“I am going to kill you, cop! Do you hear me? “ Almost every officer has heard these chilling words when arresting a violent felon. For retired Deputy Jerry Henderson, Jr., these words would haunt him the rest of his life.
Jerry Henderson dreamed of being a police officer ever since he was a child. He grew up watching television programs, such as “Adam 12” and “Dragnet”. He remembers playing “cops and robbers” with his friends. “I always got to be the good guy”, he said with a chuckle.
Henderson joined the Pensacola, Florida Police Department as a cadet in 1981. He attended Basic Recruit Training, and he became a fully certified officer in 1983. For Henderson, it was more than a profession; it was a unique calling. “I absolutely loved it. I was doing exactly what I was meant to do: helping others, and making Pensacola a safer place,” he said.
In October, 1984, he arrested a violent felon, Frank Edward Perricola, III, on charges of carrying a concealed firearm, battery on a law enforcement officer, and armed trespassing. According to Henderson, Perricola told the responding officers that he knew where they lived, and threatened to kill each of them.
Perricola tried to carry out his death threat on December 14, 1984. He rented a vehicle and backed into the parking lot, waiting for Henderson to from his shift. As Henderson exited his vehicle, Perricola opened fire with a 9 mm Uzi. The first round struck Henderson in the back, paralyzing him. Perricola continued to advance on Henderson. In total, Perricola fired nine. In addition to being struck in the back, Henderson also suffered wounds to his right arm and both legs. Perricola fled the scene and left Henderson for dead. Perricola was later apprehended and convicted on numerous charges. He is imprisoned for life.
Fortunately, Henderson always carried his portable radio with him and was able to call for help. A nearby ambulance heard the call and rushed to the scene. Henderson had no blood pressure, nearly bled out, but never lost consciousness.
The bullets that struck Henderson left him paralyzed from the waist down. He spent six months in a rehabilitation facility and has endured five major spinal procedures. “The first year, I suffered debilitating depression. I have lived in chronic pain for the past 25 years,” he said. “But with prayer, and the support of my family, my community, and the Pensacola Police Department, I pulled through.”
“There were days when I would be feeling sorry for myself, because I couldn’t use my legs,” he said. “I seriously contemplated taking own life a number of times. Then I met Tim Lee, a Marine who served in the Viet Nam War and lost both legs when he stepped on a land mine. We went fishing together, and he helped me to put things in perspective.”
One year after the incident, Henderson triumphantly returned to work part time in the radio room. “The goal of returning to work is what motivated me through the recovery process,” he said. “I was determined that Perricola would not take my career away from me.” He then served as a Public Information Officer (PIO), recruiter, and trainer. In 2000, he transferred to Santa Rosa Sheriff’s Office and served as their PIO. He retired in 2005, due to health issues.
Henderson has been received many commendations during his career. He was inducted in the Policeman’s Hall of Fame in 1985, and he was awarded the Bronze Cross and the Blue Star (the equivalent of a Purple Heart). He was voted Handicapped Person of the Year in 1987.
Though he is retired, Henderson has continued to make a difference in the lives of others. Inspired by those who have prayed for him throughout his ordeal, Henderson started a prayer ministry for law enforcement called Gulf Coast Adopt a Cop. In addition, he has served as a public speaker, sharing his message of hope and inspiration. He has also helped to organize the annual Law Enforcement Recognition Sunday at Marcus Pointe Baptist Church in Pensacola, FL. “It is scheduled for sometime in May,’ he said. “Everyone is invited to attend.”
Henderson concluded with some words of wisdom. First, he said, “Be thankful for your blessings. Don’t focus on yourself, your own pain, and your own problems. I felt sorry for myself because I couldn’t use my legs. Then I went to Craig Hospital in Breckinridge, Colorado, and I saw individuals who are on ventilators and could not move anything but their eyes. I felt humbled, because can still feed myself, hug my kids, hunt, fish, and do the things I enjoy. After spending time with these people, I realize that I have NO problems at all.”
Henderson also advises, “Don’t isolate your family and your friends. Keep them close, stay connected, and let them know how much you appreciate them.”
Finally, he said, “Don’t let anyone steal your joy. Life is short, so make every minute of it. Perricola tried to kill me, but he did not ruin my life. I am blessed simply to be alive. I have experienced more joy in my life. I became a police officer so that I could help others. I believe that I have been able to help more people by sharing my story that I could have had this not happened to me. I am still doing exactly what I was meant to do, and doing it more effectively.”
With his courage, determination, and perseverance, Henderson truly a hero to his family, his community, and to all the members of The Thin Blue Line.