‘This is gonna mess me up’: Bobby Gray knows better than most how trauma can manifest years later

Bobby Gray takes a moment at the grave of his father, Michael, in Felton.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

When traumatic events don’t receive some level of post-processing, they linger there until the day they don’t. For the Felton Fire chief who had lost his father, slain sheriff’s officer Michael Gray, back in 1983, the events of June 6, 2020, brought Bobby Gray “full circle.” As Steven Carrillo carried out the cop-killing rampage that left Sgt. Damon Gutzwiller dead and Alex Spencer severely injured, it became a catalyst for catharsis, pain and healing.

Part 3: Connecting the traumatic dots, 1983 to 2020

Six-year-old Bobby Gray felt the death of his father deeply.

Every time a well-meaning adult — a teacher, a parent, a family member — would bring up his dad, Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s officer Michael Gray, who was gunned down by a transient along Highway 9 in 1983, Bobby had to replay the unresolved trauma in his head.

Fast forward 37 years to June of 2020, and Gray is still in his hometown of Felton, a stone’s throw from the site of his father’s murder.

He is still struggling to get the right kind of help to process not just the unresolved loss of his dad, but also the tough losses of multiple close relatives over the formative years that followed.

That, however, has not kept Gray from overachieving in the first responder world he chose for himself. Twenty-five years after he began his firefighting career as an 18-year-old volunteer in his hometown agency, Gray is now the chief of the Felton Fire Protection District.

Which is why, even though it is technically an off day and he is home working in the yard, he is hearing the radio traffic that afternoon of June 6, 2020.

Gray had been treated like family by the sheriff’s office his entire life, but particularly so in the 37 years since his father had been lost in the line of duty. When he had gotten severely ill with pancreatitis a few years earlier, the check-in phone calls flooded in. Did he need money? Was his family doing OK? How could they help?

“Since my dad was killed, they’ve always been there for me,” he said.

It’s why it made perfect sense to him that day, as tragic events were unfolding 7 miles up the road in Ben Lomond, sheriff’s deputies under siege, to suddenly jump into his truck and speed off, not even telling his family why he was no longer out in the front yard picking weeds.

Bobby Gray, Felton Fire chief.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Somehow I just knew that was where I was supposed to be.

“Somehow I just knew that was where I was supposed to be,” Gray said.

There was no time to consider the panic this would soon cause in his house, nor any way to predict the reverberations that would involve his worried mom, long-since remarried and living out of state.

Even bigger, he couldn’t have known then the Pandora’s box being pried open in his own head.

“It was equal parts cathartic and painful,” he said. “I said it multiple times during the incident: ‘Wow, this is really gonna mess me up.’”

Gray is a part of a growing contingent in the first responder community who feel compelled to open up about their struggles with mental health in order to shake stigma and encourage others to get potentially life-saving help. That willingness led to this three-part series: “The Right to Not Remain Silent.”

As Gray’s story shows, duty-induced post-traumatic stress (PTS) can cross multiple generations and linger in deep recesses of the mind for decades.

It’s why Lookout sought out the insights of those who have been involved in the county’s most extreme traumatic experiences for first responders — its cop killings — and how many of them are utilizing a local expert trained in “tactical psych support” in an effort to heal themselves.

* * *

Even before the loss of his dad, Bobby Gray didn’t dream of becoming a cop. He knew he wanted to help people in the same front-line kind of way, but also realized his wiring was more suited to the work a firefighter did.

He remembers the kids at school treating him generally OK — “They were more standoffish,” he said — but it was adults, namely some teachers, who struck his young nerves.

Michael Gray held the hand of his son in the parking lot of San Lorenzo Valley Elementary.
Only months before he was shot and killed, Michael Gray held the hand of his son in the parking lot of San Lorenzo Valley Elementary School.
(Via Bobby Gray)

“It would be this pass, like, ‘Well, you know it’s OK because his dad was killed,’” he said. “I got used to being treated special like that. And in some ways it was kind of neat. But, you know, it wasn’t doing me any favors.”

