It was a routine day for Walmart security officers Chao Vang and Dan Miller until a man in a winter coat slipped out the door with a pair of pants and some medical supplies.
Soon, along with St. Paul police officer Tom Reis, they were embroiled in a life-or-death struggle with the shoplifter. The man was sprawled across the ground flailing his limbs, a 6-inch knife in his right hand.
“I was on my knees holding [the man] down,” Reis recently recalled. “He would’ve been in the perfect position to get my neck … It is a possibility I wouldn’t even be here” were it not for Vang and Miller.
Both hands clamped down on the man’s right wrist, Reis yelled for Vang and Miller to help until other St. Paul officers could arrive. Vang and Miller recently received the police chief’s life saving award for their actions during the Dec. 22, 2016, incident. One other civilian and two officers also received the award for their actions in other cases.
“He asked for help, so I just jumped in,” Vang said.
Reis was working off-duty at the Midway store on University Avenue when he spotted the shoplifter and stopped him. Unbeknown to the officers at the time, the man had just allegedly violated a harassment restraining order, sliced another man several times with the knife and was apparently seeking a change of clothes and first aid at Walmart.
Reis walked the man into the back of the store with Vang and Miller in tow. When Reis gave him a pat down, he discovered the knife stashed in a coat pocket. “Don’t do anything stupid,” Reis told the man.
But the man pulled away, brandished the knife and refused to drop it, according to Reis and court documents. Reis and the man struggled to the ground, with the officer warning the man that he would use deadly force if necessary. That’s when Reis called for Vang and Miller.
Miller yelled for a store worker to call 911 and held down the man’s back and left arm. Vang grabbed onto his legs.
“The guy said, ‘I’m not going to give up my knife,’ ” Vang recalled. “And, ‘I’m going to stab you if I have to.’ ”
The man thrashed.
“I’m going to get you,” the man said, according to Reis.
“I had to put all my body into it,” Vang said.
The struggle continued despite the pile-on, and at some point, Reis sustained a small cut to his right hand that remains scarred today. He can’t be sure if it was the knife or something else that nicked him, but he knows he was uncomfortably close to an officer’s worst nightmare — being killed on the job or killing someone on the job to save his own life. Backup officers arrived before any more harm could be done.
“I’m grateful they stepped in and helped me,” Reis said of Vang and Miller. “In the big picture of things, no one got hurt, which I think is a small miracle.”
The 31-year-old man, a Minneapolis resident, was charged with three felonies in the incident at Walmart and the earlier assault on a man. Charges were later dropped when he was found mentally incompetent to stand trial.
Venancio Arellando-O’Campo was also recognized for stopping to help an elderly man with dementia who had wandered away from a field trip to Como Zoo on a cold February day.
Arellando-O’Campo was driving when he saw the man walking along Hwy. 36 dressed only in a sweatshirt, said Police Chief Todd Axtell. Concerned by the unusual sight, he pulled over, spoke to the man, who had limited communication skills, and took him to McDonald’s when he said he was hungry.
“This is really a classic definition of being a good Samaritan,” Axtell said.
The man had been missing for hours when Arellando-O’Campo found him.
“I feel glad to help somebody …,” Arellando-O’Campo said.
Officers Jeff Boyle and Santiago Rodriguez were honored for performing CPR on an unconscious man who had fallen to the ground at a gas station during a heroin overdose.