Tom Kacich: Survivor recalls Paxton shootout 35 years later
A lot has changed in Paxton since a notorious interstate highway shootout 35 years ago this month that left five people dead, including two police officers.
The small community hospital where some of the wounded were treated that late Saturday night has closed and now sits vacant on the town's east side, Paxton's population has dropped, its high school has been consolidated, and most of the major figures in that drama have moved away or died.
But Larry Hale, a Paxton police officer who was shot twice that night and somehow survived, still lives in Paxton and is a part-time officer there.
"You gotta do what you gotta do," said Hale, now 62, and literally a man of few words.
An officer for four years and just one week into his first marriage, Hale was working in Paxton that night when Illinois State Trooper Michael McCarter pulled over four speeding vehicles on I-57.
Hale, dealing with his own traffic violator at the time, eventually got to the scene in the southbound lanes and saw a string of vehicles parked on the side of the highway. Within minutes he was engaged in a gunfight. He was shot in the right leg and just below his heart.
He managed to shoot and mortally wound his assailant, later identified as David Lampkin of Union Pier, Mich. It was the only time in his career that Hale fired his weapon, he said.
"Most guys never get it out of their holster," Hale said.
Among those killed in the shootout were Trooper McCarter and his brother-in-law, Donald Vice; Paxton Police Officer William Caise; and two Lampkin brothers, David and Cleveland. A third Lampkin, Clyde, was never charged. The fourth, Monroe, 78, is serving a life sentence at the Stateville Correctional Center. He has been behind bars, either in jail or prison, since the day after the April 7, 1979, incident.
Hale spent the night of the shooting at the old Paxton Community Hospital. He knew as soon as it happened that he had been shot in the leg near his right knee. "It broke a bunch of bones. The doctor who worked on it said, 'You'll have problems when you get older.' And he was right," Hale said.
But the shot in the torso was a surprise, said Hale, who never lost consciousness.
"The doctor put a big, long Q-tip-like thing in there and I said, 'What are you doing?' He said, 'You got shot here.' I didn't even know it."
He was transferred the next day to Burnham City Hospital in Champaign, also closed in the intervening 35 years. Two weeks later he was out of the hospital. Six months later he was back at work.
"I never gave it a second thought. I could have taken a partial disability back then because I had a disability with my leg but I just went back to work," said Hale, who became a cop in 1973 after he befriended a Paxton officer who had given him a ticket for driving with a loud muffler.
"I think things were different back then. People worked. You had to work. You got a job and you figured, 'Well, I've got to go to work.' So that's what we did. It's a little different now where people don't seem to want to work," he said.
Hale said he's not sure where he got that attitude, but it may have been his mother's parents.
"My mom's parents were hard workers. They farmed a little place in Kentucky and yeah, they were hard-working people. There's not much good land in Kentucky," he said. "They had a little tobacco patch and they raised their own cows and pigs."
Hale said he never needed counseling, never had nightmares, and never was afraid to go back to police work, even on weekend nights.
"I don't know, just the old Kentuckian in me, I guess," said Hale. "It was just something that happened on the job. People get hurt on the job all the time.
"I think I had a mind-set that I didn't do anything wrong. They brought it to us. What I did was I just protected myself and the other guys. I didn't do anything wrong."
"Larry's old-school cop," said Paxton Police Chief Bob Bane. "He doesn't talk much about what happened."
"Larry's always been the type of guy who just took things in stride," said Jim Kingston, who was mayor of Paxton at the time and describes Hale as "a good friend."
Since the shooting Hale worked private security in Iraq for a year and has endured a very public police discipline process, and, most recently, the illness of his only son, Clayton, 25.
"It's been an interesting life," he said.
His son is doing better, although he has visits either to Carle Hospital in Urbana or Barnes Hospital in St. Louis every week.
"He's been sick almost his entire life, ever since he was about 4 months old," Hale said of Clayton. "He'd been at Barnes for six or seven months being treated for leukemia. But he's doing good now."
Five years ago Paxton officials held a short service at the city hall to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the shootout; nothing is planned this year.
"There's not too many people any more who remember it," he said. "I'll be taking my son to the hospital that day."
Tom Kacich is a News-Gazette editor and columnist. His column appears on Wednesdays and Sundays. He can be reached at 351-5221 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.