33. Greater Love

February 24, 2005

Smith County Courthouse — Tyler, Texas

From a loft apartment overlooking the town square, Mark Wilson had an elevated view of the Tyler courthouse’s rear entrance. He just happened to be at home that Thursday, when the sudden sound of gunfire came up from the streets below his window; and almost instantly, the sound of return fire joined in, indicating a pitched gun battle between security forces at the courthouse and some unknown, but assuredly criminal, party. Whoever it was, they had what sounded like a semi-automatic rifle, and they just kept shooting, and shooting.

Mark knew guns. He had opened his own firing range in Tyler in 1997, and since then had taught many new gun buyers about the basics of firearm safety, as well as how to shoot accurately. Mark was also licensed to carry a concealed handgun in the state of Texas; within seconds of hearing the shots, he picked up his .45 Colt 1911 pistol, and rushed downstairs, into unknown danger.

Glancing out his window after hearing the first shots, Mark would have seen a maroon pickup truck parked across the sidewalk — and next to it, a man strafing along the base of the courthouse steps, rapidly firing what looked like an AK-47 assault rifle toward the building’s entrance. The gunman was trading fire with police and courthouse guards, with at least one officer critically injured, but the shooter’s fire was mostly concentrated on two civilians sprawled on the court steps: a young man who was injured in the leg, and next to him, a middle-aged woman who had been shot multiple times. She wasn’t moving.

Mark didn’t have long to size up the situation. He couldn’t have known that the woman had been entering the courthouse that day to testify at a divorce hearing, accompanied by her adult son; her estranged husband had just ambushed them, angry over the direction custody hearings were going concerning their other son, age nine. The shooter was now advancing up the steps to finish off his eldest son, who had been testifying against him, when Mark Wilson arrived on the scene.

Across the red-brick street, on a restaurant patio, a construction worker (who had just been eating lunch when the gunfire broke out) watched in amazement, as he saw Mark creep up to the scene, weapon at the ready. Mark took cover behind the shooter’s parked truck, less than 20 yards from the shooter’s position on the steps. The shooter didn’t see him.

Squinting down the sights of his pistol, Mark observed that his target was a heavy-set man. He aimed for center-mass, and fired, hitting the shooter square in the back.

The shooter halted in his tracks.

There was another important factor that Mark Wilson could not have known about on that day: the man he had just shot was wearing an army-issue flack jacket, over a layer of body armor. The bullets from Mark’s .45 couldn’t hurt the shooter — they just got his attention.

The man with the rifle turned away from his injured son, to run back to his pickup truck. Mark fired again as the shooter came toward him — again hitting his target, and again to no effect — before the shooter reached his vehicle, leaving only the truck’s bed separated the two men.

At this point, Mark and the shooter engaged in a close-range shootout, popping up and dodging each other’s fire. After three or so volleys, Mark was hit, and fell face-down.

Across the street, the construction worker watched in horror as the shooter calmly rounded the truck to Mark’s side, aimed his rifle, and shot Mark dead. The shooter then got back in his truck, and fled the scene.

* * *

Police backup arrived moments later, and their dash-camera footage recorded the rest of the incident: in one memorable moment, replayed on news broadcasts later that day, a police car pulls up to the courthouse with an officer lying flat on its hood, face-up, with an AR-15 in his hands, ready to fire. When he realizes that the shooter is no longer at the scene, he jumps off his moving platform, and gets back in. His partner hits the gas, and their unit joins the car chase heading north on US Route 271.

A few miles outside the city, the dash camera footage shows a swarm of Tyler Police and Smith County Sheriff’s vehicles catching up to the shooter. He begins firing at them out of the rear window of his truck, steering with his other hand. Suddenly one sheriff’s patrol car breaks from the pack, speeding forth, and rams the shooter’s vehicle, with the deputy at the wheel also firing his 9mm service pistol from his window, at the truck.

The shooter slams on the brakes, pausing the pursuit. The deputy who had rammed him, now out of ammo, speeds away, as the shooter steps out onto the highway with his rifle, apparently to resume the shootout.

Just at that moment, another police car skids to a stop on the highway’s shoulder, and the officer with the AR-15 steps out.

The bullets fired from the AR-15 are capable of piercing the shooter’s armor vest — but with the officer’s marksmanship, it’s a non-factor. He fires twice, striking the shooter in the back of the head as he is exiting his truck, and what began as the Smith County Courthouse shootout, eight minutes and over a hundred bullets earlier, abruptly ends.

Afterward, the police searched the shooter, turned over his body, and got an up-close look at the gun: as it turned out, it wasn’t really an AK-47; it was a Norinco MAK-90 Sporter… another semi-automatic clone of the real AK, and essentially the same as the one the Stockton shooter had. This one just had a thumb-hole stock rather than a pistol grip — that, and adding “Sporter” to the model name, was enough of a change for the Norinco to get around the federal import ban.

* * *

As the story spread, many gun owners identified with Mark Wilson’s plight, having wondered over the years what would have happened if they were on the scene of this shooting or that, with their firearm ready.

The lesson was hard: that even if you are armed when a mass shooting incident occurs, and even if you do not panic, and even if you successfully engage the shooter (witnesses unanimously concur that Wilson’s intervention saved the life of the shooter’s son), you may pay the ultimate price for your heroism. The pairing of a high-capacity rifle with a plan had triumphed, even if only in this instance, over bravery and a handgun. As a result, Tyler, Texas had lost a good man.

February 29, 2005

Hall of the House of Representatives — United States Capitol Building

Six days after the shootout in Tyler, a man who had worked as a state judge at the Smith County Courthouse for many years, and who was now a representative of the state of Texas, stepped to the floor of the House chamber. He shared the story of Mark Wilson and his heroic actions, and he urged all Americans to take inspiration from his selflessness:

For many of us reflecting on Mark’s death, the words of Jesus of Nazareth capture Mark’s spirit: “Greater love hath no man than this; that a man lay down his life for his friend.” Those words came from someone who knew, and Mark Wilson’s love is what was praised. He stepped up that love a notch by going and laying down his life for people he did not even know.

This country, this institution, needs a memorializing of such a courageous hero as Mark Wilson. His loving parents and dear friends deserve to hear his praises sung once more for the record, and may the retelling of Mark’s bravery bring them comfort, bring them hope, and to the hopeless who think there is no one out there who cares: Mark cared, and I would be willing to bet his caring will be perpetuated into posterity for others that he has touched.