Officer Thomas O'Donnell woke up early on New Year's Eve in 2017 and got dressed for work. Then, O'Donnell — a member of the Castle Rock Police Department and the Douglas County Regional SWAT Team …
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Officer Thomas O'Donnell woke up early on New Year's Eve in 2017 and got dressed for work. Then, O'Donnell — a member of the Castle Rock Police Department and the Douglas County Regional SWAT Team — received an alert concerning a shooting in Highlands Ranch.
With that, O'Donnell became one of numerous officers from multiple agencies who responded to the Copper Canyon apartment complex Dec. 31. Matthew Riehl, an armed and mentally ill resident, had opened fire on Douglas County Sheriff's Office deputies.
Riehl shot four officers in his initial attack, killing Deputy Zackari Parrish, authorities said. Before the gunfight with law enforcement ended with Riehl being killed by SWAT officers, he'd also wound two civilians in neighboring apartments and O'Donnell.
On May 18, the Castle Rock Police Department awarded O'Donnell the Medal of Valor and a Purple Heart for his actions during the incident. O'Donnell, a Castle Rock resident and a father to a 9-year-old daughter, has served in law enforcement for 17 years, 10 of those being with the Castle Rock Police Department.
“It's kind of surreal,” O'Donnell said in a news conference following the award ceremony. “I don't see my actions as heroic or anything I wouldn't do all over again for any one of these guys.”
O'Donnell, a SWAT team leader, helped form plans to rescue Parrish that morning. With the first burst of gunfire, Parrish had fallen to the ground and remained there, unresponsive, trapped inside with Riehl. For approximately 90 minutes, tactical teams struggled to determine how they could breach the apartment.
“He was shooting through all of the walls, the ceiling, the floor — it was very difficult trying to figure out which way we were going to get in there and try and rescue Zach,” O'Donnell said.
Ultimately, they found a way. Castle Rock Officer Matt McNairy maneuvered an armored vehicle between the apartment buildings, successfully covering for other officers and distracting Riehl long enough so they could get inside.
McNairy also received an award for superior tactics at the May 18 ceremony.
Still, the teams took heavy fire. A bullet pierced the wall and splintered into shrapnel, which struck and wounded O'Donnell. After a quick self-evaluation, O'Donnell said, he continued working.
“I knew I'd gotten hit,” he said. “We still had a job to do, so I kept going until everything was done.”
He estimated five minutes passed between the time of his injury and the time he received medical attention. In those five minutes, the officers rescued Parrish, “neutralized” Riehl and swept the apartment for other people or dangerous items.
O'Donnell said he'd worked dangerous calls before in which people were killed, but never a fellow officer.
“At one point, I was informed that it was Zack up there, so then the emotions kind of hit, but I had to push those back and get back to work,” O'Donnell said.
Once the shooting ended, however, O'Donnell said the emotions flooded back.
“We played softball together, we were on the same shift right before he left for county, so we got to talk a lot during that time and went on several calls together,” O'Donnell said of his friendship with Parrish, who served with the Castle Rock department before going to the sheriff's office.
Also at the ceremony was Gracie Parrish, Zackari Parrish's wife, with the couple's two young daughters.
Gracie Parrish said she attended to honor law enforcement's work. When asked about O'Donnell receiving the Purple Heart, she simply said: “He deserves it.”
“It was emotional to know that he put his life on the line to go in and to not only rescue by husband, or to make an effort to rescue my husband,” she said, “but to also just save the lives of other civilians who were at risk.”
The family still has hard days, she said, but cherishes the good ones.
Police Chief Jack Cauley said the annual award ceremony is an important time of year.
“It's so important to stop and recognize our heroes that are out in the community, that are out on the front lines, each and every day,” he said. “Officers handle those types of calls every single day throughout the community and across the country and you never know when a call is going to turn tragic. And this one did.”
O'Donnell in turn praised Gracie Parrish, saying her strength had inspired him and helped him in his own healing process, during which the hardest part was not healing physically, he said, but mentally.
““I hugged my daughter a little tighter after that day," he said.
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