A trembling in the universe

Struggling to make sense of the unexplainable tragedy in Georgetown, Ind. A firsthand account by SCOTT ROBINSON


Frank Denzinger: Photo Courtesy of Floyd County Sheriff’s Department  Frank Denzinger was a corrections officer before becoming a sheriff’s deputy in Floyd County, Ind.

Frank Denzinger: Photo Courtesy of Floyd County Sheriff’s Department Frank Denzinger was a corrections officer before becoming a sheriff’s deputy in Floyd County, Ind.

It is just past suppertime in Georgetown on a warm Monday evening, as I pull off Corydon Ridge Road, intent on discussing summer study program assignments with my almost-teenage son. He is in a writer’s workshop this month, and being a writer, I have a vested interest. Plus, I am his dad, and this is one of the things dads do.

Shortly after I finish talking to my boy, I hear the shots. I pay it little mind: This neighborhood is nestled in the woods. Those kinds of sounds are not uncommon. Not at all. Sporting rifles. Firecrackers. I do not think twice.
Outside, across the street, a neighbor calls out. “Did you hear that? Did you hear those shots?” He is alarmed. A minute or two have passed. It finally occurs to me that something might actually be wrong.

I run down along the tree line and through the backyard of the nearest neighbor, on Rachel Court. He is pulling his pickup around behind his garage. Beyond him, two women huddle, frantic, behind another vehicle in his driveway.

“What’s going on?” I ask.
“Tyler just killed a cop, and shot another one,” he says.
Farther out in the neighborhood, I see two police vehicles in the driveway of the Dumstorf home. I cannot see anything else. My neighbor says something else, something about pot, but all I hear is that somebody’s got a gun, and that someone is dead.

He is about to high-tail it out of there with his family, and I turn and run for my kids. I send them to a remote room in the house and tell them to lock themselves in and promise to remain quiet, their mom looking out for them.

I run through the house and lock every door. I look out every window — I don’t really know why. Tyler? No, something is not right. Maybe I didn’t hear correctly. I don’t know Tyler well; he and his friends play in the woods behind all the houses out here, and my son has gone sledding with him, but … no, this cannot be right.
“Tyler just killed a cop, and shot another one … “

The Dumstorf residence: Photo by GEOFF OLIVER BUGBEE  The Dumstorf residence, above, is located in a tidy rural subdivision in Georgetown, Ind., about 15 miles west of Louisville.

The Dumstorf residence: Photo by GEOFF OLIVER BUGBEE The Dumstorf residence, above, is located in a tidy rural subdivision in Georgetown, Ind., about 15 miles west of Louisville.

My kids are secure for the moment. I leave the house and go back down to the neighbor’s yard. He is long gone, and I don’t see or hear the two women. Across the street from the Dumstorf house, there is now another police vehicle with an officer behind it. I start to approach, to get an idea of what is going on. This, of course, is really not the most intelligent move; the policeman sees me and orders me, in no uncertain terms, to get far, far away from here. Fast.

I run back up to the main road, and for the first time, I wonder: “… killed a cop? With what? How?’ I want to follow the neighbor’s lead, to get everybody out of here. I look down the road at the entrance to the neighborhood. Three additional patrol cars are clustered there, lights flashing. From both directions, more approach.

It dawns on me. We are not going anywhere …
6:17 p.m. — A 911 call is received from the Dumstorf household, requesting assistance in a domestic dispute. The dispute is between Gail Dumstorf and her son Tyler, over his misdemeanor marijuana charge.
6:28 p.m. — Floyd County Sheriff’s deputies White and Denzinger arrive at the Dumstorf residence, 6004 Rachel Court, Georgetown.
6:31 p.m. — Deputy White, wounded by a round fired by Tyler Dumstorf, calls for help; Deputy Denzinger is also wounded.
6:34 p.m. — Tyler Dumstorf makes his final MySpace post: “I’ve just killed two cops. Goodbye.”

I need to check on the kids. It occurs to me that I was more than a little urgent before, and so I try to calm things a bit. “We’re just being cautious,” I tell them, without offering details. My concern has been to keep everyone away from windows — the Dumstorf home is only a few dozen yards away. I look out of the other side of the house, and see two officers wearing bulletproof vests. Weapons drawn, they make their way along the path I just ran.


