One of Their Own Was Gone: the Story Behind the Iconic Dallas Ambush Photograph
DART police Sgt. Homer Hutchins walked toward the exit of Baylor’s emergency room. Images and sounds from the night flashed in his head. An officer on his knee, pointing a weapon at El Centro College. A young man holding a woman close as they lay facedown on a patch of grass. Voices of radio dispatchers, saying shots had been fired and officers struck.
And he thought of what awaited him: the long drive to the wife of a fallen officer.
He moved through the hallway with tunnel vision. Just a few more steps to fresh air. Then he saw her.
DART police Officer Shamika Sorrells walked through the ER doors toward him. He looked at her and shook his head. One of their own, Officer Brent Thompson, was gone.
He held her up as her legs buckled. As she squeezed him, he felt like his spine might come through his stomach. The 6-foot-1-inch officer, built like a linebacker, began to cry.
Two Baylor employees — a nurse manager and a social worker — flanked their embrace. The moment was captured by a Dallas Morning News photographer.
In the hours after five police officers were gunned down in downtown Dallas on July 7, the photo ricocheted across social media. It ran on the front page of The Dallas Morning News and dozens of other newspapers. It flashed on thousands of televisions across the country.
This is the story of how the night unfolded for the officers at the center of that photograph.
DART police Sgt. Homer Hutchins (center) hugged DART Officer Shamika Sorrells in the hallway of Baylor’s emergency room on the night of July 7. Nita Tarango, a social worker at Baylor (left), and Sherry Sutton, a nurse manager, flanked the embrace.
From the Army to DART
From an early age, Homer Hutchins learned to serve others. He grew up the youngest of seven kids in Oak Cliff. He watched his father, who ran a landscaping business, lend money, fix cars and cut trees for friends. An elderly neighbor, a veteran and double amputee, told him about the military and the places he could see if he ventured beyond the neighborhood.
DART police Sgt. Homer Hutchins says he went into public service because of the lessons his parents taught him and the stories of a veteran and neighbor, who told him about his time in the military.
After graduating from Wilmer-Hutchins High School, Hutchins joined the Army. He started his police career at Parkland Hospital, then joined DART in 1999. The patrol job came with terrible hours, but it was everything he imagined policing to be. He got a rush from even the traffic stops.
Then, he became a motorcycle officer. He learned how to make 360-degree turns and stop without using his feet. He felt like a character in CHiPS, a 1970s TV show about two California Highway Patrol officers. He felt he’d landed his dream job.
Soon he’d feel the tug of duty. DART police got a new chief, James Spiller. As a union representative, Hutchins raised concerns about low morale with the new chief. Spiller turned the complaints back on him. He challenged Hutchins to take a test to become a sergeant and become part of the solution.
“I could sit stagnant in the position I was at and be happy and content with just me,” Hutchins recalled. “I felt like I was being selfish, and Chief Spiller kind of drove that into me and made me remember my past and what I was taught.”
Hutchins passed the test.
An uneasy feeling
On the afternoon of July 7, Hutchins began his 10-hour shift his usual way. He lifted weights at the police headquarters’ gym. He showered, put on his uniform and headed to detail, a meeting where he called the roll and went over officers’ assignments for the day.
But Hutchins had an uneasy feeling. Police relations with the public had grown tense over the previous months. He reminded the approximately 30 officers in the room about the planned protest in downtown before they headed out to work.
“Watch yourself,” he said. “Be careful out there.”
From left: Baylor social worker Juanita “Nita” Tarango, DART police Sgt. Homer Hutchins, DART Officer Shamika Sorrells and Baylor emergency nurse manager Sherry Sutton are reunited in the photography studio at The Dallas Morning News. All were photographed together in the doorway of the Baylor emergency room after the July 7 ambush downtown in which several officers died.
Hutchins arrived early to the streets near the protest route. He drove his patrol car around the area, checking for buses and trains that might block the way, monitoring the crowd and looking for suspicious vehicles. When the protest started to come to an end, he felt relieved.
“Another good day,” he thought to himself. “What I had thought about earlier in detail was all in my head.”
As he checked the Pearl rail station, he heard an officer come over the police radio. “Shots fired, shots fired.” He radioed ahead, then drove down the DART tracks to Lamar and Pacific.
Protesters had dropped to the ground. Hutchins used his body as a shield as they moved to a building. A man wrapped his arm around the waist of a woman, who was too panicked to move. Hutchins coaxed her to crawl across the street toward safety. He left for Parkland Hospital, where one of his officers had been taken with a gunshot wound.
The officer was in stable condition. Hutchins called the man’s wife to notify her. Then he got a phone call from an officer. She told him to hurry. They needed him at Baylor. He could hear the sadness in her voice.
When he walked into the emergency room, the officer stood there. She told him Brent Thompson was dead. He was the first DART officer killed in the line of duty.
Hutchins walked to Thompson’s room. The 43-year-old Corsicana native lay on a gurney, wrapped in a sheet, but still in his uniform and police boots.
“What’s up, bud?” Hutchins said to Thompson’s body. “You did a good thing. … You did a good thing today.”
Hutchins rubbed Thompson’s head. “I’ve got to take care of the other ones,” he told him. “They’re going to be waiting on me. I know you understand.”
He held back tears until he turned his back on Thompson. Even then, Hutchins, an Army guy, didn’t want Thompson to see him cry.
