- Associated Press - Sunday, March 13, 2016

RAPID CITY, S.D. (AP) - Jim Roark had no idea he’d been shot until he looked down and saw the blood blossoming on his chest.

The man with the gun was 44-year-old Earl W. Hicks of Rapid City, whom Roark once counted among his closest friends.

Lying in a crumpled heap on the pavement behind the Cornerstone Rescue Mission in downtown Rapid City late last month, Roark gazed up helplessly as Hicks strode over his body and aimed the pistol into a crowd of about 20 people that included some children.

It was a little after 2 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 28. A few moments later, Hicks would be shot and immobilized by gunfire from a Rapid City Police Department officer. He was pronounced dead from his wounds at Rapid City Regional Hospital, where Roark, the only person shot by Hicks, would soon be on his way to in the back of an ambulance.

Though Roark, 57, and his close friend Steve Keesey, 58, who was also targeted by Hicks, both survived, neither has yet fully escaped the horror of what happened to them, the Rapid City Journal (https://bit.ly/21f4ZcX ) reported.

In a series of interviews after the incident, the two men recounted the chaotic shooting, which they and local police agree could have resulted in far more injuries or deaths after roughly a dozen shots were fired in a somewhat enclosed area where many people were gathered.

Even several days after the shooting, Keesey’s hands still trembled as he walked through the back lot of the mission and relived the experience in which the attacker had vowed at one point “to kill everybody here.”

“That wasn’t Earl,” said Keesey. “That was pure hate. I’d never seen that kind of hate before.”

In a recent interview in a room at Rapid City Regional Hospital, Roark’s voice was calm but edged with anger as he transported himself back to the scene with a chest tube snaking out of his green gown near where Hicks’ bullet entered his chest just below the throat.

“He wanted to kill us for not being his friends anymore,” Roark said. “He said we ruined his life.”

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Both Keesey and Roark have lived at Cornerstone on and off for the last three years, which is where they met and became the close friends they are today.

“Steve and I just meshed,” Roark said from his hospital room last week. “With what each one of us did in the military, we kind of clicked . we could talk to each other without everything going ‘buzz.’ We both knew what the other was talking about.”

Like many of the residents at the rescue mission, the two men are veterans of the armed services, and have been shot at before in the course of their lives. Keesey, who served in the U.S. Coast Guard in the late 1970s, has medical training and experience with rescue operations. “Anti-piracy work,” he said in summation. Roark was likewise reticent, saying only that he was involved with military intelligence during his 10 years in the Army special forces overseas.

On the day of the shooting, the two friends were upstairs in the Cornerstone common room watching NASCAR, as was routine for them on an average Sunday afternoon. The race became a bit boring, so they went to the lot behind Cornerstone to smoke some cigarettes in the sun.

It was a little after 1:30 p.m. - lunchtime at Cornerstone - so the back lot was full of residents who had just finished eating as Keesey and Roark walked downstairs to a spot by the sheds. By Keesey’s estimate, there were about 20 men, women, and children gathered near the two open-air shelter houses behind Cornerstone.

Security footage taken from cameras on the Rapid City Journal’s printing plant next door shows that Hicks had been sitting in his white truck for about three hours prior to the shooting. When he finally exited, wearing a dark jacket and a light colored baseball cap, he stood near the front driver’s side wheel-well for nearly three minutes, during which he occasionally cocked his head from side to side, but otherwise did not move.

Hicks then shifted, adjusted something in the back of his waistband, and walked out of the camera’s view into the back lot of Cornerstone, where he confronted Keesey and Roark.

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Keesey and Roark befriended Hicks three years ago at Cornerstone. According to Keesey, Hicks was kicked out of the rescue mission about a year later for unknown reasons, though he had since been allowed to return on occasion for meals.

Citing client confidentiality, Lysa Allison, the executive director of Cornerstone, declined the Journal’s requests for comment and would not elaborate on Hicks’ relation to the rescue mission other than saying in a prepared statement that at the time of the shooting, he “was not a resident of Cornerstone.”

Keesey and Roark remember Hicks as just another one of the guys. When they first met him he was happy, employed, and pleasant to be around. The three of them would hang out at the rescue mission, going downtown on occasion to converse over coffee.

