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20 years later, former Florence Police Officer reflects on life-changing injury

"It has changed me into such a better person than I used to be"
20 years later, former Florence Police Officer reflects on life-changing injury
Posted at 5:36 PM, Sep 29, 2021
and last updated 2021-09-29 19:36:41-04

FREMONT COUNTY — On September 28, 2001, law enforcement throughout Fremont County changed forever.

"It tore our police department apart."

20 years ago, Fremont County Sheriff's Deputy Jason Schwartz was shot and killed in the line of duty. He responded to a disturbance where a dog was shot, and twins Joel and Michael Stovall were arrested.

One of the brothers had a hidden gun, and shot Deputy Schwartz several times while he was in the driver's seat of the patrol cruiser. The brothers were on the run for the next 24 hours. They fired at at any law enforcement officers who came close to them. Several others were injured, including Florence City Police Officer Toby Bethel.

For two decades, Retired Corporal Toby Bethel has lived in a wheelchair. "Since I'm in the chair, I don't ever get to forget about it," said Toby, who spent around six years on the force before September 2001.

He said it all happened on a Friday night. It was his day off, and he was home listening to a Florence football game with his wife, Misty. All of the sudden, the two heard sirens. "Gave her a kiss, and I told her, just go to bed. I'll see you in the morning," said Toby.

"I never worried about him when he went out. I mean this is a small town and stuff like that doesn't happen in a small town," Misty said. However, this was the night when the Stovall brothers killed Deputy Jason Schwartz.

When Toby found out what happened, he and his partner went to a location where the brothers might be. That's when he said they were ambushed. "All I heard was pop pop pop, and I remember looking over at Eric and I was like, oh no, they got us didn't they?" remembered Toby.

When the bullets hit his back, his body straightened and his foot hit the gas pedal. The car crashed into a tree. "The next thing I remember was hearing paramedics yelling and screaming at me, saying 'Toby hang in there, hold on, we're going to get you to the hospital.'"

After being stabilized at a hospital in Fremont County, Toby was taken in a helicopter to a Denver hospital. He would stay there for around a month. He was there he when found out his diagnosis. "I remember Misty coming back, and she was crying, and at that point I remember the man telling me that I was going to be paralyzed and they were going to teach me how to live," said Toby.

Looking back, Toby feels the devastating injury has changed him into a better person. "I am so thankful that this happened. Now, I would never have chose this, never would have said 'oh yeah, I think I want to go out and get shot and see if I can be paralyzed'... The bad guys tried to get us, but they failed," said Toby.

Misty said Toby has the best heart of anyone she has ever met. "Toby's at a point in his life where he forgives them, and I know that the right thing to do would be to forgive them, but I don't," said Misty.

As a lasting tribute, the Highway 50 and Highway 115 bridge where Deputy Schwartz died was dedicated with his name on Tuesday.