Gary Entrekin is likely on duty today, working part-time security at Gadsden City Hall.
Getting there, and getting to the point that he can do most of the things he wants to do now, has been a long journey.
“It doesn’t seem like it’s been 20 years,” he said, since Oct. 10, 1997‚ since he went to assist the Etowah County Drug and Major Crime Task Force in serving a search warrant at a residence on Briarcliff Road in Rainbow City.
Officers went to the residence, expecting no trouble, based on the information Commander Chris McCurley had gotten on the suspect, Ezra George Peterson.
Instead, they were met with gunfire from a semi-automatic weapon, and it just kept coming.
McCurley was killed and Entrekin suffered multiple gunshot wounds to his legs — wounds that would cost him one leg and years of painful recovery before he would be up and walking again.
Entrekin said he remembers McCurley calling him. He’d worked an overtime late shift on patrol, despite being assigned to detectives, and had been asked to stay over because a number of Rainbow City officers were going to Gadsden’s police range that morning.
McCurley told Entrekin the unit was going to serve a warrant on the guy he had been talking to him about, Peterson.
Entrekin agreed to go with them. Despite being in uniform, he didn’t have on a bulletproof vest — just as the plainclothes officers didn’t.
“My wife had asked me before I went out the night before, ‘Don’t you need a vest?’ I assured her I was just going to ease around and check a few doors. I wasn’t going to get into anything,” Entrekin said.
When officers went to the house in a nice residential area off Lister Ferry Road, Entrekin went to the back of the house while McCurley led the team at the door.
“When they kicked the door in, he (Peterson) was standing there ready,” Entrekin said.
He heard the crash of the door and he heard Peterson open fire. He had time to radio a 10-00, a call for all assistance.
Entrekin came around the house and saw McCurley had been hit, then he was hit himself, taking several shots to his legs.
There were other officers on the scene. Reserve Deputy Rick Correll, now retired, was shot, as was task force officer Khris Yancey, now an investigator with the Attalla Police Department. Entrekin’s uncle Jimmie Entrekin, P.J. Pruett and Joe Hereford were at the scene as well, but they were armed with pistols against an AK-47 with a 90-round drum, and Peterson’s girlfriend was there, feeding him more ammunition.
County officers couldn’t get a call out, and as the suspect continued to fire, couldn’t get to their cars to call for help. Hereford went to a neighboring house to make the call.
But Entrekin managed to radio in again, telling dispatch “officer down.”
“She asked if I’d been shot and I said I had. She asked if it was bad. I told her, 'It’s bad,'” he said.
Within minutes, Entrekin said, he started to hear sirens. “It was the best sound I’d ever heard,” he recalled. “It was the cavalry.”
He said he would never forget seeing Rainbow City Police Chief Morris Alexander, coming in with Tommy Watts and Roy Perkins to help.
“He was big and tall and he was running as hard as he could straight toward me,” he said. “I was worried that he was going to get shot. I was laying there all shot up, trying to hold my cover.
“Peterson came out, and he was saying he was going to finish me,” Entrekin said. The other Rainbow City officers opened up on him.
Peterson was wearing body armor; when the officers saw that, Entrekin said, they shot for his legs.
Watts is credited with taking Peterson down and bringing the 12-minute confrontation to an end.
Ambulances were on the way, but had to hold up until police had Peterson and his girlfriend, Connie Tozzi, under control.
Entrekin was rushed to Riverview Regional Medical Center; leaving the scene was the start of another battle. His injuries were severe, but he had a good team working on him.
“They were having something, a party or a meeting at that hospital, and all the surgeons were there,” he said. “I had three surgeons working on me at one time in the ER.”
It was a turn of fortune that continues to amaze Entrekin, as does his ability to get a radio call out, to get help coming as quickly as it did.
“That area, that was a dead spot. We couldn’t get calls there,” he said, yet he was able to that day.
“As bad as it was, there was someone looking out for us,” Entrekin said. “It could have been much worse.”
His injuries ultimately cost him his right leg. “My left leg was so bad they had to put bone in and fuse it,” he said. “It was two or three years before I could put enough weight on it to try to stand up.”
And there was lengthy rehabilitation, getting a prosthetic and adjusting to it.
“It’s been a long, long healing process,” he said. “I had to learn to walk again.”
There were times he was ready for it to be over.
But people would tell him, “We’re praying for you, Gary.”
“I feel like I had a choice,” Entrekin said. “My son was born prematurely on 9/11. He spent weeks in the hospital. I realized that however I was going to come out of it, I had to come out of it.”
At that point, he was using a wheelchair. He started the process of learning to walk again.
“At first, I could go a few steps and be just exhausted,” Entrekin said.
He had to build up strength and endurance. He estimates he spent 10 of the last 20 years working hard to fight his way back to being able to do what he wanted to do. That meant hunting and fishing, as he’d always loved.
And about three years ago, Entrekin said, he got a new prosthetic — the kind the military uses.
“I got to thinking maybe I could work again, something part time,” he said. “The City of Gadsden was good enough to put me to work on security.”
Along his road to recovery, Entrekin was asked to come to the police academy, to talk to officers in training about what happened that day. He said he’s done it a few times, and the officers listen to every word about what can happen.
“I’ve had them come up to me later, when I’d run into them somewhere, to talk to me about it,” Entrekin said. Perhaps sharing that story, he said, is something he can do more to keep other law enforcement officers vigilant.
“Things can be going smooth,” he said, “and 2 minutes later your life is changed.”
That lesson, the emphasis on training, and the better equipping of local law enforcement agencies may be the legacy of that horrible day, he and others involved have said.
Entrekin was calling for better equipment soon after the incident. “Mayor Sue Glidewell came to see me at the hospital. She said if there was anything, anything, they could do,” Entrekin said. “I said, ‘Get these guys some weapons.’”
Peterson was convicted of capital murder and three counts of attempted murder and sentenced to die. He hanged himself in prison in 1999.
His girlfriend, Connie Tozzi, pleaded guilty to murder and three counts of attempted murder. She was sentenced to 40 years in prison, and has been denied parole twice. Entrekin went to speak against her release the first time.
She’s slated for consideration again in June 2018, and Entrekin said he wants to be there again. As time has passed, he said, there may be a greater likelihood of her release.
He was not pleased to see a story in a Montgomery paper about how she’s rehabilitated, making dolls and toys for children, and how she should be released to spend time with her family.
“She wasn’t worried about spending time with her family when she was with a convicted bank robber and drug dealer,” Entrekin said, noting that she was actively involved in helping Peterson.
“I just don’t think she’s served enough time yet,” he said. "She may be making dolls inside prison; who knows what she would be doing if she were out and free to choose what she does?"