Talk therapy wasn’t a commonly used term, let alone practice, in the 1980s — “Back then you were either crazy, or you weren’t crazy,” Gray said — so the kind of help he got early on proved mostly counterintuitive.

“People meant well, but mostly it did more harm than good,” he recalls. “Being the child of the slain deputy, it was almost like an identity in a way. I was thinking, ‘Well, OK, this is just my lot in life, I guess.’

“Every few months it will be brought back up and kind of open the wound again. I didn’t realize it at the time that I was being dragged back through it over and over and over again, reliving the same trauma.”

Gray says he sought out therapists over the years and found some occasional success processing his deeply buried layers of grief, but nothing groundbreaking.

Father and son truck washing with Michael and Bobby Gray.
(Via Bobby Gray)

As he progressed through his fire career, which involved far more EMS (emergency medical service) calls than firefighting, Gray began to understand how his mind processed trauma.

“Anything that bothered me had some sort of parallel to my personal life,” he said. “So it was always difficult on calls for children, you know, having to see severe injuries to children, especially if they were in a similar age to my child.

“I would have to take some time to process through those, and I’d usually be pretty quiet for a few days. But there was nothing that really put me to a level where I was almost incapacitated.”

* * *

Bob Pursley was in his second year as a young deputy with the sheriff’s department in 1983 and had been paired up with Michael Gray the previous year patrolling the San Lorenzo Valley.

He remembers Gray as a “big, boisterous guy who was very family-oriented.”

Pursley would’ve been with Gray on Jan. 3, 1983, making contact with a transient in front of a business off Highway 9 — except just earlier that day their beat assignments had been scrambled, and Pursley was working the central part of the county.

Michael Gray as a young sheriff's deputy in Felton.
(Via Bobby Gray)

As Gray, 40, stopped his patrol car, the man walked up to the driver’s window and suddenly opened fire with a 9 mm handgun without warning. Gray was shot several times in the abdomen and died 10 days later.

The event happened just a short distance from where Gray lived and was raising his family alongside his own parents in the house he grew up in. Pursley recalls that Gray’s father was the first one to the scene.

Gray was an Army veteran who had joined the sheriff’s department in 1975 and been honored for his rescue efforts during the Love Creek mudslides in 1982.

Pursley learned to believe in otherworldly signs that day. How else to explain why he hadn’t been on the scene with his partner, possibly suffering the same fate or helping ward off Santa Cruz County’s first cop killing in more than half a century?

The grave of Michael Gray in Felton.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

And he would follow that same gut feeling 30 years later, after the horrible day of Feb. 26, 2013, the day Loran “Butch” Baker and Elizabeth Butler of the Santa Cruz Police Department were murdered in the line of duty, ambushed in similar fashion while checking in on a subject.

Pursley, then a 33-year sheriff’s veteran, had been helping coordinate the efforts on the police radio — and had even sent his son, new to the SWAT squad, out into the field.

After a few days out of the office to decompress, Pursley returned and found a voice message received one day after the incident. It was from Bobby Gray.

Retired sheriff's veteran Bob Pursley.
(Via Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office)

“I had not heard from Bobby for a long time,” he said. “He says, ‘I heard you on the radio. It had to bring back memories for you. Hope you’re doing OK.’ … he was just checking in on me.”

Pursley paused before saying: “I retired shortly thereafter.”

Had he not received that call “from out of the blue” that day, Pursley said he would’ve stubbornly stuck around longer. “That call that day was a big help for me — it made me realize I still had stuff to deal with.”

Pursley took the sign seriously. And he also made a point of staying in more frequent contact with the son of his fallen partner ever since.

“That was the only message left on my phone for days,” he said. “It was like wow, OK, somebody’s telling me it’s time to go.”

* * *

As he hopped in his Felton Fire truck and sped off up Highway 9, knowing he was the first responder from local fire services headed to the incident, Gray could immediately feel this strange sensation of calm and clarity.

“It sounds silly but it was almost a feeling of ‘I can understand this, I have something to offer and can make a difference,’” he said. “I’m supposed to be here.”

