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A hero in recovery
The bullet that shattered Cpl. Paul Phillips' arm rocked law enforcement across Gwinnett. Three months later, his spirit is stronger than ever ...

SUGAR HILL - The wound that Cpl. Paul Phillips carries is no ordinary bullet hole. Not even close. It's a red-pink ribbon of scar tissue that winds around his bony left elbow and atrophied forearm, thick and bisected in places like football stitching, gnarled elsewhere like wadded gum.

The wound is not a badge of honor. He won't point to it as evidence of bravery. The reason is that the wound still represents debilitation, a tripwire between the hard-knock but successful life that was and the normalcy that might possibly be.

The wound has transformed Phillips from a go-getter cop to a mostly homebound man reliant on rehab gadgets. It will never be easily concealed. He lives now to overcome the wound, to be able to hold his infant son and lift him with both hands, to purge what little anger he'll admit to. At least, he says, he's right-handed.

Phillips, 37, a traffic fatality investigator, has worked every beat the Fulton County Police Department assigns. But, as police tell it, Phillips is not in this predicament because of some gun-wielding gangster or violent fugitive. He endures this because a fellow sworn officer of the law - former Duluth Police Department Officer Jay Dailey - allegedly shot Phillips in a bizarre, drunken rage Feb. 1.

That afternoon, Phillips came to the aid of a motorist whom Dailey waved down and attacked, and then Dailey opened fire on his fully uniformed brethren, police have said. The motorist escaped serious injury.

"(Phillips has) a very strong moral compass," said Marc Cohen, a Sugar Hill city councilman and longtime friend. "He does the right thing. He goes out of his way."

But Phillips' ability to do the right thing - or to further the law enforcement career he's established since moving to Georgia to patrol the Olympics in 1996 - is hampered at the moment.

When he's not in Sandy Springs enduring excruciating bouts of physical therapy that drain him, Phillips rests at his Sugar Hill home, his arm on a bank of pillows, his fingers active to move the blood. Ironically, the stately two-story is perched on a bluff that practically overlooks the shooting scene where - three months ago this week - he lay bleeding to near death.

Phillips has traded police work for this: lounging days among piles of toys, a television and his huge cat. He was allowed injury leave with 100 percent pay, but the odd jobs he used to work, like many police officers, are an impossibility, requiring him to lean on donations from his church, Sugarloaf United Methodist.

His new job is to recover. Simple as that. Honor and adrenaline are scarce in this comfy living room. Yet he projects a no-pain, no-gain optimism usually underscored by a big, hearty laugh - a booming instrument befitting a talk show host. On this day he wears blue jeans, a Hawaiian shirt and short-cropped black hair. His wedding ring dangles around a chain on his neck, no longer an accouterment of his swollen finger.

When the simplicity of this life nags at Phillips, he looks toward his fireplace. There he sees a plump bouquet of get-well cards, many with Valentine's Day decor scribbled in crayon. The cards are a reminder that he is appreciated. He has too many now to pin them up at once. But the cards are valuable only as ornaments, not as true messages, because the man they honor cannot read them without crying. And he refuses to cry.

"You need to know how much we were all grieved to hear the news of your recent injury," writes Anne Pryor of Bridgeway Christian Academy in Alpharetta. Phillips was on his way home from that school - after working a traffic detail on his day off, making ends meet - when his alleged confrontation with Dailey occurred.

"Even though you were 'off duty,' we were moved by your act of heroism," Pryor continued. "In our home, your name and 'hero' are one in the same."

Beside the cards there's a plaque from the Sugar Hill City Council - "A Proclamation to Recognize the Heroism of Paul Phillips, March 10, 2008."

But Phillips dismisses the notion of heroism. His daily barometer, as a police officer, was more humble: Have I done what I swore to do? Limelight, he says, has no place on Feb. 1, 2008.

It started like this: In the morning, he got uniformed up. He worked the half-hour traffic detail in Alpharetta. Shift over, his wife called and asked him to stop home and grab something. To this day, he can't recall what the something was. His plans for the rest of Feb. 1 were to tinker around the house, take a nap, enjoy the solitude of a free-time Friday, prepare for the kids.

"I never did make it home," he says, then laughs.

Road to recovery

The evening of Feb. 1 was a whirling nightmare of surgery and confusion.

The lone bullet had entered behind Phillips' left bicep muscle (his arm was raised), pivoted into an artery, plowed through his elbow, skimming his ulna and shattering his radius, blowing out three inches of the bone spanned now by an implanted bridge. Bullets bounce like that all the time, he says. He's seen worse in southside Atlanta - a leg-shot ricocheting to a man's heart.

Phillips underwent a seven-hour procedure Feb. 1 to dam the bleeding; a subsequent surgery irrigated his arm of bullet and bone fragments, sealed potential leaks in the artery, scarred him heavily.