“He wasn’t a bad guy,” Roark said. “I would say that even now.”

Around the time he was forced to leave Cornerstone, Hicks started abusing drugs and showing signs that he was seriously disturbed, the two men said. He would see things that weren’t there; reacting suddenly in anger at an invisible presence that he said would shine lasers into his eyes, spit on him, or throw things at him. He would talk to himself, Keesey said, and listen as his truck “spoke” to him, but paid increasingly less and less attention to what his two friends had to say about his mental health.

“He didn’t see a problem,” Roark said. “And the sad thing is as much help as we could get him, he’d turn it away.”

Keesey and Roark said they repeatedly tried to get Hicks back on the right track, but nothing ever worked. If they lined up a job for him, he would quit within a matter of days. If they helped get him on medication, he would stop taking it. About a year and a half ago, Hicks’ mental condition deteriorated to the point that Keesey and Roark decided they could no longer be his friends.

“We stopped talking to him,” Roark said. “If a guy has an argument with himself and loses the fight, it’s time to carry on.”

___

Neither Keesey nor Roark was alarmed when Hicks approached them in the back lot last Sunday and started shouting at them. It wasn’t the first time he had shown up at Cornerstone and caused a scene, they said.

Since their falling out, Hicks would sometimes go to the rescue mission and threaten them, but he had never acted on those threats. Accustomed to his erratic behavior, Keesey and Roark’s reactions last Sunday were out of annoyance, not fear, when they told Hicks to go away and leave them alone.

But this time was different.

“He said, ‘I’m going to kill you, I’m going to kill Jim, and I’m going to kill everybody here,’” Keesey said. “That’s when the pistol came out.”

Hicks reached back, pulled a semi-automatic handgun from his waistband, and pointed it at his two former friends. It was a little after 2 p.m.

Keesey and Roark immediately alerted the crowd near the shelter houses that Hicks had a gun. People started running. The two men, meanwhile, were sidling along to the side of Hicks, all the while telling him to drop the pistol. Roark was trying to get close to Hicks, he said, when the gun wheeled in his direction.

“I told him, ‘Dude, don’t do this,’” Roark said, “‘it isn’t necessary.’”

The next thing Roark remembers is the bang of the gunfire.

Sitting in the hospital days after the shooting, Roark indicated with his index finger the path the bullet took through his chest just below the left clavicle, puncturing his lung and skidding across his shoulder blade before exiting out his back.

“I’ve known him, he’s been a nice guy,” Roark said of Hicks. “I honestly didn’t think he would pull the trigger. But I also know that he had the capability to do it. It was one of those situations where he probably could. And he showed me he did.”

Keesey remembers four shots after that, all aimed in his direction, all misses. He has a brand new hole in the sleeve of his leather jacket that he’s convinced was put there by one of Hicks’ bullets.

“I don’t know why I’m not dead,” Keesey said days later. “I saw the muzzle blast.”

After shooting Roark, Hicks stood over the injured man and aimed the gun into the crowd.

Hoping to cause a distraction, Keesey pelted a few rocks at Hicks. He thinks one might have hit him in the shoulder, maybe the head, but he’s not sure. Either way, it seemed to work.

“That’s when I got him to chase after me,” Keesey said. “He kept pointing the gun over here at the people, and I said, ‘Shoot me you sonofabitch.’ I took off and he followed me.”

Keesey pushed through a nearby gate and started running north along the western side of the maintenance garage. Hicks pursued, firing multiple shots as he went.

“I didn’t want the kids to get hit,” Keesey said. “That’s all I could think of.”

The crowd in the back lot continued to disperse.

Roberta Harmon, who was helping build a small house on the Cornerstone property as part of an affordable housing initiative, had gone over to investigate the shouting when she saw Hicks “methodically” shoot Roark in the chest. She also saw Keesey running toward her along the garage, yelling at her to run.

Harmon dialed 911 on her cell phone and started moving toward the fence at the northern end of the lot. Keesey meanwhile was bolting across open ground, bullets kicking up dirt at his heels, thudding into the maintenance garage and pinging into a steel container nearby. Keesey counted a total of 13 shots fired.

“Every time it went off,” Harmon said, “I thought he’d shot someone like he’d just shot Jim.”