Much of it stemmed as much from his ongoing relationship with his police comrades as the connection to what had happened to his own father right on that same patch of Highway 9 he traversed to reach the scene.

I wouldn’t have been anywhere else at that time because this was my family under attack.

“I wouldn’t have been anywhere else at that time because this was my family under attack,” he said.

Up in Ben Lomond, the surreal nature of things heard in that radio dispatch minutes earlier was being confirmed. With Steven Carrillo on the run in a hijacked vehicle, having already slain one officer and seeking more, the scene was pure chaos.

Sgt. Damon Gutzwiller and his murderer, Air Force Sgt. Steven Carrillo.
(Via Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office)

The police agencies already on site for backup, however, were the ones charged with fortifying the so-called “hot zone.” Most firefighters don’t carry weapons. Gray, wearing only a protective vest, was charged with helping set up a command post down the hill from the incident.

Meanwhile, back in Felton, Gray’s wife, niece and daughter — trying to stay distracted by baking cherry pies in the kitchen — were in a panic. As word spread about the events unfolding in Ben Lomond, they now knew why Gray had quickly disappeared from the yard.

But their attempts to reach him by radio or phone weren’t successful. At one point, Gray’s wife, Stacey, decided she had to call his mom, Deanna, now remarried and living in Oregon, to let her know the eerie circumstances.

Bobby Gray and his mom, Deanna, during his swearing-in as Felton Fire chief.
(Via SLV Steve)

“I wanted to make sure that I talked to his mom before she saw anything on Facebook since she’d already gone through this once,” said Stacey, who got emotional reliving the events of that day.

When your partner is a first responder, she said, “you have a certain knowledge of how fragile life is but you have to have a certain belief that he’s going to come home.”

Though they wouldn’t yet know it, Gray would remain at a command post designed to be at a safe distance. At one point, Carrillo got as close to 1,000 yards from that post.

Gray never felt endangered, but his mere presence at the scene had triggered something deep inside his head. He was bouncing back and forth between catharsis and pain, knowing that the deep wounds being reopened were not the kind that would heal quickly.

“The parallels between my dad and Sgt. Gutzwiller was not lost on me at that moment while I was there,” he said. It felt almost like a full-circle kind of thing. You know, that I can now help and give back. Thinking about what I had been through, my mom had been through and now this is gonna be this other family’s reality.”

Bobby and Stacey Gray.
(Via SLV Steve)

When Stacey was finally able to reach her husband, she said he sounded shell-shocked yet resolute: “He just kept saying, ‘This is where I’m supposed to be. This is what I need to be doing.’ He said that over and over again.”

Gray said he had never felt the level of overwhelming exhaustion that he experienced at the end of that day.

“You go through that all and you’re like a pile of warm flesh,” he said. “It’s a lot to process, especially all at the same time. After the event, it all comes crashing down.”

* * *

The Felton Fire Protection District board immediately gave Gray a week of sick time to decompress.

“They knew this was a big hit on me,” he said. “From going to different therapists over the years, I had the tools to identify that I was injured mentally. I had a brain fog, like everything was almost in a dream state. And even with the things I like to do, like working on cars, I couldn’t focus, I had no patience.”

Stacey Gray said her husband began spending many moments in quiet contemplation, and they could tell there were things going on in his head he just couldn’t understand.

Bobby Gray.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

It’s like it had finally caught up to him — and when it did, it hit hard. Some of the time he cried. Some of the time he didn’t want to get up and do anything.

“It’s like it had finally caught up to him — and when it did, it hit hard,” she said. “Some of the time he cried. Some of the time he didn’t want to get up and do anything.”

Somehow, though, Gray found a way to pull it together enough to get back to work. He said attending several debriefings of the incident helped him tuck some of the baggage back away.

But the challenges would only be getting far more difficult. Already facing the stresses and unknowns of COVID-19, the CZU fires were sparked by a preternatural lightning storm just more than a month past the Gutzwiller murder.

Gray said even though a mountain fire chief is always prepared for the worst, it’s impossible to anticipate the real-life effects of a historic event like the CZU Lightning Complex fires of August 2020.

