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Lucia Wade, with her dog Cody, is still recovering from being struck by a car while chasing a robbery suspect across Santa Rosa Avenue in October, 2009, as a Santa Rosa Police officer.

Injured in the line of duty

Lucia Wade has no recollection of speaking the words. But she's told that as she lay broken, torn and mostly unconscious in an intensive-care unit 15 months ago, she made at least two notable utterances.

"Did they catch him?" the once fleet-footed, 5-foot-4, 120-pound Santa Rosa police officer had asked of no one in particular at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital. "Oh, man," she'd softly rued in another waking moment, "I was just getting good at this job."

She'd searched into her mid-30s for a line of work that challenged, rewarded and exhilarated her. She was a Marin County parochial school athletics director, physical trainer, globe-trotting technical writer, eradicator of invasive plants on Mount Tamalpais and crime-scene evidence technician.

That last job, a civilian post that involved assisting Santa Rosa police officers, came close to being her dream job. But observing and getting to know the officers ignited in her an aspiration to become one.

"I wanted to chase bad guys," Wade, now 39, said in her first public interview since almost being killed in the line of duty. "Actually, I didn't want to chase bad guys, but I wanted to catch them."

She applied to become a cop, passed the stringent tests and bore down at the police academy. In June 2006, she was sworn in by then-Santa Rosa Police Chief Ed Flint. Her mother, Sarah Jennings, pinned on her badge as her dad, Alan Wade, beamed. Officer Lucia (LU-shah) Wade had found her passion and she was determined not to lose her suspect when on Oct. 11, 2009, within minutes of the end of a quiet shift and of her work week, she ran onto Santa Rosa Avenue while shouting "Stop!" at a fleeing man she believed to be a mugger.

That was to be her final act as a peace officer.

She doesn't recall running into the path of a black BMW that she apparently hadn't seen behind a larger vehicle. Horrified onlookers watched the impact send her headlong into the car's windshield, hurl her into the air and slam her hard onto the pavement.

The guy she was pursuing, 43-year-old Manuel "Manny" Santiago, who days before was alleged to have pushed a man down on Barham Avenue and stolen his cell phone, ran safely across the busy four-lane boulevard. But no farther.

Truck driver Andy Brewster, who was buying a beer at Steel Deli & Liquor, heard a commotion and saw a woman in a dark blue uniform get flung skyward. Spotting a guy running toward the liquor-store parking lot, Brewster bolted over and grabbed him.

The suspect tried to pull free and cried to Brewster, "Let me go! I'm having a seizure."

Brewster tightened his grip and replied, "Let me help you have one."

Santiago later would be sentenced to four years in prison.

Back in Santa Rosa Avenue's far-right northbound lane, witnesses, fellow police officers, firefighters and paramedics gazed in horror at the crumpled officer. She'd suffered terrible injuries to her face and head.

Friends who work in emergency medicine would confide to her later that in their experience, pedestrians struck down in accidents like that usually don't survive. She thinks protection from her bulletproof vest was largely responsible for that.

"I don't remember what happened," Wade said over coffee at a Santa Rosa caf?

While on duty, the focused and understated graduate of Massachusetts' prestigious Smith College kept her brown hair pulled tightly back, but nowadays she wears a more casual, free style. She sports glasses that help some with eyesight problems she's endured since the accident but don't resolve a stubborn case of double vision.

"I don't remember most of the hospital stay," she said.

She does, however, recall most of that Sunday patrol shift. She certainly remembers what a fellow southwest beat officer said to her after they spoke early that day about checking in on an ex-con suspected of violating parole.

"He wagged his finger at me and said, &‘No foot pursuits!' "

Not every patrol cop is built for or fond of running after crime suspects. But Wade was a serious recreational runner - 15 marathons, six 50-kilometer runs - and to her, foot pursuits were something she didn't shy from and something she wanted to get better at.

It wasn't about sprinting after a bad guy, tackling him, perhaps trading punches and wrestling him into handcuffs. That's the TV model. What Wade strived to do when a suspect bolted on foot was to keep pace with him and use her two-way radio to describe his appearance, location and direction of travel to fellow officers who, ideally, would intercept him.

"I'm proud of my foot pursuits," she said. "It's unfortunate that my career had to end in one. But I was doing my job as best as I knew how."

