Little Things Can Get You Hurt

posted on April 19, 2011

Make no mistake about it, Bill Cooksey wasn't a hoodlum. He had been a Texas Highway Patrolman, was involved in at least one other gunfight and served as the sheriff of Terrell County, TX. He knew the importance of perfecting his pistolcraft and he was, simply, good with a gun.

Terrell County sits on the banks of the Rio Grande, near where the Pecos River runs into that southern boundary. It's rough ranch country. The railroad had a terminus in Sanderson, the county seat, and off-duty railroad men could be just as rough as the cowboys when Saturday night rolled around. But, Cooksey's troubles came from neither the railroad nor the ranch hands.

One day in the mid-1960s, a local rancher contacted Sheriff Cooksey to report someone camping in his pastures. There had been several reports of small-time thefts and minor break-ins, and the rancher suspected it was all connected to the uninvited guest who was hanging out on his ranch. Having seen the suspect from a distance, the rancher told Sheriff Cooksey he believed the trespasser was an illegal alien from Mexico.

Cooksey wasn't overly concerned about the suspect being an illegal alien. Back in those days, illegals didn't cause too much trouble. Mostly, they were just looking for food, water and a little protection from the elements. They took very little as they wandered through ranch country, heading north to try to find a better existence for themselves and their families. Most folks in Terrell County were pretty sympathetic to their plight.

Still, the minor break-ins required the sheriff to conduct an investigation and make an arrest, if one was warranted. Since illegal aliens were hardly ever dangerous, Cooksey chose not to strap on his revolver. Instead, he picked up his little off-duty semi-automatic and shoved it into his belt on the left side, cross-draw style.

Heading east out of Sanderson, Cooksey and the rancher picked up a young man who had also seen this trespasser. This young fellow could help identify the suspect and locate his camp. In this part of Texas, ranch pastures were pretty large, and knowing the exact location of the camp would save a lot of time.

Approaching the camp on foot, Cooksey and his helpers soon encountered a man who was later identified as Alfredo Amado Hernandez. Both the rancher and the kid told the sheriff this was the suspect. Cooksey tried to talk to Hernandez, but got no answers. He finally told the suspect he wanted to look at his campsite. Hernandez turned, as if to lead the sheriff to his small camp, but immediately pivoted around with a revolver in his hand and started shooting.

Cooksey saw all of this as it began to unfold and recognized it for what it was—a contact gone bad. His hand went to his right hip, where his big-bore revolver usually rode. Of course, the sixgun wasn't there. Before he couldreach across his body for the little semi-automatic, he was hit twice and knocked to the ground.

Hernandez made his escape that day. The rancher and the kid got Sheriff Cooksey to the highway and ultimately to a hospital in Del Rio. He had been shot twice with a .38 Spl. revolver loaded with 158-grain round-nosed lead. One slug punctured a lung and the other bullet hit him in the thigh. Both wounds healed pretty quickly. However, the bullet in his thigh impacted a major nerve and would cause Cooksey pain for the rest of his life.

Surprisingly, Hernandez did not escape south across the Rio Grande, as most would have suspected. Instead, he stayed in Texas ranch country, living in secluded camps and stealing his food from area ranches and isolated stores.

About a year later, Sheriff Cooksey (now healed and back at work) suspected Hernandez was responsible for some break-ins at a little country store. He decided to stake out the store during nighttime hours and arrest the burglar.

On the evening in question, stakeout duty fell to Cooksey and Texas Ranger Alfred Allee. Cooksey was armed with a pump shotgun and Allee had a .30-30 Win. rifle. They watched a man break into the store and, when he came out, they recognized the suspect as Hernandez. At the call to surrender, Hernandez pulled his .38 revolver and the two officers opened up on him. He was wounded and taken into custody.

Ultimately, Hernandez was sentenced to serve a long sentence in the Texas Prison System. When he got out—20 years later—he was deported to Mexico, but didn't stay there for long. Before his saga was over, I even had some dealings with him, but that's a story for another time.

Cooksey later taught criminal justice at a Texas college. He used his experience with Hernandez to illustrate how the little things can get you hurt. Cooksey assumed Hernandez was a simple illegal alien and probably not armed. Therefore, Cooksey didn't pat him down for weapons. And he didn't realize that, under stress, he would forget the location of his own sidearm. The combination of those mistakes nearly cost Cooksey his life.

Once a person is identified as a potential threat, we should never let our guard down until the threat no longer exists. The policeman or soldier may conduct a pat-down search for weapons; the armed citizen probably won't. Regardless, as long as the person represents a potential threat, our focus should be on him, and we should be ready to take action.

Cooksey's experience also shows the importance of wearing our defensive handgun in the same place—all the time. We carry in the same place, we practice from that place and, when the stuff hits the oscillating device, we will reach for that place. Where gunfighting is concerned, it's just not smart to make things any more complicated than they already are.

After all, it's the little things that can get you hurt.


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