The fire burned for 37 days, decimated 86,000 acres and destroyed 911 homes in Felton, Ben Lomond and Boulder Creek — many of those owned by people Gray had grown up with.

“It was again like you’re faced with a situation that is just incomprehensible,” Gray said. “This is not something that happens in the San Lorenzo Valley. We don’t have a fire that moves across the ridge tops. Watching the people of your community lose their homes … it’s horrific.”

A firefighter at the Dixie fire
(Via Lassen National Forest)

Then, the following summer, came the Dixie fire up north. Gray had frequently over the years found moments of solitude and escape at Lake Almanor in northwestern Plumas County — right at the heart of where the largest single wildfire in recorded California history was unfolding in July 2021.

Gray had helped build a lake house with his father-in-law, who had recently died of cancer, in a place they both loved. His “off time” was spent up there trying to save the family’s favorite getaway for gathering and decompressing, his truest “happy place” outside of his hometown Felton.

“It was just like one hit after another that was very reminiscent of when I was a child. After my dad’s death, I started losing close relatives every year until I was 13,” he said. “ It was a very similar feeling for me. And then you add in the intensity of those events.”

* * *

It was the middle of April when Gray, who had joined a health and wellness group for local fire agencies, had a police friend tell him about a therapy that had worked wonders for her. “It was called EMDR,” he said. “That’s when Karen Lansing’s name came up.”

Lansing is the Aptos-based marriage family therapist whose international career and work with Spencer were the focal point of this series’ Part 2. She is a board-certified expert in post-traumatic stress and a practitioner of a very specialized form of eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy.

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

She has helped numerous first responders all over the world, many with the most extreme forms of trauma. She’d come to be known as the “cop whisperer” for her ability to bring officers back from very dark places.

“You can’t just search the internet for somebody that’s good with first responders who have experienced PTSD whose dad was killed when they were 6 as a first responder. That subset of psychology doesn’t exist,” Gray said. “So I had struggled to that point to find someone that could even relate to what I had been through, let alone be able to help me.”

Sure enough, there was somebody just minutes away who had spent the previous two decades honing her skills at that very kind of craft, getting to know the “warrior brain” of first responders. Better yet, she had time on her calendar to meet Gray.

Gray said he had heard chatter in the public safety world that EMDR was some kind of hypnosis or hocus-pocus technique. The reality is much different, he discovered.

Karen Lansing at her office in Aptos.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“It’s a way of concentrating so you can recall certain memories and process them in a way that is helpful — you’re not just digging it all up and leaving it on the surface,” he said. “It’s about spending the time to unpack all the things that have happened to you and process them, accept them and then move on.

“It’s almost like taking a guided tour of your mind.”

It’s almost like taking a guided tour of your mind.

Now six months into his work with Lansing, Gray is seeing a light that was never on for him before. What he describes as a lifetime battle against depression, emotions sparked by events outside his control, suddenly seems to be lifting.

“I’m still in the process — I’m not fully healed,” he said. “But I am light years better than I was. And I have overcome some stuff that I thought I never would in this lifetime. Things that I thought were part of my personality were actually just from being that young kid reliving those traumas over and over.”

Bobby and Stacey Gray.
(Via SLV Steve)

Gray admits he didn’t realize the scope of what was needed at first. He thought the things that were bothering him from recent events were most to blame, and needed the most resolution.

But as Lansing slowly walked him back through the hidden compartments in his brain, all the way back to his father’s tragic death and how that had set him on his own complex course, that’s where he felt a new level of healing taking place.

The kind that could bring him full circle and allow him to live out this career he loves — the one he knows his dad would proudly want him to continue. And the one he hopes others will be able to continue by seeking out the kind of help he finally found.

“Everyone who gets into public safety wants to help people, but we take on baggage that normal people don’t have to see everyday and it will affect you — we’re not cyborgs,” he said. “If you let it build up, it just makes it that much harder to deal with.

“But if you properly process it, you don’t have to be burdened by it.”