'This is the real deal': How Pratt shootings changed lives of two wounded Aurora cops
John Cebulski keeps two photos of himself on his phone that were taken Feb. 15, 2019.
They aren't selfies. They are X-rays. One shows the hole a 40-caliber hollow-point bullet drilled through a kneecap. The other shows the same bullet lodged in the back of his leg, just below the skin.
"I charged $2 for people to touch it," he quipped Tuesday.
That opportunity is gone, along with the bullet that now is stored in evidence at the Aurora Police Department, part of the investigation into the deadly mass shooting at the Henry Pratt Co.
Cebulski was one of five Aurora police officers shot that day. The others were Marco Gomez, Adam Miller, Reynaldo Rivera and James Zegar. Miller and Rivera returned to full duty in November. Zegar has retired.
A 31-year veteran, Cebulski was one of the first to respond to the call at 1:24 p.m. He was shot while searching the second floor with officer Chris Weaver.
He heard and saw the gunman approach in a stairwell behind him, he said, but "I never saw the gun."
He estimates the killer fired six to eight shots at him. He and Weaver ended up barricaded in a room, where Weaver struggled to pull a tourniquet over Cebulski's size 13 extra-wide boots and later helped evacuate him.
"For me, talking about it seems to help," Cebulski said. "Everyone is different. Some people don't want to hear about it."
Gomez echoes that, even though he described himself as "not a very public" person. Talking about it helps him cope and shows people "we're real people."
"Our main job is to help people. ... This is what we want. This is what we do," Gomez said.
"Telling the story is quite OK with me."
The job today
Cebulski, 54, said he had contemplated retiring, maybe this year, and joked that younger officers have been asking him about it for the past five years. Wounded and lying on the floor in Pratt, he thought, "Is this a message? Am I supposed to be retiring now?"
While Cebulski is back at work, you likely won't see him in a patrol uniform again. It's not that he doesn't want to, but the knee injury prevents it.
"I have less flexibility. I can't run efficiently," he said. His ability to make lateral moves is compromised and he can't stand for very long. The bullet remained in his leg for several months because he developed a blood clot and had to get rid of it with blood thinners before doctors would do the surgery.
So now, in plainclothes, he works at headquarters, on data entry in the traffic division, and continues previous work registering sex offenders.
Gomez, 39, was shot in the right hip. But when he hit a plateau doing physical therapy, doctors discovered he also had torn the meniscus in his left knee. That required surgery and more therapy.
He is on light duty now but spends most of his days doing work-conditioning therapy. He expects to get the OK to resume his normal community policing duties in the next several weeks.
Cebulski said he thinks he was able to deal with being wounded because it was not the first time he was shot at. In the mid-1990s, he felt a shotgun blast pass just over his head while responding to a domestic case in which a man had taken people hostage.
"I could duck faster then," he said.
Then, as now, his wife, Jane, was his "sounding board." She worked 16 years as a police dispatcher and had several relatives who were police officers. As a result, she always wants to know what is going on with him and the job, he said. "She is more comfortable knowing."
"I tell my wife, 'It wasn't my first rodeo,'" Gomez said. He had been shot at on the job and while serving three tours of duty as a Marine in Iraq. "You don't ever get accustomed to it. It's not normal."
Gomez wasn't even supposed to be on duty at the time. He was the department's trainer in active shooter drills and had just left a meeting with officials at the Paramount Theater about having a drill there. In his 19 years on the force, he had heard a lot of dispatches for "shots fired" -- but never before had dispatchers spoken about hearing shots in the background of the calls.
"This is the real deal," he thought. "I knew we were going to be in the middle of it."
He was using a detective car that day, not a squad, so he did not have all his tactical gear with him. Including a bullet-resistant vest, and a rifle.
"But even if I was in a T-shirt and shorts, nothing was going to stop me from going into that building," Gomez said.