One night he almost died twice

Alsip police officer describes robbery, 'guardian angel' neighbor and tense trial three years later

July 02, 2010|By Steve Schmadeke, Tribune reporter

Taking cover from the gunfire against a low brick wall, Alsip police Officer Mark Miller watched dazed as brick particles sent flying by the bullets hit his face in what seemed like slow motion.

Less than a minute had passed since Miller chased an armed robbery suspect outside of an Alsip Aldi store on June 26, 2007, and into a residential neighborhood near the library. Children were out riding their bikes and, down the street, playing in a Little League baseball game.

He had been saved already by an Alsip woman who, on her backyard deck handing out Popsicles, shouted a warning — "He's got a gun, he's going to shoot you" — before suspect James Sevier could ambush Miller near a garage.

Now the magazine in his Glock service weapon was empty. As Miller reloaded, Sevier snuck up behind him, pointed a revolver at his head and said, "You're dead, Copper."

Then he pulled the trigger.

"I looked down the barrel of his gun from 4 feet away," Miller said. "It's only by the grace of God that he missed."

It was the type of crime that attracts little publicity — no one was killed, only $2,440 was stolen and the flying bullets damaged property not people. But Miller agreed to share his story, hoping to bring attention to the dangerous work suburban police sometimes do and what he saw as a case of the criminal justice system working as it should.

It was nearly 80 degrees outside when Sevier, then 42, walked into the Aldi store, 12050 S. Pulaski Road, wearing a black hooded sweatshirt around 7 p.m. The Bowen High School dropout asked two employees where the manager was, records show.

When they didn't answer, he pulled out a gun and said, "Do you guys think this is a (expletive) joke?"

This wasn't Sevier's first armed robbery. The Chicago man was sentenced to 20 years in 1984 for a series of armed robberies. During his time in prison, he was certified in "stress and anger management," but the training didn't appear to help much.

The father of four was on parole on federal drug charges when he walked into the south suburban store with a .38-caliber revolver, records show. He came from a religious family but had taken a different path. On his left arm are tattoos of both praying hands and barbed wire, records show.

As Sevier approached with a gun, the manager hit a silent alarm and ran. Sevier caught him outside the store and forced him back inside at gunpoint, taking cash from a safe, drawers and even the manager's pockets before fleeing through a back door near the loading dock.

That's where Miller, then 41, saw him. He had just returned to work after eating dinner with his wife and two children, then 3 and 1, when the armed robbery call came in.

"He looks at me; I yell, 'Police!' and like a jackrabbit, away he goes," Miller said. Sevier didn't run to his getaway car.

"This guy came loaded for bear," Miller said, noting that residents told police Sevier walked through the neighborhood earlier that day. "He went to that backyard intentionally, waiting for me, to ambush me."

Yvonne Shepard, 46, was supposed to meet her family that night for her father's birthday dinner at her favorite restaurant, but at the last minute she decided not to go. Instead, she was on her deck serving Popsicles to her young daughter and several neighborhood kids when she saw a man with a gun.

"I've been saying since the day it happened — this was all God's plan. We were all placed there at just the right time," said Shepard, a worker at the Nabisco plant in Chicago.

Shepard's cousin, a Chicago police detective, had been shot in the stomach while trying to arrest a murder suspect years ago, she said. And she didn't want the children to see someone killed.

She saw Sevier with his gun in the air about to ambush Miller, who was holding his gun at his side, at her neighbor's garage. So she screamed the warning.

Both men froze, and Sevier turned to look at Shepard for an instant — just long enough for Miller to run for cover. "(I was thinking) what the hell are you looking at me for?" Shepard said.

"Fortunately I had a guardian angel in Yvonne Shepard," Miller said. "She could've just simply grabbed her kids and ran.

"Had she not said something, I would've taken it to the back of my head. It's because of her that I was able to go home that night and see my kids again."

Shepard doesn't feel like a hero. "It was just my big mouth," she said.

Sevier stuck his gun around the garage wall and fired, with Miller returning fire. Alsip Officers James Portincaso and James Tyszko ran toward the gunfire as Shepard led the children to cover in her basement.

Portincaso ordered Sevier to the ground. The robbery suspect started to go down — then yelled, "(Expletive) you, cop!" and opened fire, striking the ground next to Portincaso. Sevier then opened fire at Miller, who was already out of bullets.

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