‘Yoda on your shoulder’: Three times he was nearly murdered but a ‘cop whisperer’ brought him back

Karen Lansing has made a career of fixing the brains of first responders who have seen too much.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Not all brains require the post-traumatic stress gymnastics that Karen Lansing is able to put them through, but the ones that do need it desperately. Some officers — like Santa Cruz County sheriff’s deputy Alex Spencer, who was ambushed by Steven Carrillo on June 6, 2020 — find themselves suddenly thrust into a position where they must confront the unknowns of what just happened deep inside their mind. It’s a strange, emotional, highly necessary trip, Spencer relates.

Part 2: How the ‘cop whisperer’ fixes brains

Steven Carrillo had Alex Spencer cornered.

Crouched behind his car, Spencer was trying to move the body of his good friend and fellow Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s officer, Sgt. Damon Gutzwiller, out of the line of further fire, hopeful he might still be alive. That’s when the improvised explosive device (IED) detonated.

Carrillo, the active-duty Air Force sergeant now on a cop-killing spree, had rolled it downhill toward Spencer, just to the other side of his patrol car, and then found an opening to fire multiple rounds from his AR-15-style rifle, hitting Spencer square in the chest.

Spencer’s protective vest worked, sparing him from a would-be kill shot, and somehow he still had the wherewithal to retreat down a rural road while shielding longtime partner Emma Ramponi from Carrillo, hoping to ward off other responders approaching the one-man militia.

But Carrillo’s murderous rampage wasn’t over.

He carjacked a neighbor’s vehicle and began hunting for the two deputies. Carrillo spotted Spencer receiving treatment from a Ben Lomond Fire battalion chief they had flagged down. Carrillo accelerated as he headed downhill and clipped the fire rig, intentionally aiming the car directly at Spencer.

Spencer flew onto the hood of the stolen vehicle, grasping for something to hold onto. For a split second, he was looking straight into Carrillo’s eyes — seeing “pure hatred and evil” — before being thrown over the roof and flying some 40 feet through the air and back to earth.

Sheriff's deputy Alex Spencer.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Somehow, despite Carrillo’s unrelenting determination, Spencer wouldn’t die that day.

Carrillo had tried to end his life “not once, not twice, but three times,” Spencer recounted in the days leading up to Carrillo’s sentencing. His voice slightly trembled while describing that moment, part of the first interview he’s given in the wake of that harrowing event.

That day in Ben Lomond, Spencer had come far closer to making the ultimate sacrifice than any cop ever wants to come. His good friend, Sgt. Gutzwiller, had made that sacrifice.

Where Spencer’s mind would place the vivid audio-visual recordings it had compiled of those events of June 6, 2020, and what it would do with them, no one could know for sure.

But the content was the stuff that post-traumatic stress is made of — exactly the type of material suited for a specially trained “cop whisperer.”

“Karen hates it when I say this,” Spencer said, “but it was essentially like having guided flashbacks with Yoda on your shoulder. She is a miracle worker.”

Fortuitously for Spencer, and the many others who were severely affected by the unthinkable, tragic events of June 6, 2020, there is an Aptos-based guru named Karen Lansing. She is a licensed marriage and family therapist trained as an expert in traumatic stress.

Sheriff's deputy Alex Spencer and his dog, Dries (pronounced dreese).
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

While she jokes that she bears no resemblance to the legendary Jedi master, Lansing’s “cop whisperer” title is no joke. That unique handle was bequeathed upon her by the cops who helped her develop this specialized mental regimen.

She holds it as a “cherished gift,” even trademarking it to “protect it from exploitation or theft,” and carries it “in the memory and appreciation of those who got me into this fine mess in the first place.”

More than a quarter-century into this specialization, Lansing has gained international recognition for bringing the minds of cops and other uniformed or covert “operators” back from the brink — whether they’ve been under siege outside a home in the hills of Ben Lomond, made it back after being burned over by a wildfire, or were on the wrong side of explosive detonations in Northern Ireland, the Middle East or Kosovo.

“I always stress with my cops that you need to maintain your brains like you maintain your weaponry,” Lansing said. “You just can’t ignore the brain. It’s the thing that makes it so you can do this work.”

Duty-induced post-traumatic stress disorder is easy to understand when it’s triggered by one the most traumatic events in county history. The horrifying things Spencer saw, heard and felt that day can be reasonably recreated in the head of anyone who has watched a movie like “Black Hawk Down.”

But it’s easier to forget that scenes of death and despair, very close calls with death that no one else witnessed and are never shared with others — ones that simply become normalized — are a daily occurrence for first responders and remain there in some corner of the brain, looming ever larger over time.

Steven Carrillo is escorted into the courtroom for his sentencing.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

That’s why Spencer and Lansing agreed to speak up. By discussing the raw realities of duty-induced PTSD, they hope it will raise awareness, help shed stigma and further important discourse around mental health awareness — particularly in a vocation where more officers lose their lives to suicide than in the line of duty.

