St. Louis officer shares story of recovery after ambush shooting

ST. LOUIS, MO (KTVI) - Wounded St. Louis Police Sergeant, Tom Lake, had a long list of ‘thank yous’ in an exclusive interview with Fox 2 and News 11, Tuesday.

“My biggest thing is a heartfelt thank you to everyone for everything and continue to pray for me,” Lake said, a month-to-the-day after the shooting. “My recovery road is still long. Though I look pretty good, I know I’ve got to fix the upstairs and walk through all that. That’s going to be a hard one for me.”

He still has one bullet lodged near his cheek. He apparently swallowed the other in his sleep. It had been lodged near his nasal passages.

Lake was shot twice in the face November 20th, in an ambush shooting on Hampton Avenue at Pernod in South St. Louis. It was a stretch of Hampton he’d driven thousands of times and always felt safe, like home almost. It was different on his way home from the hospital the morning after the shooting.

“When I realized we were going down Hampton, I closed my eyes as tight as I could and tried to think of my kids,” he said.

Just ten hours earlier he was sitting at a streetlight on the phone with his dad in Omaha, Nebraska. A car sped down Hampton and pulled up next to him; its rear passenger window lined up with Lake’s driver’s side mirror. Lake thought the young driver might have needed help.

“I looked down to find the button to roll the window down and when I looked back over at him, I saw him coming up with the extended magazine, pointing his hand like this and I just surrendered,” Lake said. “I just went, ahhh, and let out this sigh. I heard my dad go ‘what?’. I saw the muzzle flash, the glass break, and then the impact. It’s like getting hit with a baseball bat at 100 mph. My head flies back like this. That’s when the second shot comes in. I don’t even know I’m shot a second time…I truly believe I had a guardian angel.”

Fellow officers arrived and did not wait for an ambulance. They rushed him to a hospital after finding him slumped in his vehicle, bleeding profusely. In his mind, Lake had been trying to figure out how to chase down shooter, George P. Bush III, 19. Lake also thought he’d been calling in a description on his radio a description to warn his fellow officers. Somewhere on that trip to the hospital, the ‘life and death’ of it hit him. He confided in friend and fellow officer, Kevin Roberts.

“I said, ‘Kevin you’ve got to tell my wife how much I love her. You’ve to take care of my kids. You’ve got to promise me that you’ll take care of my wife and you will take care of my kids.’”

Things looked bleak when his wife arrived. Blood covered his face. There were bullet holes above his lip and in his cheek. He joked he was no longer as handsome as he used to be.

“I won’t be as good looking as our wedding photos, but you can’t leave me now,” he said. “She goes, ‘I’m just happy you’re talking.’ She gave me a kiss on the forehead, she said, ‘I love you.’ I said, ‘I love you, too’.”

Then he remembered, his dad!

“In my brain it goes, ‘you were talking to your dad. I have to call my father!”

“Thank God you’re OK,” his dad told him over the phone.

“I said, ‘I’ll be fine. I just want you to come here and be with me. He says, ‘OK, I’ll be there. I’m coming,’” Lake said crying.

The night after the shooting, when hundreds filled the streets of his neighborhood for a peace vigil, stretching a blue ribbon from his church to the shooting scene about a mile away, his parents were there. State troopers from Nebraska, Iowa, and Missouri, teamed up to rush them in from Omaha. The peace vigil kick-started his healing process, Lake said, along with his wife, Margaret, and three children all under age 9. Milana and Nicholas handled it best. Then, there was Henry, 5.

“He walks over and says, ‘dad, you’re too scary looking. Can I just kiss your hand?’ So he’s holding my hand and he’s kissing my hand constantly,” Lake smiled.  "He’s my buddy.”

Bolstered by those magic kisses and all the prayers, Lake attended the traditional Guns-n-Hoses boxing matches to benefit the families of police and firefighters killed in the line of duty. His survival, he said, honors them; so does his message in the wake of the shooting.

“We’re not paying them enough money to do the job they’re doing, that we can’t find funds to keep them competitive so they can raise a family…maybe I’m here as their voice. Maybe that’s my job,” Lake said.

Maybe coming from him calls for an end to violence will ring more true. The young man who tried to kill him was shot and killed by police after shooting at officers yet again.

“Am I happy that he’s gone, I think a little bit of me is because it gives my family some closure. But part of me wants to have a conversation with him to find out why?” Lake said. “We’ve got to bring back some family values to get these kids under control. If we don’t do that we’re going to lose.”

He wasn’t sure when he'd return to work or in what capacity.

His prognosis is good. Doctors expect to remove the remaining bullet soon.

There's a happy hour fundraiser, Thursday from 4-10:00pm at Bartolino's Osteria at Hampton & Sulphur.

All proceeds will benefit Sgt. Lake and his family.

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