Tyler Dumstorf

Tyler Dumstorf

In what seems like no time at all, Corydon Ridge Road is choked with emergency vehicles. Not just squad cars but medical vehicles and tactical vehicles and flashing lights of just about every kind. I feel simultaneously relieved and more concerned — does it take this many officers to secure a single house?
I turn on a television and see one of several early bulletins. Two Floyd County sheriff’s deputies have been shot in Georgetown, Ind., on a domestic disturbance call. There is little else.

Shortly thereafter, two officers come back up along the tree line, escorting the two women I saw when I first went down to Rachel Court:  Tyler Dumstorf’s mother, Gail, and his aunt, Shari Fox. His little brother Nolan is not with them. (Later, I learn that six-year-old Nolan was playing with the neighbor’s son, and that the neighbor whisked both boys to safety.) I hear one of the officers speak into his radio: “We’re bringing the family out … ” I call out to him, to ask if everything is OK now. He firmly instructs me to remain indoors.

The TV now has the names of the deputies: Frank Denzinger and Joel White. Both are seriously injured and have been evacuated for medical care. The neighbor’s assertion that one of them is dead seems premature. The shooting suspect, sure enough, is Tyler Dumstorf, a 15-year-old neighborhood boy who has played in the backyard with my son. On top of this, the news says the weapon used was a “high-powered rifle.”
No … not Tyler. Surely not Tyler …
… and the news says police do not have the suspect in custody.

The woods behind these homes extend all the way to State Road 62, and Tyler and other neighborhood kids, being big fans of Paintball, have spent countless hours there. It occurs to me that there was a window of time, several minutes, between the initial shots and the arrival of more officers. Omigod, I think. They aren’t sure where he is.

Tyler knows those woods inside out. If he is in there with a high-powered rifle  … suddenly the magnitude of the law enforcement response makes complete sense.

The news bulletins break in on all of the local stations now, with more detail. Tyler Dumstorf is clearly identified as the suspect, and the stations show an old picture of him — at my son’s age! The police remain vague about “suspect not in custody”; they do not come right out and say he may have escaped into the woods that cover dozens of acres along the southwest border of the neighborhood.

Then I see several officers in full body armor, carrying assault rifles and marching across the driveway, through the backyard and into the woods. It is clear this is exactly what they fear.

the woods: Photo by GEOFF OLIVER BUGBEE  Police initially feared Tyler Dumstorf had fled into the woods near his house, an area he knew well.

the woods: Photo by GEOFF OLIVER BUGBEE Police initially feared Tyler Dumstorf had fled into the woods near his house, an area he knew well.

I suddenly feel a sense of dread greater than anything I’ve ever felt in my life. We are in real danger here.
The word “manhunt” appears on television, and that seems wrong.
This is all crazy. Tyler has been in this very backyard, with my boy, with the other kids, sledding down the hill in the snow. But those images clash like grinding gears with what I see around me now. The city, county and state police, the helicopters, the flashing lights, the men with guns, uncountable at this point. This is a neighborhood under siege.

7:45 p.m. — Though it will not be announced until later in the evening, Deputy Frank Denzinger is pronounced dead at University Hospital.

By now I can no longer hide from my kids the seriousness of what is going on all around them. Their mom has turned on a TV, and on it they see what is actually happening just outside. So much for remaining calm. The news says the two injured officers have gone to University Hospital in Louisville, one by air, one by ambulance. No official word yet on their fate.

In the only act of good timing I manage all evening, I look out the back door and call out to an officer as he and others escort another family along the tree line behind Rachel Court. Yes, he says there is still danger. Then he orders everyone in the house to join the evacuation.

I muster everyone and herd them out the front door into the waiting arms of police escort. Thus begins the long trek behind a seemingly infinite string of police vehicles, stretching east along Corydon Ridge Road and up the hill separating the neighborhood from Edwardsville Park. We are among the last evacuated; in all, 25 families have been brought out. The neighborhood has 36 houses.

My youngest rides on my shoulders for the quarter-mile trek. We distract ourselves by sounding out the spelling of words on road signs during a breather at the entrance to Irongate, the neighborhood across the road. Edwardsville Park, just beyond, looks like something out of a James Cameron movie: I thought I had seen lots of flashing lights earlier, but that was mere prelude. The park has turned into the command center for this operation, with emergency facilities, medical care, support for participating officers, everything imaginable. The volleyball court is a landing area for helicopters, several of which orbit overhead. Despite this visual chaos, a professional calm pervades everything.