As he recovered from his own PTSD, Spencer became aware of just how many first responders around him were suffering from their own version related to that day. He became determined to be part of the solution, someone who spreads the “cop whisperer” gospel.

“I don’t understand why there’s not a line out the door trying to learn from her and piggyback off her business,” he said. “The stuff that she does is really one of a kind.”

* * *

Lansing isn’t certain how they found her in Aptos. But the group of six Bay Area cops who sought out her guidance to unwind their stuck brains in the mid-1990s is where it all began.

Patches from the different agencies Karen Lansing has worked with hang on her wall.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

After many years of unchecked trauma absorbed in Vietnam and through police work, a number of them were suicidal. But they had made a group pact that they would all see their way into retirement together.

The six called themselves the “band of brothers,” and helped Lansing develop a customized model of treatment for their PTSD by first taking her deep into their world to understand what makes them tick. She went on covert ride-alongs, was taken to the weapons range. “They were adamant that I understood everything,” she said.

And then she tapped into a technique called eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy (EMDR) which enables a person, under careful guidance, to unlock and replay trauma-based memories that can entrap someone — either in the short term or much, much later.

The brain will attempt to keep this stuff packaged up until you’re out of the job. Once it knows you’re no longer in ‘the deadly game,’ it starts to unpack those ‘hauntings’ if they’re in there.

“The brain will attempt to keep this stuff packaged up until you’re out of the job. Once it knows you’re no longer in ‘the deadly game,’ it starts to unpack those ‘hauntings’ if they’re in there,” she said. “The brain is not trying to punish but instead to heal. But it will seem like anything but, especially as it’s pushing us right into them with intrusive images, nightmares or reactions to triggering reminders.”

Karen Lansing during her stint in Northern Ireland.
(Via Karen Lansing)

In 2000, Lansing started to gather together the evidence that validated the treatment model. By May 2003, she was invited to present the early findings at an international conference in Rome. Two years later, her research was published in the Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences.

In January 2005 she was recruited by the Police Service of Northern Ireland to aid in the protracted fight against multiple terrorist groups, including the Irish Republican Army.

There, she treated officers who had suffered from IED explosions, horizontal mortar attacks, car bombs and deadly ambushes. All of those, she said, became “a day at the office” and served to only sharpen her level of competency.

She spent eight years there, mostly in Belfast, picking up a few contract jobs in Kosovo and the Middle East in between. Each incident helped further inform the systematic process she was building.

“I was training people on what their brains look like with PTSD and what their behaviors look like,” she said. “Showing them with hard science that it’s curable — you’re going to be fine — and that this is what that looks like.”

Karen Lansing during her ballistics training.
(Via Karen Lansing)

Lansing says it takes her three to four weeks — approximately 45 hours of work — to cure even the most severe cases of PTSD. However, physical and traumatic brain injuries will slow down that process, as in Spencer’s case.

All the work involves accessing and then fully resolving the deeply rooted reactions that surround memories such as nearly dying, being injured, feeling grief for others and general circumstantial sadness. There is also the feeling of having fallen short, usually unwarranted, survivor’s guilt or the tragedy of failed rescue attempts.

“You tried an intervention, and it didn’t work,” she said. “What EMDR can really fix is coming to the realization that ‘I didn’t want this to happen, I didn’t cause it to happen. You know, we were there doing our jobs.’”

Lansing's 2012 book.

A first-of-its-kind study that showed visual evidence of the pre- and post-treatment brain was a focal point of Lansing’s 2012 book, “The Rite of Return: Coming Back from Duty-Induced PTSD.” It has helped open many doors — and minds — within police and fire agencies over her 30 years of work.

While a culture shift is undeniable in terms of mental health awareness — “It’s at least moved from the 20th to 21st century” — Lansing says she is still far too often surprised by the resistance of leaders to adapt and get their officers’ brains fixed.

“You can detail for them how much money you’ll save them by healing their people,” she said. “And some still won’t buy in.”

Fortunately, she says, that hasn’t been the case in Santa Cruz County, where there has long been a better understanding that “duty-induced PTSD is not ‘craziness,’ an indication of weakness or the end of a career. It’s not incurable and it’s not an unshakable part of the job.”

Duty-induced PTSD is not ‘craziness,’ an indication of weakness or, the end of a career. It’s not incurable and it’s not an unshakable part of the job.

Lansing continues to consult with police and fire agencies, and individuals, from far and wide. The majority are in Northern California and seek out her services.

She said she thinks of those she helps bring back to health as her trainees. Spencer and Ramponi are validating that pay-it-forward approach by helping educate and be a resource for other agencies and their officers in need.

“Once you’re healed,” Spencer said, “you feel really empowered to pass that along.”

* * *

Spencer, 34, admits it was much easier to comprehend his physical ailments than what lurked in his head beyond the traumatic brain injury he had sustained.

Alex Spencer says he is thankful for help he found.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Those included fractures of his tibia, hip, ankle, ribs and nose; a punctured lung; a pulmonary edema; shrapnel, possibly from the IED, buried under the skin in multiple parts of the body.

