Officer down: Lt. Steve Lanier

Looking back in 2001: Lt. Steve Lanier shot while serving arrest warrant
Lanier had been shot in the hand and in the neck. (Source: BCSO)
Lanier had been shot in the hand and in the neck. (Source: BCSO)

BRUNSWICK COUNTY, NC (WECT) - Every search warrant is risky but the one on October 5, 2001 in Winnabow was somewhat unusual for the Brunswick County Sheriff's Office.

Agents had already been warned by informants that the two men living at this house intended to fight back if law enforcement showed up. What's more, Agent Stephen Lanier knew both Paul Pelham and Atari Thomas - they had gone to high school together.

With the perimeter of the property secured, a team approached the door. No one answered but they could hear running around inside.

They rammed the door several times to make entry.

Thomas fled out a back window and started shooting at the deputies outside.

"It was like an old western movie - just glass flying," Lt. Tommy Tolley said. "He was tucking and rolling."

Thomas got away but Pelham was still inside.

Lanier was now inside and heading toward the back of the mobile home while the rest of the deputies went the other direction.

"As I turn about three feet in front of my face I see a silver revolver and the FLASH," said Lanier. "As soon as I stopped firing my gun I felt blood rush into my mouth. I couldn't feel the right side of my body. My whole body started shutting down."

Lanier had been shot in the hand and in the neck and was severely bleeding.

Unsure of where the person who shot him was, he rolled over and started crawling towards the voices of his fellow deputies.

"The best feeling I ever had was seeing Micky Smith's boots right in front of my face all of a sudden I realized, I'm NOT alone," Lanier recalled.

The agents returned fire and took down Pelham. He survived and is still in prison.

"We realized with every heartbeat that blood was coming through [Lanier's] neck," said Sheriff Ingram, who was the Lieutenant of the Drug Unit at the time.

Covered in blood and losing consciousness, Lanier could not walk on his own.

With his height and build, the other deputies could not carry him and had no choice but to drag Lanier out of the mobile home.

A long, thick, dark red trail of blood traced the path his body made to the van.

"Once they got him down to the van they didn't have enough strength to get him IN the van," said Ingram. "Steve was able to literally do a push-up and literally push himself into the van."

Without going into specifics, the men telling this story smiled when they remembered the "motivational words" Ingram used to convince Lanier to push himself up.

"Also give you a good chance to see what people are made of, that you work with," Ingram said.

"I saw the look in his face like, 'I'll see you tomorrow,'" Tolley remembered.

Lanier was taken from Winnabow to New Hanover Regional Medical Center. As the ambulance traveled into New Hanover County, officers blocked every intersection along the way to clear the path.

"In the first five seconds of it, I had every emotion that I had ever felt in my brain go through," Lanier explained. "I thought about the guys that were with me and my being a letdown. I felt ashamed because I got shot."

"There's a lot of people that would go through that and that type of injury and never get back in law enforcement and rightfully so," Ingram said. "I don't blame them. But he came back into law enforcement."

In Lanier's hospital room, there was a conversation with his wife as to whether or not he would continue.

With permanent nerve damage in his neck and hand, Lanier was back at his desk just 41 days later and today is in charge of the entire Investigations Division.

"The pouring out of support was just overwhelming," Lanier said. "I didn't have to go pay a power bill for six months. Somebody kept going to pay my power bill at the electric company. I still have no idea who that was."

In light of the number of officer shooting deaths this year, it's a particularly sensitive subject for these men given what they endured that night.

"It's infuriating to me with whats going on, people targeting law enforcement just to target them," said Lanier. "Because they're wearing a uniform and a badge and what they represent."

They say criticism over gun use in law enforcement has always existed, the only difference is today that criticism can be spread instantly over social media before any facts of the case are released.

In fact, the day after the shooting Pelham's family invited WECT to the mobile home for a tour of the grisly scene.

They were upset that Pelham had been shot even though he pulled the trigger first, nearly killing Lanier. They felt it was unnecessary and argued that all the blood was actually Paul's, not Lanier's from being dragged.

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