In the hallway, Hutchins saw officers coming into the hospital. A few patted him on the shoulder. “Sarge, we’re sorry,” they said. All he could see were the hospital’s glass double doors.
Relying on ‘Hutch’
Shamika Sorrells befriended Hutchins in 2004 when he was still a motorcycle officer. He teased her about her 5-foot-4-inch height, joking that she was shorter than the writing on a Coca-Cola vending machine.
“If you hang around him for half a day, you’d probably gain two abs from laughing,” the 34-year-old Flint, Mich., native said.
DART police Officer Shamika Sorrells says Sgt. Homer Hutchins had a knack for showing up just when she needed him. On the night of July 7, the roles reversed.
Yet “Hutch” always had a way of showing up just when she needed him — like the time she had to jump on a DART train and hold down an irate passenger
The single mother and fellow Army veteran came to see Hutchins as a friend. He cheered her up at the office and helped with parenting advice. They’d get together on weekends with their families for picnics and play dates — Sorrells with her mother and two kids and Hutchins with his wife, Tori, also a DART sergeant, and daughter. When her kids wouldn’t obey, she would sometimes pass the phone to Hutchins, so he could give some tough love. Once, when she was sick, she called him and asked him to drive her to the hospital.
Sorrells had planned to spend the night of July 7 at home with her kids. Then she got the call. She ran out the door, grabbing her weapon and her badge and putting them on her hip.
She drove so fast down the highway in her Chevy Tahoe that she worried she might crash. She made phone calls on the way, trying to get more information. One was to Hutchins. He told her he was headed to Baylor University Medical Center.
Nita Tarango, a Baylor social worker, was captured in the photo when Hutchins and Sorrells embraced. She put her hand on the officers for support. She says the photo shows that “ou
When Hutchins saw Sorrells at Baylor, he saw more than a colleague. He saw family.
“Your emotions become more intense when you see family, when you see family hurt,” he said.
He hugged her so tight, she later recalled, she could feel his heart beating under his vest.
A hospital social worker, Nita Tarango, saw Sorrells fall into Hutchins’ arms. She put her hands on them and said a prayer for their safety and strength.
Nurse manager Sherry Sutton was standing nearby. She saw her husband — a Dallas police officer — in each pair of boots that arrived in the ER that night. She would later recall the night as one of the most trying of her career.
“The hardest thing about the job is ultimately everything is in God’s hands, and we are just one person,” she said.
Hutchins gathered up his emotions to carry out another duty. He and two sergeants drove to Thompson’s home to pick up his wife, Emily, a fellow DART officer. Brent and Emily had married about two weeks earlier.
On the way back to the hospital, Hutchins turned on his lights and sirens. Thompson sat in the front passenger seat.
“She asked, ‘What’s going on Sarge?’ and I kept repeating, ‘I just need to get you to the hospital.”’
But they mostly drove in silence.
“That ride was the longest ride I ever took in my life,” he said.
Sherry Sutton, a nurse manager at Baylor University Medical Center at Dallas, became a nurse after losing her parents at a young age. She says she wanted to support people during their most tragic and difficult moments.
They arrived at the hospital, and Hutchins accompanied Thompson to an ER waiting room. Brent Thompson’s parents were there. Hutchins held Thompson’s hand as a chaplain came in and told her that her husband had died.
For Hutchins, every yelping siren brings him back to that night and the long ride with Emily Thompson.
Hutchins left the hospital at dawn. On the drive home, he parked his car near a closed convenience store and cried. A Glenn Heights police car pulled into the empty parking lot and shined a spotlight on Hutchins’ car.
He rolled down his window. The police officer walked up. He saw Hutchins’ DART police patch and his sergeant stripes. He put his hand on Hutchins’ shoulder, and Hutchins saw the officer was a sergeant too.
The sergeant followed Hutchins home. They sat together in the driveway, leaning on the hood of the car.
“We didn’t say too much. We didn’t hardly talk,” Hutchins said. “Every now and then, I would say something about what happened that night and he just said, ‘It’s going to be all right, Sarge.’ He never tried to give advice. He just listened.”
Hutchins went upstairs and kissed his sleeping 4-year-old daughter, Lyriq. He thought of Officer Thompson’s children, who would never again have their father kiss them goodnight.
Photos from July 7 revive memories for those at the center of the ambush that killed five officers
When Hutchins first saw the photo that night on a colleague’s cellphone, he was angry. He felt like a private moment had been stolen from him.
But he began to see greater meaning in the photo in the weeks that followed. A black man in his 20s approached him at a gas station in a rough part of Dallas and told him he recognized him from the photo. He said he was sorry for the officers’ loss. A white middle-aged man recognized him at a Wal-Mart and encouraged him to keep his head up. And a Hispanic man came up to him at a Golden Corral and told him he’d been moved by the photo.
“The picture was hitting everybody, not just police,” he said. “So it became a good thing instead of a bad thing for me.”
Sorrells keeps the photo in her nightstand drawer with her Bible, a Mother’s Day card scribbled in crayon by her son, and a pressed white rose and obituary from her best friend’s funeral. When the photo resurfaces on Facebook, she hides it from view. She’s thought about framing the photo but isn’t sure she’s ready. That moment weighs heavy on her heart, even when it’s tucked away.