs, punctured his groin, punched holes in his bladder and destroyed most of his colon. One bullet remains lodged in his buttock, another in his pelvis. Bullets severed his jugular vein and carotid artery, separated his vocal cords and busted both clavicles.

Last week, for the first time since the shooting, Klipa was able to put enough weight on his legs to stand, and he was able to move back into his west Phoenix home. He's confined for now to a wheelchair, except for brief strolls with the aid of a walker.

He talks about his injuries in a raspy whisper he calls his "Godfather" voice: "People say, `You look good. You look good.' I'm still the same guy. I can't walk. I can't talk. I can't go to the bathroom. I need braces on my feet. Other than that, I'm still the same old Nick."

Klipa says he doesn't hold a grudge against Barry Kaiser, a man he had seen in the neighborhood but had never met. "I was not mad from day one," says Klipa. "Even if he had lived, as long as he didn't bother me again, that's all I wanted from the man."

Klipa does question how police responded to Kaiser's rampage. He asks: "How could that guy kill a police officer, a woman and shoot another officer--then an hour later shoot me and the others?"

Since the shooting, Klipa says, he and the other victims have been tossed aside like "little pieces of garbage."

Klipa fled his native Yugoslavia 27 years ago, when he was 21. He's built a solid life in Phoenix, where he's president of Saint Nikolas Serbian Orthodox Church. The attack on his life strikes his family as a bitter irony.

"We escaped 30 years of communism for freedom, and look what happens here," says Klipa's cousin, Betty Alksic. "You are working all your life, paying your bills, and one day this idiot changes your life."

Last week, Klipa received what he says was his first contact from police: an invitation from police chief Dennis Garrett to attend a ceremony honoring police officer Michael Wheelis, who was wounded in the leg by the crazed gunman.

Klipa says he was surprised by the invitation. "Nobody ever called or inquired if I was in the hospital or alive or well," he says of police officials.

It's nothing personal, he says, but Wheelis is recovering on a police disability pension and the self-employed Klipa has no such benefits. "I don't think anybody should be shot," Klipa says. "He gets paid for his pain. I don't get paid for mine. And I get to piss in a bottle."

His family has questions for the police. Lorrie Klipa wants to know why her husband had lain in a pool of his own blood for an hour and a half. "We don't have all the facts yet," she says. "We never got a phone call from the police, we never got the police report. I want to see why it took so damn long. If it were proven that they did everything they could have done for him, my mind will be at rest."

But to Betty Alksic, there can be no explanation.
"For him to lay that long is absolutely ludicrous," she says. "I don't want any excuses, even from God. If God came down and said, `Betty, they couldn't do anything,' I'd say, `No. They could have.' All this stuff they did to rescue him, they could have done an hour and a half earlier."

Some family members say they're irked by the deluge of stories in the press about the police officers, the officers' families and even Kaiser.

"I don't want to take away in any way from the stories about the officers," says Alksic. "But why aren't we as important? No cops, no mayor came to see him [Klipa]. What's the difference between a police officer and an ordinary guy?

"Who cares about Joe Shmo? To be honest with you, nobody seems to care about the normal person. I want the City of Phoenix to know we are normal people and we are going through hell."

Klipa has more hell to go through, but he says his prognosis is good.
For now, he still wears a colostomy bag that his wife has to change three times a day. He has to urinate in a bottle. "It's very hard to depend on everyone," Klipa says. "That's the hardest part. I feel like a burden: `Get me water. Get me this.' If I feel like a burden, that feels worse than all the pain."

He's scheduled to undergo three operations in the next year: one to rebuild his voice; another to patch his legs; and--the most serious--an operation to repair his colon.

Other trauma remains. At first, Klipa says, he was afraid to be alone. He cried when he was discharged from the hospital, afraid he would be shot again. He says he felt unprotected as he sat in his wheelchair in a van. He says he suffered violent nightmares, waking up in a sweat five times a night.

"I'm okay now," Klipa says. "Somebody's with me all the time. I still don't know how I'm going to feel. . . . Who's to know if I'm going to feel safe? Who's to say that this isn't going to happen again?"

Klipa's injuries were so critical that doctors warned the family they didn't expect him to live. "When I got to the hospital, the first person I saw was the priest," says Lorrie Klipa. "Then the hospital social worker came out and asked me if he had a will."

Says Betty Alksic: "When I first saw him, he was swollen like a balloon. People would come out of his room and cry. For six days, nothing in his body didn't work without a machine."

Klipa spent 19 days in the hospital, after which he was confined to a bed in a relative's house so he could be monitored around the clock. He also needed a full-time nurse to change his bandages. After weeks of daily, eight-hour physical-therapy sessions, he was able to bend his legs enough to sit in a wheelchair.

While Klipa was in the hospital, his duties as president of his church were handed to someone else. But Klipa plans to win reelection in voting scheduled for December 15. "I definitely have intentions of being the president again," he says.

"When I first saw him, he was swollen like a balloon. People would come out of his room and cry.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Ellen Grant