Two local sheriff’s deputies, who are now bonded for life by a near-death experience, are telling their story of survival for the first time ever since a violent shootout nearly took their lives.
Detective Ali Perez and Sgt. Craig Johnson were both shot and seriously wounded by child molestation suspect Dan Witczak on September 25 during an extensive shootout at a Lakeside apartment complex.
Sgt. Johnson was shot twice -- in the side and arm -- while Deputy Perez sustained several critical injuries from the shootout, including wounds to the stomach, shoulder and vital arteries in his arm.
Nearly four months and several surgeries later, the deputies told NBC 7 in an exclusive interview that they are still recovering from their gunshot wounds and that very frightening day on the job.
Sgt. Johnson remembers that day in September as nothing short of chaotic.
"Ali got hit first and almost immediately I got hit," he recalled. “We were just trying to deal with the situation and figure out what we were going to do. It was a very intense period of time.”
Det. Perez remembers the second he was critically struck by high-caliber bullets during the ambush, and dropping to the ground almost instantly.
"It's a loud bang and a ringing of the ears and then a numbness feeling in the arm,” he said. "I knew that I was severely hit. I was losing a lot of blood and I told myself, ‘I have about five minutes until I pass out.’"
Although Sgt. Johnson was struck twice, he said he didn’t immediately feel pain.
“It was very intense, the fact that I was able to see Ali, I think the adrenaline was flowing,” he added.
Thanks to the heroics of fellow law enforcement officers, both deputies were rescued and taken to Sharp Memorial Hospital.
Sgt. Johnson was doing okay following the shootout, but Det. Perez was not.
“I should have been dead a hundred times over. The bottom line is that I'm not dead and the only reason why I'm not dead is because the Lord intervened on my behalf,” said Perez.
The deputies say their survival is not the only miracle.
Over the past several months, they’ve been overwhelmed and truly touched by the outpouring of love and support from their family, friends, colleagues and the San Diego community.
Perez said the walls inside his hospital room were completely covered with cards, pictures and words of encouragement – many of them from complete strangers.
Johnson said he’s received endless letters from supporters as well, including heartwarming notes from children.
“It touched my heart so much. I framed a couple of them and put them in my office. Just very thoughtful, touching words, from kids five years old to 13, 14 years old,” he said.
Between the constant encouragement, both deputies have been undergoing intensive rehabilitation.
Within just the past week, Sgt. Johnson was able to return to work.
For the Det. Perez, the journey back will be much longer. However, at this point, he’s prepared for anything.
"And if it comes to the point where I can't use my left arm so be it. Life will go on,” he said.
Det. Perez said the experience has bonded him and Sgt. Johnson for the rest of their lives.
“I'm going to be retired, 80 years old, and he'll still be my brother,” said Perez.
Johnson couldn’t agree more.
"It's just been a true bonding. We’ve become brothers in law enforcement and a family way too," said Johnson.
No matter what, Det. Perez said he will be back at work some day and Sgt. Johnson can’t wait for that day to come.
Both deputies said they want to thank the doctors and nurses at Sharp Memorial for saving their lives and the community for all of the support shown over the past few months.
Most importantly, the men said they’re forever grateful to their families – especially their wives – for helping them get through this, day in, day out.