We are safe.
Salvation Army and Red Cross volunteers provide water and snacks for the kids. I see several neighbors and we exchange information. The sun starts to go down, which only adds to the sense of dread brought on by too many flashing lights.

One of the neighbors, the mother of a boy on my son’s Little League team years ago, shares my astonishment that Tyler Dumstorf, a boy we have known for years, could be at the center of all this. The most she can say is that over the past year, Tyler has been less involved with the other kids in the neighborhood than before.
Welcome as the safety of the park and the water and refreshments are, I want my kids out of here. I arrange a police escort to the firehouse at the head of Corydon Ridge Road and call family members to meet them there to keep them in town for the night.

I speak to a police officer about the fate of deputies White and Denzinger. He gives a vague summary. As he speaks of Denzinger, his voice pauses and hesitates.
Dear God, he knows more than he is allowed to say.

My neighbor’s assessment from earlier is right. The news has said Denzinger was a corrections officer before he joined the sheriff’s office. My brother was once a corrections officer. For the first time, I fight back tears.
Darkness falls at the fire station, which is now an evacuation center. The men there make everyone comfortable, with water, soft drinks and snacks. Somebody brings in hamburgers. Fast food never tasted so good.

More details emerge on the news. The weapon was a vintage World War II M1. The police say, “We think we have the suspect surrounded.”  The reports show a more current picture of Tyler.

One of my family members arrives, but before the kids get into the car back to town, my son breaks down. He sobs, and I walk him away from the crowd. He spills out memories of Tyler. I hold him until his sobbing subsides, and when he pulls himself together, he departs for town. I stay behind.

WHAS-TV reporter Chuck Olmstead has noticed us, and we briefly discuss the situation. I take the opportunity to say of Tyler Dumstorf — because somebody needs to — “This is not a bad kid.”

A haunting image is broadcast on TV, a slow procession of police vehicles from University Hospital. There is no official word yet, but it can only mean one thing.

The standoff on Rachel Court is still under way when Frank Denzinger’s death is finally made public, though there has been only silence for a very long time. Shortly after midnight comes an announcement that police will provide an official update. It is delayed, however, until nearly 2:30 a.m.

During the update, we learn that it is over now, almost eight hours after the first call to police. Two hours earlier, a robot borrowed from Fayette County  (Ky.) police had been sent into the Dumstorf home. It found Tyler’s body there. He had taken his own life.
I break down.

12:30 a.m. — A robot on loan from the Lexington-Fayette County police is sent into the Dumstorf home, and determines that Tyler Dumstorf is in the house and is dead.
2:30 a.m. — Tyler Dumstorf’s death is publicly announced.

In the wake of a tragedy so stunning, when such violence emerges from so young a source, it is natural to wonder. Who was Tyler Dumstorf, and why and how could he do such a terrible thing?

As to who he was, the media and the Internet have answered with accounts from school friends and MySpace postings: Tyler Dumstorf was bright, personable, well-liked. A bit quiet at times, he loved classic rock and had many, many friends. If his school pictures conveyed a typical young teen, the testimony of his friends only underscores it. He was who he appeared to be.

But while the trauma pervading Southern Indiana has run deep this week, with the specter of Deputy Frank Denzinger’s death and Deputy Joel White’s serious injuries cast far and wide, the trauma in the neighborhood runs deeper still. Tyler Dumstorf was no school photo on TV, and much more than a handful of MySpace posts: He was a boy growing up, a childhood in progress. Neighborhoods frame childhood like nothing else.

Tyler was a collage of Paintball games and shooting hoops and kick-ball in the backyard. He befriended other kids. He laughed easily. This is a quiet neighborhood, an easy, peaceful place where everyone gets along and kids run the streets, laughing and skinning their knees and growing up happy. Tyler Dumstorf was no brooding loner, no dark, temperamental mystery. He was a boy like all boys his age, and he was part of this place.
As to why he would do such a terrible thing, speculation flows freely all around. What about the pot? His infraction was minor; certainly not trivial but nothing of this magnitude. It is easy to criticize the family, to whisper about who shares the blame, easy to point to the presence of that rifle in the house and shake one’s head, as many are doing.

Yet, ironically, that vintage rifle — “mostly a showpiece,” in the words of Floyd County Prosecutor Keith Henderson — was part of James Dumstorf’s effort to bond with his son, say neighbors, one of whom belongs to the same gun club. James wanted an activity the two could share, a father-son tradition of the South that is centuries old.

