Deputies shot at casino back on the job
Deputies Dan Nelson and Erik Eissinger have a lot in common.
They both joined the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office just over four years ago; both are married with two children each.
And last December, a suspect with a gun forged a bond between them that they say will last forever.
The two deputies responded to a report Dec. 3 at Harrah’s Tahoe Diamond Lounge that a man, 53-year-old Harvey Ex of Sunset Beach, Calif., was despondent, suicidal and armed with a .32-caliber handgun.
According to sheriff’s office reports, Nelson and Eissinger approached Ex, who began to walk away. The deputies ordered Ex to stop and show his hands. A deputy saw Ex reach into his waistband and grabbed him. Ex then pulled out the weapon and began to fire.
Ex fired five rounds, hitting Nelson once in the forearm and in the hip. That bullet traveled around Nelson’s body and lodged in his back.
Eissinger, 37, was hit in the abdomen, but was protected by his bulletproof vest.
The deputies returned fire, with Nelson’s shots hitting Ex eight times and Eissinger striking him once. Ex died at the scene, according to Sgt. Tom Mezzetta.
“Dan is my hero. He saved my life,” Eissinger said in an interview last week at the sheriff’s office.
Nelson, 29, credited the deputies’ training and ability to depend on each other.
“Neither one of us would have walked out of there without the other,” he said.
The deputies estimated the gunfire lasted six to eight seconds.
“It felt like an hour,” Eissinger said. “A couple of seconds can change your life forever.”
Their memories of the event are scattered.
“Dan and I were fighting for our lives,” Eissinger said. “I focused on living and not getting killed.”
Although wounded, Nelson said, “I was still walking around until I was relieved.”
“I got a Harrah’s security guard and said, ‘You need to secure this room.'”
Eissinger said the deputies’ biggest concern was the safety of the casino’s patrons. The lounge area was packed with a weekend crowd.
“There is no ideal shooting,” Nelson said. “If I get hurt, it comes with the job. I don’t want the general public to get hurt. I remember thinking, ‘I sure hope to God there were no innocent civilians.'”
There were no other injuries.
“When I saw the gun, I focused on the threat,” Eissinger said. “I heard the first shot and remember noises and seeing people ducking for cover. My focus was to get the gun and not get shot again.”
Eissinger said there was a moment when he thought Nelson was dead.
“We’d been communicating back and forth, and, then he didn’t respond,” Eissinger said. “But the paramedics were attending to him and he couldn’t talk. He gave me the ‘thumbs up,’ and I knew he was OK.”
Nelson has a scar on his left arm and scars on his back.
“I look at this injury and think if this is the worst, I am grateful for a little loss to have my partner and myself,” Nelson said.
Eissinger said he’ll never complain about the vest.
“It’s heavy and bulky. And when it’s 100 degrees in the valley you sweat, but it saved my life,” he said.
The Douglas County District Attorney is expected to issue a report whether the shooting by the deputies was justified.
Eissinger and Nelson can’t talk specifics until the report is issued, but both deputies have recovered from their injuries and are back on patrol duty.
“The first day I got back in my patrol car, I was scared,” Eissinger said. “It was the same beat. I had to face the demon. I made up my mind I was not going to let anything change the way I felt about my profession.”
Eissinger said he walked into the casino and was swarmed by dealers and cocktail servers who welcomed him back to work.
“I was absolutely overwhelmed by the support,” Eissinger said.
With more serious wounds, Nelson took longer to recover.
“I had a little lingering fear, but it was a nice relief to come back,” Nelson said. “I know I can do this job. I know I can do it again. (The shooting) won’t preclude me from doing what I want to do as a cop.”
The deputies are to be honored Feb. 27 at a ceremony awarding them the department’s highest honor, an award for valor.
“It’s a huge honor,” Eissinger said. “How can you appreciate such thanks?” he said. “The gratitude from both of us is immense.
Both deputies expressed thanks for the hundreds of cards they received in the wake of the shooting.
“At first there were one or two at a time. I could keep up with it, but then we got inundated,” Nelson said.
The support was down the line from their supervisors, colleagues, law enforcement personnel in other agencies and hundreds of well-wishers from across the country.
“The support we got was a big part of the healing process,” Eissinger said.
Both deputies singled out their families.
“My wife Sheila is my partner,” Nelson said. “Some deputies make the mistake of not talking about it – about getting shot – before the event. It doesn’t make it easier when it happens, but you’ve planned for it.
“She stood by my healing and also for continuing my career. She could have said, ‘Well, you’ve been shot. That’s it.’ But she tolerates my career. She knows I still have goals I want to achieve.”
Eissinger said his wife Robin “is the strongest person I have ever met in my life.”
“She dealt with the incident, she deals with the children. She deals with everyday stuff,” Eissinger said.
“The event made me even more appreciative of what I’ve got. Not that you take it for granted, it’s not that you forget. The event made me value everything even more so,” Eissinger said.
Nelson also said the families of Sgt. Joe Duffy and Deputy Robert Duffy and Deputy Pat Ryan made his recovery easier.
The Harrah’s shooting came almost eight months to the day of the shooting of Robert Duffy, critically injured on April 2, 2005, in a shoot-out at Kingslane mobile home park in Gardnerville.
Duffy suffered the loss of a finger on his left hand. He returned to duty in August.
“Two shootings within eight months is unheard of in this county,” Nelson said, “It just shows you that’s why we’re here. Every time an officer gets shot, it reminds me of why I need to be careful. It can happen again, if you don’t think it will, it will.”
“It taught me, ‘Don’t get complacent,'” Eissinger said. “Don’t treat every situation like it’s just routine.”
Eissinger and Nelson said they were happy to get back to work.
“All along, we just said, ‘Give our keys back so we can go to work,'” Eissinger said.
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