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A trooper’s timely tale of trauma

By Karen Florin

Publication: The Day

Published June 25. 2013 4:00AM

Retired state trooper John G. Patterson knows his newly published book, "Traumatized," is going to shock some readers.

Some may not even make it past the macabre image of Patterson on the cover. The illustration, by artist Timothy B. Boor, shows half of Patterson's face in decay, his clenched fist clutching the head of the grim reaper.

That was what he felt like, Patterson said.

Patterson fatally shot two men in the line of duty within the first six years of his 20-year career and developed post traumatic stress disorder and severe depression by the time he was 30.

The 43-year-old husband and father of three, who grew up in a police family and who describes himself as "obnoxious," doesn't care if people are offended.

"I had to get it out of my head, clear my mind and help educate other people," he said during a recent interview.

The book's release is eerily timely, with a recent spate of police-involved shootings in the region, including one last week in Salem.

Patterson, who worked at Troop E in Montville, says his retirement last year and the completion of the book has helped him heal.

He started working on "Traumatized" 10 years ago and recruited psychotherapist Deborah Mandel, a longtime family friend, and her husband, writer James R. Benn, as co-authors. They self-published the book and are selling it on Amazon.com.

"My eyes were opened in every chapter," said Benn.

Despite Patterson's protestations that "a lot of people didn't like me because I would just tell them like it is," a couple of hundred of his friends, along with his family, celebrated his writing debut recently at the Great Neck Country Club in Waterford.

'Something bad was going to happen...'

On Tuesday, Sept. 3, 1996, Patterson and his "wingman," Trooper Jay Gaughan, were dispatched to the Jewett City home of Joseph Cote, a man who less than a month earlier had threatened his family and police with a bayonet. Cote, evidently drunk, was threatening to harm himself and his sister.

From outside, Patterson and Gaughan watched as Cote armed himself with a knife, then called his two dogs to the kitchen, got down on one knee and hugged and kissed them, "an oddly normal scene in a terribly abnormal situation," Patterson writes. Cote sobbed and said goodbye to the dogs.

"As I heard that, a nervous calm came over me," Patterson writes. "I knew that something bad was going to happen. Not the kind of bad we see every day, but really bad. The kind of bad that never goes away. I thought about going home to my family. If getting there meant shooting and killing Cote, I felt at peace with it."

Cote walked out the front door and charged at the troopers in the narrow driveway, telling them they had better shoot him or he would kill them. He ignored their commands to stop.

Patterson writes that he and Gaughan backed up until they "ran out of driveway." Both started shooting at the same time. Cote fell face down on the driveway, a few feet from them, with the knife clenched in his hand, Patterson writes.

In the wake of the shooting, he said, he was separated from his fellow troopers and assigned to desk duty, which he found stressful and frustrating, while the incident was investigated.

A state police spokesman told the media the troopers were offered counseling, but Patterson said that never happened.

Patterson and Gaughan eventually initiated a meeting with a state police psychiatrist, he said, and Patterson also saw another psychiatrist a few times but said they could not connect.

The two troopers received awards from the Connecticut Coalition of Police officers and TOP COPS, a national organization, for going above and beyond the call of duty, but that recognition came from the rank and file, according to Patterson.

Patterson said his downward spiral started with memory loss and proceeded to nightmares and bouts of sadness and crying. He withdrew from his family and developed unhealthy means of escaping his demons, gambling excessively for a while and binging on junk food. He stopped working out

Breaking point

Patterson and his wife were married in 1997, and he thought he would return to life as usual on the beat. But 27 months later, he came face to face with Joseph Parsons, armed with a .38 revolver, drunk and despondent, in the drive-thru lane of the Lisbon McDonald's. The desk trooper had radioed that Parsons was armed and had threatened to harm any police officers who tried to stop him. This time, Patterson was with Trooper Stowell Burnham, who was on patrol with his white German shepherd, Blizzard.

The muzzles of Parsons' and Patterson's guns were almost touching as Parsons pointed his revolver at Patterson's head, he writes.

"I leaned away from his line of fire behind the passenger side door jamb and blindly fired my weapon in his direction," Patterson writes. He retreated down an embankment, and Parsons, still alive, raised his right arm and pointed his revolver at Patterson.

"I squeezed off one more round, striking him just below and slightly behind his right ear," Patterson writes.

When the realization that he had killed another man sank in, Patterson was angry and sad. When Sgt. Jack Hardell arrived, Patterson, crying, "stood by his vehicle, helpless, as the Sergeant hugged and consoled me."

Seeking support

Following the second shooting, Patterson knew he had to stop the recurring dreams and nightmares. He attended a newly formed support group for police officers involved in critical incidents. Finally, he learned he was not alone. He began therapy.

Patterson worked as a Major Crime Squad detective under Sgt. John Rich, who later retired and now serves as commander of the Madison Police Department. Interviewed by Mandel for "Traumatized," Rich, who had investigated police-involved shootings, spoke of treating troopers "in a tactful way."

"We're not going to give up our investigative responsibilities, but we can do it in such a manner where we don't compromise the investigation but are mindful of what the officer has just been through and how traumatic it can be," Rich told Mandel.

Eventually, the General Assembly mandated the state police to develop a peer support program. State Troopers Offering Peer Support, or STOPS, is staffed by volunteers who are trained by the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services and the Connecticut Alliance to Benefit Law Enforcement.

"There are new protocols in place for handling police-involved shootings, inspired in part by John's incidents as well as a few other police involved shootings in New London County, but when John's incidents occurred, there was not much guidance," Rich told Mandel.

Parsons' father brought a wrongful death lawsuit against Patterson, but did not prevail.

Wendy Patterson said she didn't let herself panic about her husband's dangerous job and appreciated that he kept in touch with her throughout the day to let her know he was safe. Around the house, the family uses a lot of humor to lighten up the atmosphere.

"When he's acting out, I'll say, 'Trooper, calm down,'" she said. "The most important thing is that this is on paper and out of his head. It was therapy."

Patterson is now working as an officer with the Mohegan Tribal Police.

k.florin@theday.com

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