Scared to death

Thinking Out Loud

Posted: Sunday, June 15, 2003

The noise was indistinct. I awakened in response - to what? Nothing as recognizable as a clap of thunder, a ringing phone or a crying child. It was 3 or 4 a.m. on a Sunday in 1976, if memory serves. What is certain is within seconds, I experienced fright unparalleled to that point in my 28 years.

Thinking Out Loud

Steve Reed is managing editor of the Empire. He can be reached at

In the late fall-early winter darkness, someone was in my dormant flower bed, trying to jimmy the window of the bedroom where my wife and I suddenly were wide awake and terror-stricken.

The setting was a quiet older neighborhood of a close-in suburb of one of the nation's 10 largest cities. We locked our doors every night and each time we left for a walk around the block. Closer to the urban center lived friends who heard gunfire on a nightly basis. We never heard gunfire, but assaults, robberies, burglaries, rapes, child-snatching and high-speed chases by police of thieves and drunken drivers were not alien to our suburban world.

Still, you think crime will visit somebody else's bedroom window.

My heart rate accelerated and I wished for time, distance, weapons of self-protection, courage, cops and my wife's safety.

Some people probably know instinctively what to do. I was mentally conflicted in the terror of the certainty that I was seconds away from a confrontation with one or two intruders - most likely armed and possibly vicious.

I was scared to death and desperate to do something that brought relief and safety.

In hindsight, the best course of action probably would have been to turn on as many lights as we could as quickly as possible while yelling, "the cops are on their way." In the darkness, however, I reached for the phone and called the operator - I don't think 911 was in place then but if so, I'm pretty sure I dialed 0 nevertheless. I whispered instructions to connect me with the suburban police department. I whispered to the dispatcher that someone was trying to break into my house. She asked for my address, repeated it back to me and said officers were on the way.

We heard the gate of our wooden fence open. The bad guy/s were in the backyard.

I think I gave the phone to my wife, went through the still-dark house, and flipped on an exterior light because I couldn't endure another second of the progressive, unchallenged advance of the burglar-thug-rapist/s.

I don't recall seeing anyone when the light came on, but a startled male voice said something urgent of tone, the gate crashed open and the bad guy/s took off.

It was easy to disappear into the darkness. One of the burglars did. The other trailed behind as the cops arrived.

The laggard was a teenage girl, who confessed herself a willing partner in what she and her young male companion had intended to be a sexual rendezvous in a house they believed to be vacant because of the "For Sale" sign posted in our front yard.

The police took her home, as I recall, assuring us the attempted intrusion had been relatively benign.

I was simultaneously drained and outraged that these two teens had caused us such a scare. Obviously, they had other things on their minds. Obviously, I had no way of knowing. I realized if I had had a handgun in the nightstand, I would have reached for it in response to the attempts to jimmy the window. In my terror, I might have fired. In my heart, I believed such action would have been justified. But I thanked God such a sequence had not occurred.

I recalled that experience Friday when I read the article explaining how the Rev. Phillip Mielke fatally shot burglars Christopher Palmer, 31, and Francis Jones, 23, after they jimmied open a door, slipped inside his Big Lake church, and awakened him in the process.

Mielke told troopers the burglars ran when they realized someone was in the building. He said he yelled for them to stop but they did not. He said he fired as they approached and again, through a window, as they fled outside. He fired until his gun was empty. He told the troopers he had been "scared to death."

Mielke was indicted Thursday on manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide charges. The grand jurors concluded he overreacted - with fatal results. A petit jury soon will sit in further judgment.

I wouldn't want to trade places with Mielke or with the jury of his peers.

Steve Reed is managing editor of the Empire. He can be reached at

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