KANSAS CITY, Kan. – “Training works” is the phrase Capt. Michael Howell said characterizes the experience he went through on Nov. 26.
When what was supposed to be a quick trip to the Lenexa Costco with a friend turned into a potential active shooter situation , the off-duty officer had to leap into action to eliminate the threat.
Friday, he spoke for the first time about the day he had to take down the man who entered the store brandishing a loaded gun, threatening the lives of dozens of customers, including small children.
The night before the shooting, Capt. Howell had helped a friend unload an electric fireplace he had purchased at Costco, and having just bought a new home, was interested in buying one for himself. The next day, a Sunday, he went to the store with that same friend to get one.
He was supposed to be at the Chiefs game that day, but having just returned from a long trip, decided he wanted to stay at home and enjoy a day of rest with his wife instead.
As Capt. Howell and his friend went to load the electric fireplace into his vehicle, what he said looked like hundreds of people began running past him.
Surveillance footage shows customers fleeing in several directions.
“At first, my initial thought was ‘This can’t be real.’ Because, you know, we’ve trained for something like this, but this can’t be real. I’m off-duty, this can’t be real. It’s not supposed to be happening,” Capt. Howell said.
As people flooded by him, he tried to figure out what was happening. He pulled a man to the side who told him there was a guy at the front of the store with a gun.
Capt. Howell turned to his friend, gave him his keys, and told him to get out of the store. He told him to help others get out, and to call 911 and tell the operator his name, that he was an officer, and to give them a detailed description of what he was wearing.
“I’ve got to take care of business, and I don’t want to get shot by the officers that are coming in to respond to this,” Capt. Howell explained.
As his friend left to follow his guidance, Capt. Howell found a store manager, who described the suspect to him as an older white man wearing a camouflage coat, waving a gun.
That’s when Capt. Howell drew his off-duty weapon and started maneuvering through displays.
He said as he approached one of the first aisles he’d been in, he saw the man pushing a grocery cart with a revolver, which he guessed measured about 10 or 12 inches long.
The whole time, Capt. Howell said he was thinking about what action he needed to take next to end the situation.
It’s at that point that he heard the suspect, identified as 58-year-old Ronald Hunt, speak for the first time, saying “I’m an off-duty U.S. Marshal, and I’m here to kill people.”
He said he got the impression that “something’s not clicking on all cylinders here with him.”
Capt. Howell continued to follow Hunt through the store until they were in a position most to his advantage. Capt. Howell said Hunt entered an aisle, and once he got two to three steps in and would not be able to move to the left or right, or turn back and escape, Capt. Howell identified himself.
“Police. Drop the gun. Don’t move.”
He said “police,” for a second time, and Hunt turned the gun on him. That’s when Capt. Howell fired at him, killing him.
Capt. Howell praised the training he gained from working at the Kansas City, Kansas, Police Department for 22 years, crediting it with giving him the skills he needed to handle the situation.
He said he would take the same steps again today if he had to.
“The steps I took that day would have been the same steps I would take if this were to happen again,” Capt. Howell said.
The thing that’s stuck with him most is the fear he saw in children’s faces as they ran past him.
“The hardest thing I’ve had to deal with, honestly – or to be honest with you, is the fact that when this first – when the people first alerted me to this danger, my greatest fear was the fact that we had kids with their moms, their grandmas, their grandparents, their dads – whoever – it was the little kids running and screaming,” Capt. Howell said. “And seeing the fear in their face and knowing that whatever it took, I had to do whatever necessary to end this threat, so they wouldn’t get hurt.”
After Capt. Howell shot and killed Hunt, he said he called 911 to tell the dispatcher to get uniformed officers to the store as quickly as possible and to also contact his dispatch and let them know he’d been involved in an off-duty shooting and the suspect was dead.
Capt. Howell said that as Lenexa officers arrived, he secured his weapon, held both hands as high in the air as possible with his badge in his left, and shouted his name and the word “blue,” a term used in these situations to prevent an off-duty officer from being engaged by on-duty officers.
Capt. Howell said those moments felt as if time was standing still.
“You expect it to happen on-duty. As a unit, as a team, you practice, and you talk about responding as a team to a school, or a business, or what have you," Capt. Howell said. "But for it happen in an off-duty situation, it – I don’t want to say it was a total surprise, but it shocked me.”
Capt. Howell said he never has and never will leave home without his off-duty gun. He said you never know what’s going to happen, whether it be while you’re out to dinner, or at a shopping mall.
“I’m a full-time commissioned law enforcement officer. I think it would be ludicrous not to be prepared,” Capt. Howell said.
Many people are describing Capt. Howell’s actions as heroic and courageous, but he said it’s all part of the job, even when he’s not on the clock.
“I’m just a cop doing my job.”