Ralph Williams recently endured a nightmare every parent hopes and prays will never happen to their child, as he witnessed his son fight for life after being shot twice while on duty as a police officer in Fond du Lac.
Ralph, now retired after teaching in the Clintonville Public School District for many years, and his son, Ryan Williams, a 1995 graduate of Clintonville High School, have seen and experienced numerous miracles following the tragic events that took place nearly a month ago.
Police investigating a sexual assault complaint were sent to the home of James Cruckson, 30, on Fond du Lac’s west side around 6:30 a.m. Sunday, March 20. Witnesses reported hearing dozens of gunshots as police in armored vehicles rescued other residents.
Williams, 33, a nine-year veteran and the department’s K-9 officer, was shot in the chest and shoulder. Officer Craig Birkholz, 28, responded to the scene after Williams had been shot. Birkholz was shot in the upper chest while coming to Williams’ rescue, and died at the scene. At the end of a six-hour standoff, the man who shot the officers was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, police said.
Ralph was outside working that fateful Sunday morning. When he went inside for a break, he had five messages on his answering machine detailing the horrific events of the early morning hours.
Ryan responded to the sexual assault complaint at 6:30 a.m. Before going into the house, Ryan had put on a second (new) bullet-proof vest over his old one-that decision saved his life. Ryan was the first one in the house and was ambushed while going up a darkened staircase. He fell into the officer behind him. The captain helped him to his feet (although he claims Ryan did most of the work by himself) and told the second officer to help Ryan out while he returned fire to protect them.
Although shot twice, Ryan was able to go down some stairs, through a basement, up another flight of stairs and out the house on his own power. By this time, he said he could hardly breathe. Another officer helped Ryan get into the ambulance. He was later moved to a helicopter and flown to ThedaClark.
“All the other relatives already knew about what had happened to Ryan. They were panicking because they weren’t able to get a hold of me. I tried to return the calls, but quickly decided I just had to get to the hospital as fast as I could,” Ralph recalls. “I was fortunate in a sense-I got to the hospital just in time to hear the doctor say Ryan was going to be OK and that the surgery had been successful.
“That ride to the hospital was the longest ride of my life,” said Williams. “I kept thinking, ‘I know he wears a bullet-proof vest’-but I didn’t know he was wearing two of them that day. I didn’t know a bullet could go through one vest, much less two.”
X-ray images showed that the two bullets both traveled about 12 inches inside Ryan’s body-miraculously, the bullets hit neither a vital organ nor major artery. One of the bullets missed a major artery by 1 millimeter.
Ralph says the doctors at ThedaClark were exceptional in helping explain different procedures and keeping the family informed on his condition.
“The doctors at ThedaClark have got to be some of the best in the world,” he said. “They explained exactly what happened, what they did, what could happen, and what they would do if any of those things did happen. They were very thorough and explained everything.”
Upon arriving at the hospital, Ralph went up to the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) and saw Ryan for the first time that day.
“There were tons of tubes in his body. He had a breathing tube in his throat. The doctor said he wouldn’t be able to respond to us when we talked to him because they had given him enough sedatives to knock out a horse,” Ralph said. “It was kind of funny, because just then, Ryan opened his eyes and looked around the room.”
As he faded in and out of consciousness, Ryan was able to communicate through writing on a white board. Though his handwriting was difficult to read, family members were able to communicate with him and answer some of his questions.
“It was difficult because he kept asking the same questions. He was in and out so much that he had a hard time remembering what questions he had asked. His main questions were: ‘How many times was I shot?’, “Did they get the bullets out?’ and ‘Was anyone else hurt?'”
As his condition improved, Ryan was able to communicate more with family members.
“We communicated through messages on the white board. At one point, it became obvious that his sense of humor was still intact. He wrote, ‘I’ll do anything to get the summer off’ and ‘No offense dad, but I’m not supposed to die before you do’. At that point, I think I knew he was going to be OK,” said Ralph.
After the breathing tube was taken out, a Fond du Lac police captain told Ryan all of what happened-including the tragic news of Officer Birkholz’s death. “It really shook him up,” Ralph said. “He had seen that Officer Birkholz was down-we didn’t know he had seen that while leaving the crime scene.
“Ryan is a very goal-oriented person,” continued Ralph. “His first goal after being shot was to live long enough to see his wife and their two kids (ages 1 and 2). He feel’s that’s what allowed him to live to the hospital.
“His second goal was to make it out of the ICU after he learned that kids are not allowed inside. After getting out of ICU, his third and final goal for the week was to make it to the funeral of the officer who died while coming to his rescue,” commented Ralph.
“The doctors had originally told us he would be in a coma until Friday-but he walked out of the hospital under his own power on Saturday and was able to attend the funeral,” stated Ralph. “The funeral was so emotional. It was very hard; the officer who was coming to my son’s aid had died. There were so many emotions, and it shook me to feel how close it was-it could have been my son.”
Doctors cited Ryan’s health as a big reason why he was able to recover so quickly. “He loves biking and distance running,” Ralph said. “The doctors said he’s in top shape-and that’s one thing that helped save his life.”
Ralph said the entire ordeal has produced many positive experiences and is a testament to miraculous powers at work that day to keep Ryan alive.
“I counted at least 16 absolute miracles that had to occur for Ryan to live from the point he was shot to when he got in the ambulance,” Ralph said. “It was more than the bullet-proof vests that saved him-it was God’s will.
“In spite of the horror and tragedy, so many good things came-we got to meet so many wonderful people. I was able to meet the EMTs that saved his life. There were constant visitors and police officers on guard outside his room 24/7,” said Ralph. “At the funeral, Ryan was recognized with a long standing ovation. Everyone has been so kind, and we met so many great people.
“I was scared to death at the beginning of this ordeal,” Ralph stated. “But the overwhelming emotion now is just thankfulness. I’ve been in awe since that day. So many people were praying, and I’m so thankful for those prayers.”
Ryan’s K-9 partner, Grendel, was also shot and wounded while in Ryan’s squad car. The bullet went through the windshield and the metal grate in the back seat, hitting the dog in the intestines. In the midst of the chaos, Grendel lay wounded for three hours before anyone realized he had been shot. Once discovered, he was immediately taken to an animal hospital for medical attention. He is making a slow but steady recovery.