FAIRMONT, Minn. (WCCO) — For Officer Chad Sanow, there is life before Oct. 26, 2010 and then there is life after.
“Is it safe to say that was the longest night of your life?” asked WCCO’s John Lauritsen.
“Absolutely, without a doubt,” said Chad’s wife, Stacie Sanow.
The night began like any other. Chad had dinner with his wife Stacie and their children, and then got into his squad car to patrol the city of Fairmont.
As he leaves for work, what Chad didn’t know was that he was being set up. He has been lured to a home on Webster Street and hiding behind the flames of a house fire was someone waiting to end his life. He stopped his squad car and got out, leaving his K-9 behind.
“I was down like this trying to peer into the garage and as soon as I came up, because I was looking, I heard a ‘KABOOM!’ and I got hit. The first round hit me in the chest,” Chad said.
The dash cam inside his squad car captured the sound of the shot and Chad’s screams.
Six months later, step-by-step, Chad relives the thoughts of a man who has been shot in the chest with a 12-gauge shotgun. He didn’t know how bad he was hurt and didn’t know the location of his attacker. A second shot hit him in the hip, knocking out his radio.
“As I’m in the air, it spun me around and I landed. And then I started crawling,” said Chad.
The gunman fired again and hit a neighbor in the stomach. The Fairmont fire chief, who had just arrived, helped the neighbor take cover. Chad then crouched next to a house, with his gun drawn, trying to protect the chief and the neighbor.
“I’m still in the fight even though I can’t hardly breathe. I can feel the slug in my chest and the pain was just unbelievable,” recalled Chad.
He then made eye contact with the fire chief who was hiding behind his truck with the neighbor.
“Now the emotions are hitting … he’s looking and he’s staring at me. I’m yelling ‘I’m hit! I’m hit!’ I’m trying to yell as loud as I can but it is really hard to breathe,” Chad said.
By now, 911 calls were flooding in and Chad’s wife, Stacie, who just minutes before had kissed her husband goodbye, received a call from a friend who told her Chad was in trouble.
“Whatever you’re telling me can’t be true because, seriously, he’s probably three blocks from the house. He was just here,” Stacie recalled telling her friend.
Stacie called Chad’s cell phone and in the chaos, he answered.
“All he said was, ‘I’ll call you back.’ And I could tell he was struggling to breathe. And I’m like, ‘Chad?’ And goes, ‘I’ll call back,'” said Stacie.
“I hung up without telling her I love her. It sucked. I’m in a gunfight. I knew I shouldn’t have answered it, but I didn’t know how bad the injuries were. I answered it because I wanted to talk to her because what if I didn’t make it from here? I wanted to hear her voice,” said Chad.
His bulletproof vest did its job that night, saving his life. The gunshot was powerful enough to leave deep, purple bruises on his chest but no internal injuries.
As paramedics rushed him to the hospital, police closed in on the man who started it all — a man who’d been in trouble before.
Michael Mathwig designed the ambush, purposely setting his house on fire and then waiting in the dark. He was armed with a 12-gauge shotgun and had another gun in his backyard, loaded and ready. It would never be fired.
Mathwig eventually shot himself. Near his body, police found two Bibles. One was open to Psalm 51 and begins, “Have mercy on me, Oh God.”
Since he has returned to work, Chad has driven by Mathwig’s house dozens of times. His feelings toward it have always been indifferent, until one day his 10-year-old son asked to see the house where his dad was shot.
“After we got done, he gave me a hug and said ‘Dad, you’re a good cop,'” recalled a teary-eyed Chad.
Chad’s son isn’t the only one who feels that way. Cards from his family and officers across the country rolled in, many saying he inspired them to start wearing a vest.
The “I love yous” are different now for the Sanows. His wife calls it the new normal.
“There’s a little bit more appreciation to every comment and every little touch and every hug to the kids. It has a deeper seeded feeling behind it,” said Stacie.
The same holds true with Chad’s other family: law enforcement.
“This event, while incredibly awesome and important, does not define him. He is an amazing officer. He was before this, he was through this and he still is today,” said Fairmont Police Lt. Del Ellis.
It’s all part of the new normal. The reminders are still there: the vest that saved his life and the slug that almost took it.
“I wear my vest for my family and for me. Because every night I want to be able to tuck my kids into bed. I want to share that meal at supper. I want to watch my kids get married,” said Chad.
The neighbor who was shot, Matthew Van Watermulen, also made a full recovery.
Chad received a new vest last fall and returned to work just three weeks after being shot. He plans on lobbying at the Capitol to make it a requirement for all Minnesota officers to wear bulletproof vests.
Chad has been a police officer for 15 years and has worked narcotics much of his career. In 2005, he received an award from the state of Minnesota for arresting 54 people.