Bellingham officer awarded Medal of Honor after chase, shootout

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDMay 8, 2014 

In August 2013, Bellingham Police Sgt. Donald L. Almer raced after two suspected gas-station robbers as one of them fired a shotgun out the window at his patrol car.

When the fleeing car crashed, one of the men continued shooting at police. Almer fired back, wounding the driver. He then administered first aid as police waited for medics.

Last week, Almer was awarded the state Medal of Honor in a ceremony in Olympia for his actions that day. Almer was one of two local Bellingham officers and 10 others honored by Gov. Jay Inslee and Attorney General Bob Ferguson.

The Medal of Honor is Washington state's highest law enforcement award. It's given to fallen officers and officers who were seriously injured in the line of duty or displayed exceptional conduct.

Bellingham Officer Otto G. Brown was awarded the medal posthumously. He was on his way to work in March 1929 on a police motorcycle when he was struck from behind by a taxi cab and thrown onto the street. He died a year later from complications from the collision.

Almer, who has served for more than 16 years with the Bellingham Police Department, was awarded the medal for meritorious conduct.

It was about 4:50 p.m. Aug. 8 when two men - later identified as Pastor Lopez-Franco and Rafael Martinez-Garcia of Eastern Washington - walked into the Shell gas station at 4240 Meridian St. One of them racked a shotgun and pointed it at the clerk working inside, demanding money from the register.

As soon as the robbers left, the clerk hit the store's alarm and ran outside to see a purple-colored Honda driving off, according to video and charges filed in Whatcom County Superior Court.

Almer spotted the Honda headed toward Mount Baker Highway. Prosecutors allege the driver, Lopez-Franco, fired two rounds out the window at Almer's patrol car. The Honda crashed in a roundabout at East Smith Road. Lopez-Franco ducked down and kept shooting, according to police reports. No officers were hurt.

Lopez-Franco took several bullets to his body. Police found him on his back, by the driver's door, with the shotgun about a foot from his leg, according to the charges. Lopez-Franco spent a month at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. He made his first court appearance in a wheelchair.

Martinez-Garcia put his hands up in the passenger seat soon after the crash. He suffered graze wounds to his arm in the shootout.

Both men have been charged with first-degree robbery, first-degree assault and attempting to elude police. They're awaiting trial.

Reach Elana Pidgeon at 360-715-2249 or elana.pidgeon@bellinghamherald.com.

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