At some point shortly after those blurred, seemingly slow-motion moments of horror on that sunny afternoon of Sat., May 22, 2006, and the agonizing surgery to keep him alive and put his face and body back together, Andres Gonzales had a choice to make: play it back or pay it forward and find meaning in all that tragedy that so unexpectedly overtook him and changed his life forever.
“You can’t help but think about the details of something like that over and over, a thousand times,” Gonzales says as he sits upright in an electric wheelchair in his living room, a wheelchair he knows will forever be his legs. “No matter how many times you try to put it out of your mind, it’s still there.”
The entire scenario of the tragedy that befell Gonzales is one that seemingly has become common fare on the evening news: someone is stopped for something as benign as a traffic ticket and jumps from his vehicle with guns blazing. In an instant a cop lies dead and the tagline on that news report ends with, “… he left behind a wife and two children.”
Andres Gonzales nods his head. I was lucky, he thinks, “Or blessed. I lived. For a reason.”
“When he joined the police department, I just had the feeling that he was going to be killed in the line of duty,” says Gonzales’ father, Andres Gonzales Sr. “May 22 was very difficult. The doctor (finally) told me he survived the shooting, (but) he would be completely paralyzed.”
Like a lot of kids, Andres Gonzales Jr. had innocent childhood fantasies of being “Officer Friendly,” the smiling cop on the beat.
He grew up to become a deputy for then-Sheriff Charles Foti then for Sheriff Marlin Gusman. He then switched to become what he had wanted all along: a member of the New Orleans Police Department. Gonzales was first stationed at the Second District on Magazine Street and Napoleon Avenue then was transferred to the Fourth District on the Westbank.
On that fateful day in May, Gonzales and his partner Rebecca Easley left roll call and were rolling down Algiers Point at Opelousas Avenue about 3 p.m. when they spotted the Toyota Corolla with extremely darkened windows.
“I went to the driver’s side and asked for license and insurance information,” Gonzales says. “He looked at me and said, ‘I ain’t got none of that.’ I had the tint meter in my hand and asked him to rollup the window so I could check it. It was illegal. When I got him out of the car and was patting him down, the passenger shoved my partner and started running. I gave chase and when I caught him he pulled a gun and shot me – four times. I was hit in the jawline on the left side and it came out under my eye. I was also hit in the left arm and in my vest. He shot my radio out to keep me from calling for backup. I was paralyzed and fell to the ground. That’s when he stood over me and shot me as I was on the ground.”
Charity and University hospitals were still closed because of Katrina damage, so Gonzales was rushed to Elmwood on Clearview Parkway. He underwent intensive surgery for his wounds and spent the next four months in the hospital then began intensive therapy, which he still does to this day.
On a balmy Saturday afternoon, much like that Saturday afternoon eight years ago, Gonzales is telling a visitor that the reason he was so determined to join NOPD to begin with was that, “I wanted to go where the action was.” It may have been merely a statement of fact or a small attempt at gallows humor. Nobody knows for sure. The conversation turns to his cue ball-smooth head, a far cry from the full head of thick hair on photos him in his NOPD uniform. “I started going bald so I shaved it all off,” Gonzales says. “Instead of going bald, now I can say I choose to be bald. I wanted to get the jump on Mother Nature.”
Gonzales says the guy who did the shooting got 100 years and is doing his time at Angola, and he still gets calls from his NOPD buddies and from now Sgt. Rebecca Easley, who didn’t want to talk about that day in May 2006, citing police department regulations. “You have to go through the PIO (Public Information Officer) for any information or for permission for me to talk about that,” she says. And through it all, Amanda Klein, who is always at Gonzales side, reaches over and touches him lovingly on his hand.
“I’ll always be here for him,” she says. “Always.”
Play it back or pay it forward?
The rabbi Harold Kushner once asked, “When bad things happen to good people what good does it do ask why? Even if you get an answer, you’re still at square one looking at that ‘bad thing that happened.’” Instead, Rabbi Kushner proposed, “When bad things happen to good people instead of asking ‘why,’ maybe you should ask, ‘What do I do now?’”
“When I was in the hospital, at Touro, my roommate said he couldn’t move anything except his eyes,” Gonzales recalls. “The man told me ‘When my nose itches I need to have somebody come in and scratch it.’ That poor guy was a lot worse off than me. That’s when I realized I couldn’t just sit around feeling sorry for myself. I had to pay this thing forward.”
Paying it forward for Andres Gonzales meant organizing Help for Heroes, Inc., in 2011 as an ongoing fundraising effort to assist fallen and wounded police officers and their families in the Greater New Orleans area.
“Help” has an eight-member board of directors and is listed as a public charitable organization.
It didn’t take long for Help for Heroes to go into action. In August 2012, two St. John the Baptist Parish deputies were ambushed and killed and two others injured. One month later, the organization held an event at Southport Hall on the Orleans-Jefferson line that raised $16,000, which was immediately dispersed to the families of the St. John Parish lawmen.
“That money was an enormous help to those families,” Gonzales says. “Right now we’re expanding the organization to include firemen, EMS and anybody who goes out there and puts their lives on the line for others. This is a great organization. One that’s been needed for a long, long time.”
Amanda Klein leans forward once again and touches Gonzales hand.
“What he didn’t tell you,” she says, “is that we’re getting married May 22, 2015. That’ll be the anniversary date of the day he was shot.”
Paying it forward, it seems, has many other less obvious benefits.
For more information contact Help for Heroes, Inc. at it website Help4Heroes.org or by calling 338-7523.
George Gurtner’s book Cast of Characters, based on columns in New Orleans Magazine, is now available at bookstores throughout the Greater New Orleans area or by ordering at MargaretMedia.com.