SWAT team leader relates mass shooting experiences

by SARA MARSHALL//Editor-in-chief

Bullets whizzing by his head. Distraught shouts and cries ringing in his ears. Footsteps echoing through the empty, disheveled hallways. Chaos unfolding all around him.

Grant Whitus never backed down from the challenge of being SWAT Team Leader in his 17 years of service in the Colorado SWAT.

Despite beginning his life as an unruly young man, Whitus quickly embraced the idea of enforcing the law, rather than breaking it. He retired in 2009 from the Jefferson County Sheriff’s office in the Denver, Colorado area as a sergeant after 26 years of service.

Whitus became the SWAT Team Leader in the last seven years of his tenure in the Colorado SWAT. He is an expert in mass shootings and is also certified as an expert in close quarter battle, which is classified as a firearms shoot-out within a close distance, such as a school room.

The process of becoming a SWAT officer is no walk in the park for potential members, according to Whitus. Those hoping to make the team must go through extensive training to prove they are up to the challenge of future situations.

“It’s a very rigorous testing process, and we only accept the best of the best,” Whitus said. “It starts with the Cooper Test. If they get through that portion, then they go forward to the obstacle course, which is about a six-minute obstacle course, and they have to wear a tack vest, which is about 40 pounds, and boots. So by the time those two tests were done, we’ve knocked out probably 80 percent of the people. They went home. When they’ve passed that, we went on to a tactical shoot, which we put together. We call it a stress shoot, which means we make them run, do pushups and then we kind of have a hostage shoot. If they pass that, next we would go through a SWAT oral board. So, at the most, it was about two out of 10 that ever passed all those tests and actually got on to the team.”

Being in SWAT, one can expect to be in the forefront of “high-risk” situations such as narcotic busts and hostage situations. More recently, mass shootings have become the number one priority for many SWAT team members.

“My first mass shooting was in ’95,” Whitus told the Plainsman Press in a recent interview. “Then I did the Columbine High School shooting. And I was the first SWAT guy to go into Columbine.”

During the brisk morning of April 20, 1999, two students decided to bring bombs and guns to Columbine High School with the intentions of causing mayhem. Before killing themselves, they succeeded in killing 13 others and wounding 23.

While seeking out the Columbine shooters, Whitus (then a SWAT team member) attempted to give aid to a teacher who had been shot. But unfortunately, the victim died soon after. He then entered the library first, locating the shooters. As Whitus and his team waited for the relief of the secondary SWAT team, a surreal moment burned into his memory.

“Myself and my partner Albert sat down, and we were sitting in a hallway,” Whitus recalls. “I was really exhausted, and I looked up at a poster on the wall, and it had this young pretty girl there that said ‘Vote for me: president.’ I looked at Albert, and I said, ‘Did you see her?’ Meaning you know, was she shot? And he said, ‘No, did you?’ And I said, ‘No, I don’t know.’ We never said another word after that. We walked out of the school, got in our SWAT van and left.”

Despite saving so many lives, the unforgettable catastrophe of the Columbine shooting wreaked havoc on the lives of Whitus and his team.

“I was fortunate and the luckiest guy in the world to go through those and still survive,” Whitus said. “But it obviously took such a toll on me and the guys. It kind of ruined my personal life, so that was the downside of it.”

A year after Columbine first happened, Whitus had changed drastically.

“We were still working through a lot,” Whitus said. “We wouldn’t talk to the media, so the media was calling us cowards, and we wouldn’t tell them what had happened. It was all tearing me up inside. And then a year later, my wife found a new guy and left me, took the child and walked out the door. So, that almost tore me apart. But as bad as it was for me, for some of my squad guys it was much worse for them.”

As he worked through everything in his personal life and got back on his feet, Whitus went on to become the SWAT team leader. During his career, Whitus became the most decorated employee at the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office after receiving 16 medals, five of which were Medals for Valor.

“I never really cared about the medals to be honest,” Whitus said. “I was so fortunate in my career that I did so many things, from undercover to SWAT. You name it, I did it. I really cared the least about the awards. To me, it was more about having the respect of my men.”

Whitus continued his career in SWAT for many years after, then began to finish his career after diffusing the situation at the Platte Canyon High School shooting in Bailey, Colo. in 2006. The Platte Canyon shooting was a hostage crisis. The gunman, 53-year-old Duane Roger Morrison, took six female students hostage and sexually assaulted them, later releasing four.

“By that time, I was an explosive breacher, and I had an explosive team,” Whitus said. “To get to this guy that was in the school, we blew the wall out so our officers could get to them.”

Once the room was breached, they found one of the two girls had been killed during the breach. Whitus claims the moment he realized they had saved one of the girls, it had been the highlight of his career.

“I had just built this brand new SWAT team using young, big athletes and trained them how to be great SWAT team leaders and operators,” Whitus said. “That day when we did that explosive entry, if anything would have went wrong, we would have lost both girls. Meaning that if the bombs didn’t go off, or if someone did something wrong, we would have lost both children to him shooting both of them. So things had to be perfect as they were, and every guy was absolutely perfect that day.”

Under his direction, Whitus’s team was able to diffuse many “high-risk” situations and save several people during his time as SWAT team leader. Whitus attributes this success to the almost military-type bonds he and his team have.

“I loved it, and the guys were fantastic,” Whitus said. “They were all very dedicated. They dedicated their lives to being SWAT team members. So it was absolutely the pinnacle of my career. Just to stand with the men, knowing that they would do anything for me or anything I asked because they knew I would do anything for them, was the greatest accomplishment of my career.”

School shootings take place across the country every year, and there are always SWAT teams just like Whitus’s ready to save the day. Though many Americans feel that gun control is the solution, Whitus has a different opinion.

“I can simply say, look how it’s working for Chicago,” Whitus said. “It doesn’t work. I want every good blooded, American citizen to have a weapons permit, train with it and have it with them. If that occurred, we would have a lot less mass shootings than we would today, because as soon as one broke out, it would be a good person there with a gun to shoot him.”

Now, Whitus is happily married, and has a daughter. He also is running his own private company which trains security guards. Just recently, he published his narration of the events during Columbine, Platte Canyon and other school shootings titled, “Bullet Riddled.”

“Waldorf publishing gave me this opportunity, and I took it,” Whitus said. “I was honest in the thoughts I put and in the way I told the story, right down to every detail. I cussed in it, just like I would normally tell a story, and I talked about my successes, my failures, what went right, what went wrong. So everybody that reads it can say, ‘Wow, that’s interesting.’ And military guys can say, ‘That’s fascinating to me.’ I hope the book is inspirational for everybody. But also it lets everybody across the United States know that we have these tragedies in our community, and it not only affects the victims and the victims’ families, but the law enforcement as well.”

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