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A Fighting Chance: Former agent's life was saved the night she stopped Denver-Lakewood shooter

In 2021, former Lakewood Police Agent Ashley Ferris was hailed a hero for stopping the Denver-Lakewood shooter. Her life was saved that night, too.
Posted: 8:05 PM, Nov 02, 2023
Updated: 2023-11-02 22:05:54-04
A Fighting Chance

Editor's note: This story touches on the subject of suicide and mental health. If you or someone you know is struggling, you can dial 988 for the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline 24/7, visit Colorado Crisis Services, or click here for a list of resources in Colorado.

DOUGLAS COUNTY, Colo. — Two days after Christmas in 2021, former Lakewood Police Agent Ashley Ferris considered calling in sick from work. She decided to go to work that day, and likely saved lives through her actions.

If you ask Ferris, her life was also saved that night.

Ferris was hailed as a hero for stopping the Denver-Lakewood mass shooting gunman, who killed Alicia Cardenas, Alyssa Gunn-Maldonado, Michael Swinyard, Danny Scofield and Sarah Steck.

Ferris ordered the shooter to drop his weapon as he approached her. The gunman ignored her commands and shot Ferris, according to police, hitting her less than one millimeter from her femoral artery.

While wounded on the ground, Ferris was able to return fire, striking and killing the shooter. He was pronounced dead at the scene.

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Ferris said the interaction between herself and the suspect, before shots were fired, lasted only 14 seconds.

"He approached me, and he was wearing that police vest as we know. And I said, 'Hey, man, where are you coming from?' And he said Wells Fargo. I didn't piece together that he had just shot out the windows of the Wells Fargo when he ran from our other agents," Ferris recalled. “It's multi-jurisdictional. So I'm thinking is he an undercover Denver guy? Is he a federal agent that was in the area?... Is he a private security guard that, you know, maybe he's wearing police gear when he shouldn't be?”

Ferris asked the shooter if he was private security at the bank, but never heard the answer because the radio was going off in her ear. She was trying to relay through the radio that she was contacting someone, but the communication traffic was too busy.

"We lock eyes, and it was a very distinct moment where we both knew this was about to get bad," Ferris said. “For a good part of our interaction, I couldn't see a gun. You can see in the HaloCam, he pulls the gun from somewhere on his right side or maybe his back. I still don't know where the gun was. As soon as he displayed the gun, we were engaged in a gunfight. I don't know who shot first. I know I was hit first. And I only remember his first muzzle blast and the sound of it, because I had auditory exclusion. So I lost my hearing.”

Ferris did not realize the shooter fired at her six times.

“To this day, I don't know who shot first," she said. "But I shot last.”

Ferris said she has been asked several times how she processes knowing she took a life.

"That's a heavy topic. We don't talk about it a lot, and as police officers, we often struggle with having to take a life. I mean, that's not a normal human behavior," Ferris explained. “It's a heavy burden to bear, but to be honest with you, for me, he wasn't even a person. I mean, to be a radical extremist terrorist like he was, to me, that's not a person. And I've not for one second struggled with the fact that I was his ultimate end."

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Before Ferris became a hero, she was struggling more than anyone knew.

“I had almost called in sick to work that morning because I was in such a bad place," she said. “After roll call, I loaded up my car and I sat in my car crying that morning. And I sent someone some text messages, basically hoping that they would take my animals because ultimately I was going to end my life that night.”

It was the first holiday season Ferris had experienced while going through a divorce. She had just moved into a home alone, and finances were tight.

"I felt really alone," she said. “In policing, we have that camaraderie, but we also all get weighed down by the same things at the same time. People start to recluse, people start to lean on their families. And, you know, I didn't feel the support system, because I didn't feel that I had anyone to lean on... I felt like I didn't have anything to live for at the moment.”

Ferris had experienced anxiety and depression in the past, and said she was not seeking the help she needed in 2021.

"I wasn't advocating for myself. I'm was just kind of marinating in it really, like I was sitting in my own misery," Ferris explained. “I had problems with hypervigilance. I had problems with prior critical incidents I had been on the periphery of, or involved in, you know, the amount of gunshot wounds I've packed, the amount of traumatic calls I've gone to. Lakewood’s a busy city, and we've responded to a lot.”

What she experienced working as a law enforcement officer, combined with her personal life and feeling as though she lacked a support system, weighed on her.

"I had passed all the points of 'You need help? Let's get help.' And I was just kind of at the end of my rope," said Ferris.

On December 27, 2021, after Ferris came in for her shift, she was asked to work overtime.

“I don't have family waiting for me at home. My dog has been walked by a friend. I'll just stay tonight. And ultimately, that saved my life," she said. “What if I wasn't there? That's not to say that I handled it better than anyone else would have. Someone else could have handled that situation better than me. Maybe they wouldn't have even gotten shot.”

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During Ferris' recovery, the 'what if' questions played over and over again in her mind.

"What if my friend had been there and not been as lucky? What if the guy who had called in sick had been in my spot that day? What if he had gotten shot? He's bigger than me, you know, he's like a six-foot-tall guy. What if they wouldn't have been able to load him in the car? What if he would have bled to death on scene? What if the shooter would have continued killing innocent civilians in that shopping center?” Ferris said, rattling off some of the questions.

The questions illuminated the void that would have been left if Ferris was not there, and demonstrated the impact one person can have.

“The reality of it is, we all serve a purpose. We may not know it. And you don't know when your purpose is going to come or what it's going to look like, you don't know when those moments will present themselves to really make that difference, have that impact, change somebody's life," said Ferris. “I was fortunate enough to get to serve that purpose. But had I taken myself out of the fight too soon, I wouldn't have been there and other people could have suffered.”

When other agents rushed to save Ferris, and risked their own lives, her thought process changed dramatically.

“It's not about me anymore. Look what they did to put themselves in harm's way to come to my rescue," said Ferris. "At that point, I don't have the right to say, 'I want to die.' I don't want that right anymore. These people are fighting for me. I need to fight for myself.”

Ferris is medically retired now after suffering damage to her sciatic nerve from the shooting.

"I miss patrol every day. I miss it so much. I miss being able to touch the community and impact them, you know. But I realized I can do it in a different way," she said. “When I became vulnerable, everybody else said, 'Me too.' It takes one person in a room to be vulnerable, and that empowers everyone else to feel safe being vulnerable as well.”

Ferris shares her story in order to help other law enforcement officers, first responders, and health care workers "identify and combat signs of depression while developing resiliency through a focus on their greater purpose." She does so through a nonprofit organization she started called A Fighting Chance, ltd.

A fighting chance is what Ferris was given on the night of December 27, 2021.

“When you think about it, what if I had given up in that gunfight? Right? What if I didn't give myself the fighting chance? What if I said, 'I'm hit. Oh no, I'm bleeding to death.' I didn't return fire. I didn't address the threat," Ferris wondered. “Similarly, what if I didn't give myself that fighting chance to even be there, to even make it to that scene?"

Her goal is to give other first responders, and anyone who needs it, that fighting chance.

"It's hard. Sometimes it is a fight. But we need to give ourselves the opportunity to excel, to make a difference, to be there, to see that we matter," Ferris said.

She hopes through her story and work, individuals feel comfortable discussing their mental health before they reach the point where she found herself.

“It goes back to purpose, right? We're all a hero in our own way," Ferris said. “It's not about one big moment. It's about all those little moments that we have."

Ferris was honored at the Douglas County Women Who Soar event on Thursday, where she told the group her story. She now lives in Tennessee, with her two dogs and two cats.

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