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Trooper's recovery going well

January 20, 2003|by CANDICE BOSELY

martinsburg@herald-mail.com

Eric Burnett already has warned his wife that he might not be home on Valentine's Day.

On that day - if all goes well - Robert "Bobby" Elswick, the West Virginia State Police trooper who was shot in the head in October, could come home.

Elswick is undergoing rehabilitation in Georgia. On Feb. 13, Burnett, a sergeant with the state police, and another sergeant plan to drive to Atlanta in a van to help Elswick and his family prepare for the journey home the following day.

Once back, Elswick will continue his rehabilitation in Hagerstown.

Because Elswick gets sick if he rides in a car for too long, Burnett said he is hoping Gov. Bob Wise might fly Elswick back to West Virginia on his plane.

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When asked recently who at the state police barrack could give an update on Elswick, Burnett's voice lifted and he happily obliged. He had spoken to Elswick on the phone the night before.

"His speech is coming along slowly," Burnett said, adding that it is slurred. "When he starts talking to you and he figures out who you are, he gets all excited."

Although doctors at first said Elswick could die, he has made quite a recovery. He can eat solid food, walk with help and move all of his extremities, and he cracks jokes.

Photographs of Elswick taken over Thanksgiving show him with a thin beard, looking seriously into the camera, usually surrounded by family or friends.

Elswick's wife wants people to know that her husband will not immediately be the same man he was before the shooting, Burnett said. Elswick and Burnett may not be able to shoot skeet anytime soon, watch a movie or grab a pizza before a football game.

Co-workers, friends

Burnett and Elswick share a bond that extends beyond the state police uniform. They are friends.

Occasionally, Elswick and his wife, who do not have children, have babysat Burnett's child, Burnett said.

While trying to put in a garage door opener, Burnett called Elswick and together they finished the project within an hour. Elswick also helped Burnett build a deck at his home.

Now, Burnett said he hopes to return the favor.

"Me and some other guys are going to finish his basement," Burnett said, referring to a project Elswick started before he was shot.

Burnett plans to put a bathroom in the basement and hopes to install a chair that moves on rails to allow Elswick access to his home's upper level.

Professionally, Burnett said he misses Elswick's positive attitude around the office.

"He was always in a good mood. He was never in a bad mood. He'd do anything for you at work. Or at home," Burnett said.

Burnett and Elswick, both 31, graduated in the same class of the West Virginia State Police Academy.

Brush with death

Elswick was in his seventh year of duty when a gunshot nearly took his life three months ago.

Rain was falling on the night of Oct. 10, 2002, and little to no moonlight penetrated the black sky. It was around 9 p.m. when Elswick and other state troopers pulled their police cruisers up to a home on Harper Lane off Butts Mill Road, west of Hedgesville.

There, a man police have identified as David Eugene Munday, 37, pointed a .22 magnum bolt-action rifle at the officers and refused orders to put it down.

The man fired one shot, which hit Elswick above his ear. Trooper John Droppleman returned fire and hit the shooter, who was hospitalized for a couple of hours before he was taken to Eastern Regional Jail.

Munday has not been charged in connection with the shooting. He remains jailed on felony charges of burglary and kidnapping.

Investigators allege that in the hours leading up to the shooting, the man who shot Elswick held a neighbor hostage at gunpoint, believing the neighbor or his wife were trying to break up the gunman's relationship with a girlfriend.

The neighbor, Johnny Ray Lambert Jr., was the only person to testify at Munday's preliminary hearing, held a week after the shooting. A magistrate found probable cause at the end of the hearing, meaning the charges against Munday can be forwarded to Circuit Court for possible grand jury indictment.

Several police officers, court employees and others in the criminal justice system attended the hearing, including Trooper Tom Kearns.

Kearns said he found it especially bothersome that there had been no prior confrontation between Elswick and his assailant. Elswick was shot for no other reason than because he was a police officer, Kearns said.

Rehabilitation

In Decatur, Ga., Elswick has been undergoing rehabilitation at Shepherd Pathways, which specializes in treating those with brain injuries.

Recently, Elswick had surgery on his left eye and doctors are discussing putting a cast on his right leg since he has trouble walking unassisted, Burnett said.

During their phone conversation, Elswick asked Burnett when he planned to visit.

"His spirits are high," Burnett said. "He still has a long way to go, but the main thing is he's still alive."

Asked what might be behind Elswick's recovery, Burnett did not hesitate.

"I said this last night to his wife over the phone: 'You were the one who saved Bobby's life,'" Burnett said.

After she arrived at the hospital that October night, Terri Elswick never left her husband's side. Each time she said "I love you" into his ear, Elswick kicked his left leg, Burnett said.

Terri Elswick did not return a message left at Shepherd Pathways, and has previously declined interview requests.

What the future holds for Elswick is not known.

"He survived a shot to the head, so who knows?" Burnett said.

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