He recalls this while seated in his modern kitchen. Beside him are the telltale markings of fatherhood: a bowl of Cheerios, school drawings prepared by his 5-year-old daughter. But there's also a carbon copy of instructions from Gwinnett Medical Center. The wound is never far away.

Phillips spent 13 days in GMC. He left on Valentine's Day - against the advice of his armed guard - to escort his wife to the Crossroads Grille in Suwanee for dinner, a favorite spot of theirs, two days out from his last surgery. His wife, Stephanie, a district program manager for the East Metro Health District, deserved a nice dinner, having endured so much, he says. His last surgery came on the same day of Dailey's probable cause hearing.

"I know I couldn't have gone (to the hearing)," he said, "but I would have liked to have been conscious."

He credits GMC trauma-team doctors with putting his arm back together. He sees a vascular surgeon occasionally, in addition to the daily trips to his "PTs" (physical therapists) in Sandy Springs. The next step is a bone graft later this month. "I've still got my hand," he says, observing his purple-tinged fingers. "I doesn't work, but I've still got it."

After surgery, his arm was locked in a 90-degree angle, requiring that he wear a "straightener" eight hours per day. One painful degree at a time, his arm was flexible again.

At the time of this interview, Phillips wears a radial nerve palsy splint, a steely contraption with strings and straps that keeps his nerves firing, his fingers active like marionettes.

Next he'll wear a supination splint. Its purpose is to force his left arm to twist his hand, palm up, which is an impossibility at the moment. Each apparatus is bulky. Sleep is difficult.

The prognosis?

"They say I'm fixable. Probably 95 percent of (motion) is really, honestly attainable," he says. "I'm not one that gives up very easily. So I'm shooting for the 100 percent."

He looks to the fireplace.

"People are alive because I was there. Even if I don't work on the street again, I can tell my kids when they're older ... daddy's last act was saving somebody's life.

"I live my oath of office. I swore, without regard to my well-being, I would protect life and property. I did exactly what I swore to do. I am at peace with my actions."

Long legal process

Dailey, 42, the alleged attacker, was served his termination papers by Duluth police in the Gwinnett County Jail on Feb. 4. He's charged with four counts of aggravated assault - the equivalent to attempted murder in Georgia - but the charges against him could thicken when his case goes before a Gwinnett grand jury, District Attorney Danny Porter said this week.

"I'll know next week when the case will be presented" to the Grand Jury, Porter said. "I'm sure there will be more than just the four charges."

Dailey - who was shot in the hand during the fracas - was released from the hospital Feb. 2. Duluth police spokesman Maj. Don Woodruff has said the five-year veteran showed no warning signs that he might snap, before he reportedly attacked the motorist, Phillips and two bystanders.

"There were no telltale signs," Woodruff said in February. "As far as we knew, the man had no problems."

Dailey, also a Sugar Hill resident, lived a stone's throw from Phillips' home in The Glen at Level Creek, across the road where the men reportedly shot each other. Phillips didn't know him, nor does he remember ever seeing him. He has not forgiven Dailey, but he holds no judgment against him. Confident in the prosecutorial system and the eventual judgment, Phillips bundles his anger with as much patience as God will allow, he says.

"At times I am angry," he says, "but more sad. I'm frustrated. Moss don't grow underneath me. I won't sit still. I won't allow myself to delve into anger. I did what needed to be done to protect life. And that is a gift."

Frantic scene

Phillips understandably balks at discussing details of the shooting on record. His radio call for help fills the void, to a degree. The situation on Feb. 1 was this:

About 1 p.m., Phillips is sitting in the driver's seat of his patrol car. He's on the emergency radio, bleeding in his lap, unable to drive, unable to employ his handcuffs. But his pleas for help, at the outset, are directed not to Gwinnett but to Fulton County dispatchers. He's frustrated. He accidentally holds the mic facing away from him. At this point, Phillips says, the suspect is outside his patrol car, face-down at gunpoint, covered.

His voice in the dispatch call, frantic and winded, cracks louder: "Signal 63 ... I've been shot ... I've been shot ... I'm bleeding bad from the arm." Long pauses. Each time Phillips transmits, he's forced to lay his gun in his lap, dismantling his guard, unable to use both hands. In five minutes, the sirens of the first Gwinnett police car are audible.

"It was about as scared as I've ever been in my life," he said. "And it wasn't fear specifically for me. It was for what my family might have to go through. I thought I might die."

Cohen, the Sugar Hill city councilman, speaks of Phillips' resolve as the reason he overcame the chaos.

"He didn't hesitate," Cohen says. "All he had to do was drive a couple more blocks and he would have been home.

"But he, as a law enforcement officer, is never off duty."