FLORIDA — He had to stay alive for his family.
The thought flashed through his mind as the serrated edge of a long knife cut across his chest. Miami-Dade Police Officer Mario Gutierrez was thrashing on the ground in a violent struggle with a man who was trying to set fire to a gas station. Such a massive explosion could kill hundreds of people nearby.
“When he stabbed me and I thought of my family, I became the predator, and he became the prey, and that’s why I survived,” Gutierrez said of the primal instincts he felt during the fight of his life on the streets of Miami. “That is what saved my life: my training and my determination to survive.”
The evening in October 2013 started off as a slow one for Gutierrez. He was patrolling a busy intersection near Miami International Airport when he noticed something unusual: clouds of smoke coming from the ground at a Shell gas station.
Gutierrez raced over and saw something even more ominous: A man had stretched out a gas hose and was attempting to set two 8,000-gallon underground gasoline tanks on fire.
“When I saw that, I panicked, because I realized what was going to happen. And it scared me because I thought, ‘Wow, we are going to die. This is going to be a catastrophe.’ ”
Gutierrez jumped into action, quickly activating the emergency shut-off valve to the fuel pumps.
“I hit the emergency shut-off. … And then I went over to him very quickly and drew my Taser. I was going to incapacitate him with my Taser.”
Gutierrez approached the man with the intention of arresting him. But the man, a 51-year-old Haitian who was in the country illegally, lunged toward him.
A fight for life
Surveillance camera footage from the gas station shows the confrontation quickly escalate. The man stabbed Gutierrez about a dozen times with a screwdriver and a large knife.
The video shows Dominique Jean, a homeless man who had a long record of violence, swinging at Gutierrez more than 20 times.
Not only did Gutierrez sustain stab wounds to his hands and back, but Jean tried to bite his thumb off while attempting to grab his gun.
“I felt that he was going to kill me. And I will be damned if he is going to kill me. I wasn’t going to let it happen,”Gutierrez said.
When the knife slashed across his chest, Gutierrez’s training and determination kicked in. He thought of his family: his wife, kids and grandkids.
Gutierrez says he fired five rounds in 1½ seconds, killing Jean.
“It took about 20 seconds. Twenty seconds for 12 stab wounds, a bite wound, and I fired five rounds with my pistol. It was very quick.”
Call for help
As the calls for help rang out across police radios, Officers Juan Leon and Chris Garcia were in their patrol car about three blocks away. They arrived at the gas station in about 20 seconds.
They had not heard the gunshots, and they didn’t know it was one of their friends who was in the fight of his life.
When the officers pulled into the station, Leon saw Gutierrez on his knees, a knife and the lifeless body of another man on the ground.
Several months earlier, Gutierrez had told his friend, Leon, that he was taking blood-thinners. Injuries, especially serious wounds, can cause traumatic and life-threatening danger for someone taking blood-thinning medications.
Gutierrez knows how lucky he is that the very friend he shared this information with was the first one on the scene.
“I knew he was in trouble,” Leon said. “His brown shirt was completely covered. It was red. It wasn’t brown, it was red. I knew he had to get to the hospital right away.”
Leon loaded Gutierrez into his patrol car and raced toward the hospital. Gutierrez, fearing he might die, told his friend what had happened so investigators would know his account.
Other officers closed intersections ahead of Leon’s car so they wouldn’t be slowed down in their race to the hospital. But Gutierrez started fading, looking more and more pale.
“There were a couple of times he told me he was feeling faint, and I would snap him out of hit,” Leon said.
Gutierrez says the magic touch was a simple dose of motivational medicine. “He would yell at me,” Gutierrez said with a smile as he recalled the stressful moment.
Gutierrez and Leon, who’ve spent most of their careers making fun of each other and joking that they’re really just a couple of guys in the “13th grade,” know they share a special bond.
“He’s my brother,” Gutierrez said. “We rely on each other.”
Gutierrez had numerous surgeries and still gets emotional when thinking back to the incident.
“I had an overwhelming sense of failure. I felt that I did not do my job. I felt like I failed. I let this guy get under my guard, and it hurt me. I needed to know that I put up a fight, that I fought this guy because I didn’t remember. I had no recollection of it. So that really bothered me. Still bothers me.”
Gutierrez said the support and love from his family and brothers in uniform kept him fighting toward recovery.
Maytag repairman to Miami motorman
For 12 years, Gutierrez was a washing machine repairman, but he’d always wanted to be a police officer. A hiring freeze meant he had to wait almost three years after putting in his application. Every day, he would look in his mailbox for an acceptance letter.
“When that letter came,” he said, “it was like winning the lottery.”
After the gas station incident, the Miami police motorman couldn’t wait to put on his uniform and return to work.
“To slap on this uniform and get back into the groove of things, it was, like, awesome. I love this job. It is an awesome job. Best thing they ever did was hire me,” he said.
Gutierrez has received myriad awards, including the Medal of Valor from President Obama and a Congressional Badge of Bravery. He was also named the Miami-Dade Benevolent Association Officer of the Year in 2013 and received the MIA Hero Award from the Miami-Dade Aviation Department.
Even after receiving law enforcement’s highest honor from the president, Gutierrez still says, “I am not a special man. I am just a regular guy that did his job.”
Now two years away from retiring from his dream job, Gutierrez talks about honing his skills as a gunsmith and furthering his passion for cars. But what he’ll miss most, he says, are his fellow officers.
“I love those guys. They are like brothers to me.”
With a sigh, Gutierrez reflects on his choice to join the force and highlights the importance of sharing his story.
“Police officers are everyday people that live in the community that decide to take on the burden, the responsibility, of deterring the predators that are out preying on society. Some of them lose their life.”