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'I knew he was trying to kill me,' wounded officer says

By Daniel Silliman

dsilliman@news-daily.com

The police officer had his hand on the gun, the armed robbery suspect had his hand on the same gun, and both of them were hanging on and yelling, "Let go!"

"We were in the woods fighting for a long time," said Clayton County Police Officer Matthew Whitton, recalling the struggle five days after it happened. "He wanted to kill me, but I was going to take him into custody, whatever it took."

Whitton suffered a gunshot to his left wrist, during the 2 a.m., fight in the Stockbridge woods, July 3. The bullet broke his bone, severed four tendons, severed an artery and damaged a lot of nerves.

Whitton said when he was taken to the hospital, he could only move two of the fingers on his hand. Doctors say the six-and-a-half year veteran of the police force is going to recover, though, and will eventually, with therapy, regain 100 percent use of his hand.

Whitton is now at home, taking pain medication and waiting for things to heal.

"I'm just lying here in pain," he said, speaking by phone from his Jonesboro home. "It has kind of a burn to it. I guess that's the nerve damage. It's going to be a long process."

As he waits for his hand to heal, Whitton said he's been thinking about the fight, that night in the dark, in the woods. "That was the most terrified I've ever been in my life," he said. "I knew it was up to me to get out of there alive, at that moment, because there wasn't nobody else to help me."

Marquet Sherman Donald, a 22-year-old from Hampton, has been arrested, and is charged with aggravated assault, armed robbery, kidnapping, motor vehicle theft, and felony obstruction.

According to police, Donald held up the drive-through Krystal restaurant, at 3562 Ga. Highway 138, at about 1:50 a.m. The Stockbridge restaurant was closed at the time, but an employee had left a back door open while dumping out mop water. Donald had been fired about a week before and allegedly slipped through the door, a mask over his face and a 9 mm gun in his hand.

The two employees on the closing shift were locked in a cooler, the masked man emptied the till and the safe, and later shot the store manager, 49-year-old Cheryl Alphabet, in the head. The bullet entered near the hairline on her left side, damaging her eyes and a slice of her brain, according to police.

Alphabet was transported to Atlanta Medical Center, where she was reportedly in critical, but stable condition, on Tuesday.

"They're keeping her alive," said department spokesman Greg Dickens. "Its one of those, 'Miracles of Modern Medicine' kind of things. She was hurt really bad."

Whitton said Alphabet's injuries are "the most senseless" part of the incident. "He didn't have to shoot her," the officer said. "That bothers me a lot ... She doesn't carry a gun to work and she doesn't expect it. You don't expect to take the trash out one night, and then a terrorist runs in the door. I hope she pulls through."

Donald allegedly left the Krystal with $1,000 in a white trash bag and ran into some nearby woods. Whitton, working that shift, answering the 911 call, said he followed Donald into the trees with a flashlight in his left hand and his .40-caliber Glock in his right.

Whitton ordered Donald to the ground and began to arrest him. Then the man jumped up, Whitton said, and grabbed the gun. "At the exact moment it happened," Whitton said, "I was shocked. Just for a second though ... There's a reality that any time you go out, anything can happen, and it can happen at any second, but there's no way you can prepare for what happened to me."

In the first few seconds of the struggle, as recounted by the police officer, the gun went off and the bullet smashed Whitton's wrist. He dropped the flashlight he'd been holding, dropped the gun, and realized he could only fight with one hand. Donald allegedly picked up the gun, but Whitton slapped it from his hand, snatched it and put it back in his holster. Donald then allegedly pulled it from the holster, pointed it at Whitton's face.

"It's amazing how many things can go through your mind," said Whitton. "I was thinking about a lot of things: All my family ran through my mind at that moment. Everyone I love. And I knew he was trying to kill me, because he had plenty of chances to get away, if he wanted to get away. I knew he had the gun and I had to get it away from him."

When the man pulled the trigger, though, nothing happened. In the struggle and the accidental firing, the gun had jammed, saving Whitton's life, according to him.

He said he feels like God was with him in those woods. He felt like a special force came and assisted him in the darkness. And, as he's convalescing, he said he has to think that whatever purposes God has for his life, they're not fulfilled yet.

Whitton said he hopes his encounter will be used in academy training. "Everybody that's old, that's a cop, has had a close call like that," he said. "Or more than one. And you learn it's the little things, the little things that might have been different, and if they'd been slightly different, you wouldn't be here. The main thing, though, is not giving up. You can't surrender. Stay focused and don't stop fighting."