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A Terrible Place for a Gunfight     by Lyn Bates

It was just a normal Saturday evening in March in the convenience store where Darlene Ramsey and Charmaine Klaus worked.

Darlene was the cashier, a bright, pleasant, hard-working 21-year old, with a boyfriend and plans for the future. She had been working this job for several months, but this was her last week, as she was about to start a new job as a phlebotomist at one of the local hospitals.

Charmaine, the manager, was old enough to have been Darlene's mother, and already had a married daughter of her own, and 3 more still at home. Having worked at another store for more than a year, she had transferred to the store in Clarkston, Michigan 6 months ago.

The store was in a rural area of Michigan, about 5 miles from one of the region's major attractions, the Pine Knob ski resort. Despite the presence of a strip mall with a pizza joint nearby, the area was very dark at night.

At that time, in 1980, especially in rural areas like Charmaine's, most people thought nothing about having guns around, though anti-gun feelings were starting to be heard in some quarters. Charmaine was an active North-South Skirmish Association (N-SSA) shooter, participating with her husband, Bill, in civil war reinactments, firing black powder muskets, carbines, and even canons! She knew how to handle a handgun, too. She and Bill had one ever since they were married; she shot it quite a bit, though she had never had "self-defense" lessons.

When Charmaine started working at the convenience store, it meant spending lots of time there alone, and depositing the receipts after closing. The store owners had a strong policy against firearms on the premises.

Bill and Charmaine talked it over thoroughly. They concluded that since the location was dark and isolated, the job was sufficiently dangerous that she would defy the store's policy, and go armed to work, even though she would probably be fired if the owners found out.

So, Charmaine's work companion, in addition to Darlene, was a little Smith&Wesson Model 60, a 5 shot, .38 cal revolver that she loaded with 125 gr jacketed Remingtons. It went with her in an inside-the-waistband holster that was easily concealed by the smock that employees were required to wear. Whenever she went into the back office, a tiny room connected to the main part of the store by a hallway, she would take the gun out of the holster and put it in the center drawer of the desk.

That Saturday, the store was due to close at 11 pm. At around 10:45, Charmaine was in the back, doing the books and starting to get the deposit ready. Darlene was in the front, which had been empty of customers for a while.

Suddenly Darlene raced down the hallway and burst through the office door, shouting, "Char, there's a masked man with a gun out there!"

----------

The man in the ski mask was not from the Pine Knobs ski resort. His name was Joseph Hartford, he was 21 years old, and he was out of jail on bail for drug dealing.

This particular evening, he and two of his buddies decided to make some money, and have some fun. But they didn't start with Charmaine's store.

They robbed two other stores first, at gunpoint. In one of them, Joe put the barrel of his 9 round, semi-automatic .38 Super into the clerk's mouth, but did not pull the trigger, perhaps because a lot of people in the store and he did not want witnesses.

The trio must have felt quite invincible when they approached their third target that night.

The buddies parked a few blocks away and waited in the car while Joe walked to the store, saw only Darlene inside, and knew this was going to be even better than the last two stickups!

---------- "Char, there's a masked man with a gun out there!"

Charmaine instantly yelled, "Lock the door! I'll call the police!" Charmaine picked up the phone and started dialing the police (there was no 911 in that area then).

Darlene frantically slammed the door, and reached for the lock. Before she could twist it closed, Joe started to shoot, right through the door, and hit her.

It was a small room, and Darlene flew backward and slammed against the wall. Joe opened the door, and stood in the doorway, and Charmaine saw him, or at least his mask, for the first time.

She knew she would never have time to complete that phone call to the police. She dropped the phone, and went for the gun in the desk drawer.

Joe was continuing to fire, and he hit Darlene two more times. She fell to the floor. Unconscious, or dead? Charmaine didn't know, but she was about to change what was happening from a double murder into a gunfight.

The little revolver felt normal in her hand, and she didn't have to hesitate even a scintilla of a second to think about what she was doing. She had long ago made up her mind that she would use her gun if she had to, and now, she had to!!

Charmaine fired at the ski mask, and forced him back into the hall for a moment, but he kept firing into the tiny room, this time trying to hit Charmaine. She heard rounds whizzing by her ears, sounding "like a little pop gun," and she pushed the chair back, trying to use the desk as cover, still firing at him.

Joe returned to the room, walked over to where Darlene lay on the floor, pulled up her head, reached out with his gun, and deliberately shot her through the temple. Then he turned to get Charmaine.