It is easy to criticize Gail Dumstorf from afar, but it is just as plausible to suggest she did everything right. Faced with a teen who had crossed the line with marijuana, she held him accountable. When he pushed back, she called him on it. When he got out of control, she called for help. In the same circumstances, thousands of mothers might have done (and many often do) the very same things.

“As we look at this 15-year-old, we don’t see the enemy here,” Henderson said.
There is no single answer. Many have looked to Tyler’s MySpace page for some clue, but that page shows a typical teen, and a recent accumulation of posts expressing love, friendship and support. Henderson, in a subsequent press conference, urged parents to be aware of their children’s activities on the Internet, and to watch for signs. “It’s important for us to know what our children are doing,” he said. He is right, of course; good advice, but it takes us no closer to what happened that Monday night.

I spoke with a friend two days after the tragedy, a friend of uncommon insight and maturity. I needed to make sense of things, for myself and for my son’s sake. He suggested that what had gone wrong with Tyler had been a failure of empathy — a moment when he experienced a cutting-off of his sense of the humanity of someone else, a loss of compassion and the universal sense of common bond — and that this loss enabled Tyler’s terrible act. That seems right, and it is another step toward understanding. He also pointed out that we live in a culture that provides so many freedoms for young people that it is all but impossible for a parent to cover everything. That, too, seems right.

Knowing what I know now about those first few minutes on that Monday evening, “hero” seems inadequate to describe the actions of deputies Joel White and Frank Denzinger. Attacked without warning, taken down between one heartbeat and the next, Denzinger pushed Shari Fox, Tyler’s aunt, to safety; White managed to return fire, to protect his partner and the two civilians, and to call for help after being shot in the back. A neighbor called out, offering to help —– White waved him off, letting him know help was on the way. “Hero” is too small a word.
Floyd County now has several homemade signs, edge-of-the-road marquees expressing thoughts and prayers for the Denzinger and White families. It is a beautiful, healing sentiment. And yet there is a name missing from those marquees. The name “Dumstorf” evokes myriad emotions right now. That omission seems petty, even hateful.  

“People had a lot of anger, and they don’t know where to put it,” another person told me, “and so they put it on those closest.” It is not just the signs; there has been a lot of talk in the community this past week, and a lot of it is negative, angry, unkind. (Despite media reports to the contrary, the neighborhood consensus is that police were called to the Dumstorf home only once previously.)

Tonya Ellis, owner of The Jukebox restaurant at nearby Highlander Point, told WDRB-TV that three families are hurting now, not two; Tara Denzinger, widow of the fallen deputy, had the compassion to say in a recent press conference, “My thoughts and prayers are with every family involved in this.” Several local churches have also chosen compassion over anger, listing the Dumstorf family alongside the White and Denzinger families on their prayer lists.

But Henderson’s comments about kids and the Internet aside — and his comments are certainly wise, on general principle — it is ironic that at this point, most of the love, understanding, compassion and forgiveness received by the Dumstorf family flows from cyberspace.

Among the many feelings I have experienced in the past week is a feeling of real security. Within minutes of the first shots being fired Monday night, a defending army descended on the neighborhood. I cannot express enough gratitude to the hundreds of people who were involved in what happened Monday night. I want to say it anyway, to those who escorted everyone out of harm’s way; to those who marched without hesitation into those darkening woods, uncertain of what they faced; to the emergency services volunteer who gave me water and snacks for my kids in the park; to the men who made everyone comfortable at the fire station.
Thank you all.

Still, I do not know what to say to my son. He was one of Tyler’s neighborhood friends — not a close one, because of their age difference — yet Tyler is gone and a police officer is dead, and at far too young an age my son is face-to-face with the truth of mortality.

For myself, I want to believe this terrible, violent moment was a random act, not about good and evil or the forces that shape us. I do not want to believe evil can reach that far and pervade our homes so deeply. I want this to be an accident, a tragic once-in-a-lifetime trembling in the universe.

Yet that is the last thing I want my son to believe. I do not want him to know the world can be so suddenly dangerous for no apparent reason. I do not want him to finish growing up looking over his shoulder. I want him to believe, against all reason, that the universe is Good Guys and Bad Guys and that it is easy to tell which is which.

As he grows, I need to somehow help him to get to the truth, to the paradox of trusting a universe that can be frighteningly random, of living in peace in a world that seldom makes sense. But first I need find that place myself.
And you know what? It is really hard to get there from here.

Contact the writer at [email protected]