Keesey made it to the northern fence, where he and another man named Peter Kish helped Harmon get over to the other side. Both Kish and Harmon hid near the printing plant on the western side of First Street, while Keesey, who had also leaped the fence by then, ran east along the train tracks toward the fire station.

It was then that Keesey heard the loud crack of a rifle.

Officer Barry Young with the Rapid City Police Department was the first member of law enforcement to arrive at the scene. According to Kish and other eyewitnesses, Young told Hicks twice to drop the gun. Kish and other eyewitnesses said they saw Hicks fire at Young, who then shot the gunman twice in the chest with his rifle.

Hicks fell on the western side of the maintenance garage. He was later pronounced dead of his wounds at Rapid City Regional Hospital.

The whole ordeal, Keesey said, lasted only 37 seconds.

Keesey heard someone shout that the shooter had been taken down, and he jumped over the fence on the eastern side of the Cornerstone back lot. He rushed over to Roark, who lay bleeding on the pavement where he had fallen only moments earlier, and plugged his friend’s entry and exit wounds with his thumbs until medical help arrived. By the time the paramedics got there, Keesey was covered in Roark’s blood.

“Had it not been for him I probably wouldn’t have made it,” Roark said of Keesey. “When they put me in the ambulance, I’d already lost two pints of blood.”

___

A week after the shooting, Keesey had only slept a few hours. He had visited Roark at Rapid City Regional Hospital several times, and each man was just as baffled at the other’s survival.

They can only guess at why Hicks tried to kill them. Keesey said a while back, he helped the police identify and arrest a methamphetamine dealer who he believes Hicks associated with. He thinks maybe that had something to do with it.

Roark thinks Hicks’ life simply unraveled as he became consumed by drugs and unchecked mental illness.

“He was just a lost little boy,” Roark said. “I think his world had collapsed. I think he just snapped. I’m not going to try to build him up to be this psychotic . I think it was suicide by cop.”

Officer Young, who has been placed on administrative leave, declined the Journal’s request for an interview. Hicks sometimes worked at the business of his mother, Jackie Giago, and his stepfather, Tim Giago, who is the former publisher of the Native Sun News in Rapid City. Giago wrote an email to the Journal in which he said, “Earl was never a violent person, he was just a troubled man.”

“We knew Earl had mental problems,” Tim Giago wrote. “He knew it. Twice he checked himself into Regional West and each time he was prescribed pills and turned out. His mom even went with him to see the psychiatrist and the doctor listed him as schizophrenic/paranoid. We wonder how he was able to buy a gun without this info being available. That is all we have to say on the matter.”

Hicks’ criminal record is clean except for a minor traffic violation.

Keesey said he isn’t angry so much at Hicks as he is at the fact that someone with serious mental health problems could get his hands on a gun without raising any alarm. He’s angry about what happened to his friend, and he’s angry at Hicks’ family for not getting him the help he needed.

“He should never have been out on the street,” Keesey said.

The Journal has requested information about the gun Hicks used, but local and state authorities have not responded. After Rapid City police stopped Hicks at the scene, the investigation into the incident was taken on by the state Division of Criminal Investigation. A DCI statement issued last Monday said the agency would release a report on its investigation within a month.

Keesey is fairly certain Hicks’ pistol was a Smith & Wesson .380, but he has no way of knowing for sure. He and Roark claim the police have told them that it wasn’t the only weapon Hicks brought with him to Cornerstone, that investigators later found a shotgun and a high-powered rifle in his truck. Rapid City Police Chief Karl Jegeris said last week that he doesn’t know if there were other guns in Hicks’ truck because the state is handling that portion of the investigation.

Footage from the Journal security cameras was inconclusive, though investigators can be seen searching Hicks’ truck with flashlights several hours after the shooting.

Rapid City Police officials are also trying to grapple with the great risk Hicks created. Police spokesman Brendyn Medina said over the phone last week that, “It’s very clear that this could have been a lot worse.”

The following Wednesday, Jegeris, Medina and officer Young returned to the scene to walk the site and reflect on what took place. Jegeris later said the return was one way for the officer to try to cope with the tragedy that occurred there.

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Information from: Rapid City Journal, https://www.rapidcityjournal.com


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