JACKSONVILLE — As he recovered from life-threatening gunshot wounds, Steve Helmich used humor as a coping mechanism.
The police chief of the small west-central Illinois village of Chapin (pop. 458), Helmich, 40, was involved in a vehicle pursuit March 26, 2022, and was shot twice — in the abdomen and upper left thigh — as he and other officers approached a car that had crashed. The driver had fled a traffic stop in nearby Meredosia before leading police on a high-speed chase through three counties.
The identity of the wounded officer was not known until April 11, when the Chapin Police Department sent out a news release. The author of the release was Helmich, who composed it while lying in bed during his 19-day stay at Memorial Medical Center in Springfield.
“It was kind of funny I had to write the press release myself,” Helmich said. “But they brought my laptop to me, and I just wrote it and sent it. As the police chief of Chapin, it was my responsibility to do so.”
The suspect in the shooting — Daniel B. Payne, 30, of Greenbrier, Tenn. — faces a charge of attempted first-degree murder of a police officer.
Helmich has been determined to do what he must to return to active police work. That has included a rigorous physical therapy regimen.
Also a part-time officer for the South Jacksonville Police Department, Helmich’s full-time job is as an investigator for the Office of Executive Inspector General for the Agencies of the Illinois Governor. He retired from the National Guard on Nov. 30, 2022, and started work for the state a day later.
“I have tried to find humor in the situation when I can because it is a sobering thought to think how close I came to dying,” Helmich said. “I was on active duty in the Illinois National Guard for 20 years and it is common among military, law enforcement and first responders to use humor to cope.”
When Helmich took over as police chief in January 2022, he had been serving the Chapin department since 2016. After his promotion, Helmich recruited Brad Rogers to the department to replace himself as sergeant. Rogers had spent 21 years with Jacksonville Police Department and now is a full-time investigator for the Illinois Department of Corrections.
“I told him Chapin was a friendly place with little or no crime and I needed the help,” Helmich said. “I had about seven years of law enforcement experience to his 25 years. I needed someone for advice, not someone who would run the department.
“As luck would have it, on the premise of serving a low-crime community, I became the victim of a shooting. It’s a funny thing to reflect on now.”
‘It’s not a joke’While lying in the ambulance waiting for a medical helicopter, he used an EMT’s cellphone to call dispatch to summon Rogers, as well as his sister, Sheryl Dossett, an administrative assistant for South Jacksonville Police.
“I joke around a lot and when she answered, I said, ‘Hey, it’s me. It’s not a joke, I’ve been shot. I’ll be OK. I’m just waiting for the helicopter,’” Helmich said.
“I didn’t answer at first because I didn’t recognize the number,” Dossett said. “But I had a bad feeling about it, so when he called again, I answered. He told me he’d been shot, and I headed to the hospital. I can’t remember some details because everything happened so fast.
“The doctor came in and told us he had been shot in the stomach. That’s when we called our parents. You sit and pray and hope everything is OK. It was a tough recovery, and we are grateful and blessed he’s alive.”
For Helmich and his sister, the late-night call announcing a trip to the hospital seemed like déjà vu. The shooting was the second time he had been taken by medical helicopter for injuries suffered while on duty in Chapin.
“I seem to be the one he calls when there is an accident,” Dossett said. “He called me after the deer incident.”
In June 2018, Helmich was chasing a speeder on U.S. 67 outside of Chapin and driving 90 mph when a deer jumped in front of his patrol car. The impact cut the deer in half and the part with the antlers hit the windshield. Covered in deer blood and broken glass, he was taken to Springfield by helicopter.
He was left with a broken nose and a shard of glass in the cornea of his left eye. He still has fragments of glass in his face, but his vision was unaffected.
“Given what could have happened, I was very fortunate,” Helmich said.
Then came the shooting four years later.
“When it first happened, it took a mental toll,” Helmich said.
“It took two months to process the traumatic feelings about being close to death. I compartmentalized to deal with it in small chunks. It took a while to come to grips with it.”
‘More to offer’Helmich has watched the video of the incident recorded by the patrol car’s dashcam at least two dozen times.
“Something I struggle with is whether I made the right decisions in the heat of the moment,” Helmich said. “Maybe I could have shielded myself better. There are tactical best practices and maybe I didn’t follow them.”
Once the criminal case is settled, he wants to use the video to teach tactical lessons.
“It’s not accurate to say I could have avoided getting shot, but maybe I could have shielded myself better,” he said. “Knowing what I know now, I might have approached things differently. When danger is in your face, it’s easy to Monday morning quarterback your decisions when you have a lifetime to ponder it.”
The outpouring of support, financially and emotionally, was gratifying, Helmich said. The Springfield Police Department paid for family members to stay in a hotel close to the hospital. The Meredosia and South Jacksonville departments donated money to his family for expenses. They received money and gift cards, and the Jacksonville department offered to take care of his lawn.
“I’m humbled that people I didn’t know offered help at the weakest point in my life,” Helmich said.
He isn’t ready to quit.
“Through this, I leaned heavily on my faith in God and reflected on the opportunities God gave me to stay alive,” he said. “I have faced two dangerous events and survived both of them. I believe I have more to do, more to offer.”