He came at her, intent on delivering another fatal head shot just like the one he had inflicted on Darlene, and she instinctively ducked and put her left hand up to protect her head as he raised his gun. Her right hand still held her revolver, with one shot left. They fired virtually simultaneously. Her ducking maneuver probably saved her life; the bullet went through her left hand, through part of her jaw, and into her neck, through her larynx.

Charmaine's focus was not on her own injury, but on the gun in Joe's hand. She saw the slide lock back, and knew he was out of ammunition. She also saw blood all over him, and realized that her own final shot had been effective. She had shot him in the mouth, expecting the round to continue right into his brain, but the bullet broke up on a tooth instead. Nonetheless, she knew he was seriously injured, and Joe knew it too -- he turned and ran out the back door.

Charmaine's first thought was "If we die, at least I shot him! There is enough evidence for them to catch him. He won't get away with it!"

Charmaine walked into the front of the store, where, oddly, there were several customers, angry that nobody was there to wait on them! "We've been shot!" Charmaine explained, and suddenly there was chaos there, too, as people tried to take in what had happened. Apparently the sounds of the gunfight, all 14 shots, had not been heard in the main part of the store.

When Joe left by the back door, he set off the security system, and in a few minutes, the security company called Charmaine's husband, sure that this was just another false alarm. "The alarm is going off again," they told him, "You had better go over there." Bill looked at his watch. "No," he said, "They aren't closed yet, so something is wrong. You'd better send the police NOW." The security company did, and in just a few minutes the Oakland County Sheriff's Department arrived, and Charmaine had the emergency medical care she needed to survive. Darlene, sadly, had been killed.

The police investigation proceeded just as it should. Since Charmaine never got a look at the face of the man in the ski mask, she could make no positive identification. Good detective work turned up the fact that Joe had his buddies drive him to a hospital in Detroit, almost an hour from Clarkston. He tried to claim that the bullet lodged in his throat came from a robber he had encountered in one of Detroit's most crime-ridden areas. But his blood was all over her office, and the bullet recovered from his throat matched her gun. Joe is now serving a life sentence for the murder of Darlene Ramsey.

Charmaine endured a lengthy recovery from her wounds. "They took part of my hip and put it in my jaw," she explains. "And did some cosmetic surgery. I can use my left hand, and it looks almost normal, just a couple of knuckles look a little odd."

Charmaine never went back to work for that store - the management was still completely unsympathetic to her need to carry a gun. "They would much rather have paid death benefits than workman's comp," she said. So, after making her recovery, she went back to school and began a new career she loved as a respiratory therapist, a position she held until she retired recently.

She is still involved in shooting sports, and now is teaching the older grandkids (she has 13) how to use firearms safely. She still goes armed "every single day," but she has upgraded from the little 5 shot revolver to a higher capacity 9mm semi-auto. "I never leave home without it!"

"My attitude is better than most," she says, "Because I had a chance to defend myself."

 

What lessons can we draw from Charmaine's experience?

A gunfight can find you in a matter of seconds. If you are going to survive, you had better have a gun! And you should be prepared to use it. It will happen fast. "It went so fast," Charmaine says, "but it was like it was in slow motion." That's the tachypsychia effect that most people experience during any sort of critical incident. (The same effect alters the perception of sounds, which is what made his shots sound to Charmaine like a pop gun.)

Complete familiarity with your weapon is essential, because you are going to do, under the incredible stress of a murderous attack, what you have done in practice. "If you are going to carry a gun," Charmaine states emphatically, "be sure you know how to use it, and be sure you won't have second thoughts about shooting someone who is trying to take your life. You won't have time to think."

You won't get to choose the location, so you will have to make the best of what you have. Charmaine's attempt to use the desk as cover is a good example. The tiny office she was in was no place you would choose for three people to have 14 rounds exchanged in a matter of seconds. "It was a terrible place to have a gunfight," she told me, "but that's what I had to work with, so that's what I did."

If someone is determined to kill you, and you have no defenses, you will die. But if you can turn the attempted murder into a gunfight, you have, as they say, a "fighting chance" of coming out alive.

Concealed carry saves lives. Charmaine's experience galvanized her to fight for concealed carry laws, so that more people, especially women, will be able to defend themselves. She saved her life with a gun just three days before she was to go before the board that issued concealed carry permits, to try to get one so that she could legally carry her gun with her when she made night deposits. Her appearance, and her license, were delayed until she was out of the hospital. She has had a permit ever since, but, she says, "You shouldn't need to be shot at before you can get one."


This article was reprinted from Women&Guns Jan-Feb 2001, Copyright © 2001, Lyn Bates