On that Sunday afternoon, her job included looking for strong-arm robbery suspect Santiago. A fellow officer had told her she'd probably seen Santiago often on Santa Avenue but just hadn't put a name to him.

Sure enough, that afternoon, as Wade was driving her patrol car south on the avenue, she passed a man on the sidewalk whom she realized as Santiago. She prepared to make a U-turn and approach him.

"Right then," she said, "I was dispatched to a fight on Kawana Springs Road."

She rolled to that location but found nothing. She wanted to return to Santa Rosa Avenue and to Santiago, but she figured he might have been spooked when she'd driven past him. So she parked near the bicycle path on Colgan Avenue, looked to see if he was there, then walked west toward Santa Rosa Avenue.

She recalls that she was alongside the America's Best Value Inn at Colgan and Santa Rosa avenues when something halted her.

"I heard this little girl's voice from above, saying, &‘Who are you looking for?' "

She looked up to see a child standing at the motel's second-floor railing. How cute, the officer thought. She replied to the girl, "I'm looking for a bad guy!"

The child then pointed catty-corner across Santa Rosa Avenue, toward the Chevron station and Denny's restaurant. "He's over there," she said.

Wade wasn't expecting that. She asked the child what the man she was talking about was wearing. The kid answered, "He has on a soldier's uniform a black knit cap."

Astounding. When Wade had spotted Santiago on the sidewalk minutes earlier he was wearing military garb and a black knit cap. She climbed the stairs and spoke to the girl's mother, who confirmed they'd seen a suspicious-acting man walk past the motel, cross the street and duck into bushes near Denny's.

Wade radioed a fellow officer on patrol nearby and told him she'd quickly return to her car and meet him at Denny's. She remembers pulling up and stopping outside the restaurant.

"That's it," she said. "Then it's gone."

She has no recollection of what happened next but has been told that Santiago fled on foot to the east, across Santa Rosa Avenue and that she sprinted after him. She's heard how horrendous her accident was.

She learned later that she spent eight days in Memorial and was treated for multiple fractures to her face and damage to her left knee and elbow. It was her left side that took the brunt of the collision.

She also learned that while she was fighting for her life she received a flood of cards and messages of support from colleagues and members of the community.

"I wasn't supposed to survive, but I did," she said. "I'm very grateful to everyone for their prayers and good wishes. Sonoma County has come through for me, big time."

By now Wade has undergone five surgeries to her eyes and she'll soon have another, which she hopes will correct the double-vision. She's had two rounds of oral surgery and one knee surgery.

Although she's by nature not a complainer, she will admit it's irksome that the brain injury has affected her sense of smell, which has done strange things to her sense of taste. She used to like olives, pickles, watermelon, raspberries but not now.

"The weirdest things, I can't stand anymore."

There is no sugar-coating the most painful consequence of her injuries.

"I was just devastated when I had to retire" from the Police Department, she said. "Just devastated."

Police work "is a very hellish field in many ways," she added. "But, boy, is it rewarding. I was getting better and better at it."

Colleagues and superiors had taken notice of how hard she drove herself to learn from seasoned officers and to hone her skills.

"That's what Lucia has, a willingness to learn and to try anything," said Police Chief Tom Schwedhelm. "Her attitude comes across. She's the type of person any employer is looking for."

Jeff Peterich, who'd gone through the public safety academy at Santa Rosa Junior College with Wade in early 2006 and become a Windsor police officer, said he never saw a more diligent cop.

As bitter a pill as her disability-caused retirement is, Wade is grateful to receive medical and disability benefits and to have recovered to the degree she has.

"So I've got some knee problems," said the former marathoner. "I can walk!"

She takes stock of how fortunate she is each time she and her partner, Monica Nascimento, who works as a patent assistant at a law firm, walk their Doberman pinscher, Cody, and chat with neighbors who've pulled for her throughout the ordeal.

She said she's not about to retire altogether and she wants still to be of help. She's begun to do some volunteering and she's strongly drawn to the prospect of working with victims of elder abuse, child abuse and domestic violence at the Family Justice Center that Sonoma County will open this year.

She is no longer a police officer serving her city by pursuing criminals, and that's rough. But she's alive.

"I'm sure I'll figure something else out," she said.

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