That’s what happens growing up with a focus on the physical aspects of life — from playing football at Soquel High School to heading for a degree in physiology at Chico State University to becoming a CrossFit guru in Pleasure Point. The broken body parts, and associated pain, are easily identifiable.

But in eight years working for the sheriff’s office, Spencer had not endured anything remotely like what he went through that day in Ben Lomond.

“I wasn’t really sure whether I was affected or not,” he said. “I hadn’t really had an experience that personal or so devastating. Dealing with the loss of one of my good friends and watching him die in front of me … that was obviously difficult for many different reasons.”

I hadn’t really had an experience that personal or so devastating. Dealing with the loss of one of my good friends and watching him die in front of me.

As he sat in a recliner, heavily medicated and in “the worst pain of my life,” Spencer got a piece of advice from a trusted mentor, retired officer Mike Pruger. “He said, ‘Hey, you guys’ — meaning Emma and I — ‘need to go see Karen Lansing. They’re not going to let you go back to work until you get better.’”

Pruger had helped recruit Lansing to the Santa Cruz Police Department in the late 1990s when he witnessed how she returned one of the department’s officers with post-shooting trauma back to duty. No one, Lansing says, thought he would be able to return — let alone go on to become a field training officer, a SWAT team member and a sniper.

After seeing this repeat with other SCPD officers, Pruger wasn’t about to allow two officers he knew and cared about attempt to heal without her.

The Aptos office of "cop whisperer" Karen Lansing.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Spencer recalled some tidbits about brain architecture that he’d picked up while studying physiology in college and immediately realized Lansing knew the topic inside and out. But he still had no idea what he had locked away inside his brain from that day in June 2020.

When they got to the EMDR process, that quickly changed. Spencer said he had had talk therapy as a teenager a time or two, but this was “nothing like that — it was a total trip.”

While Spencer went into a relaxed state that is similar to REM sleep, Lansing coaxed him through a reenactment of June 6. He said as they did so “over and over and over,” letting all the details creep back in, the emotions attached to those moments came with it.

“There was just so much sadness, you know, from losing Damon obviously,” he said. “But there’s also just this really visceral feeling when someone tries to kill you, not once, not twice, but three times.”

Spencer said the feelings that surfaced were overwhelming and “surreal.”

There were distinct smells, such as that of gunfire, and a metallic taste in his mouth that they surmised could have been adrenaline, the taste of blood, the IED shrapnel that ended up under his skin, or all of the above.

A memorial to Sgt. Damon Gutzwiller, who was murdered by Steven Carrillo on June 6, 2020.
(Via Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office)

But what it allowed Spencer to do was bring the frozen-in-the-present memory up, process it and then let it go.

“After six hours of that, it was like a huge weight was lifted,” he said. ”There was a change in my perspective. It’s like I was no longer feeling actively in it.

“I went from being in it to being like a drone above it. To this day, when I try to get into the details, I can get there. But it’s emotionless. It’s all kind of disconnected.”

Now that Spencer’s recollection has been processed, Lansing likens it to recalling what you got for Christmas 12 years ago — a distant happy memory with no trauma attached to it.

“Normal memories tend to become elusive or distant over time,” she said.

* * *

Though Spencer had more to unpack in his brain than anyone, once he had spent nine months processing events with Lansing, he began to feel a shift.

“I realized that people around me were feeling like, ‘OK, great, I’m glad you’re better. But now what about me?’” he said.

Sgt. Damon Gutzwiller
(Via Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office)

Family, friends, fellow first responders had all been feeling the aftershocks of the Gutzwiller murder.

Spencer recalls how his brother, a firefighter with Central Fire, was listening to the radio traffic when the incident occurred, hearing and absorbing the emotional blow-by-blow, unable to do anything about it.

“It was really hard for him to hear that I was shot, blown up and then run over by a car — and he’s had to struggle with it,” he said. “First responders want to help. They don’t want to feel helpless.”

It was really hard for him to hear that I was shot, blown up and then run over by a car — and he’s had to struggle with it.

It’s taken more than two years for many to get the necessary help, which takes many forms not nearly as extreme as what Lansing provides. But Spencer said he sees “a transition into normal recuperation and recovery.”

Now that many have worked past their different states of trauma, the grief for a lost friend and fallen officer is just beginning for many.

“I’m noticing that other people are starting to get into the same groove as me, feeling good, like they’ve gotten past this,” he said. “Now we’re into the more regular stages of grief over Damon.

“The loss of Damon was deep in our office.”

And, even if he was somehow destined to escape with his life that day, Spencer is certain his own losses would be significant if he hadn’t had a “cop whisperer” there to bring him back and make his mind whole again.

“Without Karen’s help, I don’t think I would be doing law enforcement anymore — I’d probably have transitioned to another career,” he said. “I definitely wouldn’t be able to be the father and husband that I am today. I know that I would have been dealing with a lot more issues downstream.”

Coming Monday

Part 3: Connecting the traumatic dots, 1983 to 2020