The cops in Carrillo’s unit began asking questions that would haunt Messimer the rest of his life: Why didn’t you kill him? How could you let him die? Where were you when he was shot?
BY DAN KLEIN
The day before Christmas, I received a text from a retired Albuquerque police officer: “Did you hear? John died.”
A flood of memories took me back to Feb. 22, 1987. I was a divorced APD detective, one of the first [Repeat Offender Project] detectives, and work consumed my life. I loved every minute of it.
Sometime after midnight, I was awakened by my department-issued beeper. The number was an APD dispatch supervisor. I shook the slumber off and called in. The supervisor could barely speak. She was sobbing as she told me that Officer John Carrillo had been slain. What I didn’t know that night was that Carrillo’s partner, Officer John Messimer, also was killed; it just took him 28 years to die.
Messimer was a rookie cop the night he and Carrillo responded to the domestic disturbance that took Carrillo’s life. After Carrillo was mortally wounded, Messimer pulled his body to safety as the offender, Merrill Chamberlain, a Sandia National Laboratories physicist, was shooting at him. Messimer placed himself over Carrillo’s body, protecting it, while he returned fire. Back then, APD issued a piece of crap of a revolver, the Smith & Wesson Model 10. After six shots, Messimer’s gun was empty, but Chamberlain was still shooting.
Messimer was reloading when Chamberlain came at him, gun in hand, down the hallway. Reacting like a seasoned officer, Messimer closed the cylinder on his revolver and pointed the gun at Carrillo’s murderer. Chamberlain ran back into a bedroom. Messimer’s gun had been empty; he hadn’t had time to reload it.
On the night of Carrillo’s death, Messimer had been with APD barely one year. That included months in the training academy. He was in his 20s and had just recently been allowed to patrol alone, a rookie cop in a squad of officers who had known each other for years. Those fellow officers arrived, and Chamberlain was arrested. Immediately, the slow death of John Messimer began.
The cops in Carrillo’s unit began asking questions that would haunt Messimer the rest of his life: Why didn’t you kill him? How could you let him die? Where were you when he was shot? Why didn’t you follow procedure? They were questions directed to a rookie cop who had tried to save his partner’s life. They were questions let loose in anger, sadness and pain that wound up destroying a man.
Just as painful was APD’s decision to award Messimer the Medal of Valor. Messimer believed he didn’t deserve it. How could he, he thought. He didn’t save Carrillo.
I soon became a patrol sergeant, and Messimer went into the SWAT team, call sign 515. We worked around each other and spoke on occasion. I considered Messimer a friend but not a close one. From a distance and over time, I realized that Messimer was his best when he was in SWAT and working. He was a great SWAT officer. His problems, doubts and pain seemed to come when he wasn’t at work.
Messimer married Terry, an APD cop, but try as she might, Terry couldn’t exorcise the demons that haunted Messimer from that February night. Throughout his APD career, he would ride a roller coaster of highs and lows. He turned to alcohol, and it would be a deadly choice. In time, he and Terry would divorce, a situation that happens all too frequently to cops.
When he was diagnosed with the illness that would kill him, it was Terry who would care for him in his final days, an expression of love and compassion worthy of her own Medal of Valor.
Immediately following Messimer’s death, many officers posted public comments. Jack Tibbets, a retired APD homicide detective, wrote, “I stood in awe of his courage that night and forever after.”
Terry’s post was the most poignant of all: “All these years of pain and doubt and forever fighting those demons should never have happened to you. Foolish words spoken in grief. A rookie cop got a good cop killed. Where were you running down the stairs? Why didn’t you shoot him, even though he had given up? Those words have haunted you all these years. …
“Blaming yourself for all these years for doing something that wasn’t your fault has taken your life as surely as if you had taken that bullet all those years ago. I pray that … you see John Carrillo, and he will embrace you and tell you what happened that night was not your fault, that you should never have blamed yourself and that you will finally believe.”
Two very good men died on Feb. 22, 1987.
Call sign 515, go on home, your shift is done.
Dan Klein is a retired Albuquerque police sergeant. He can be reached via Facebook.