PHOENIX – A citizen credited with saving the life of an Arizona state trooper by fatally shooting the trooper’s assailant spoke for the first time publicly Tuesday, telling reporters he was “put there by God.”
Thomas Yoxall was driving on a remote highway Jan. 12 when he saw Trooper Edward Andersson being assaulted by a man police later identified as Leonard Pennelas-Escobar, a former member of the Mexican federal police who was in the country illegally.
Police say Pennelas-Escobar had rolled his car on Interstate 10 before he inexplicably attacked Andersson, who had stopped to help. Pennelas-Escobar opened fire on Andersson after the officer had stopped on the interstate and set up flares in a bid to get motorists to slow down.
Pennelas-Escobar said something in Spanish before shooting the trooper, and then he started landing blows with his fists and beating the trooper’s head on the ground, Department of Public Safety Director Frank Milstead said last week.
After driving by and seeing the attack, Yoxall retrieved a handgun from his vehicle and fired two shots at Pennelas-Escobar after he refused an order to stop attacking Andersson. With Pennelas-Escobar incapacitated, Yoxall tended to the wounded trooper but was later drawn back into the dispute when Pennelas-Escobar got up and resumed his assault on Andersson, officials said. Yoxall then fired a fatal shot at Pennelas-Escobar.
“I firmly believe I was put there by God,” Yoxall said, speaking Tuesday.
Yoxall said he doesn’t have police or military training, but regularly practices gun safety techniques as a private gun owner. Yoxall said he saw the trooper being beaten in a “savage way” and “alleviated the threat” faced by Andersson.
“It’s who I am – I can’t arbitrarily stand by and watch a tragedy like that unfold without doing what I can to intervene and stop it,” Yoxall said. “…I responded the only way I know how to respond, and that’s to act.”
Arizona has a “defense of third person” law that allows someone to use deadly force against another who is threatening or injuring a third person. It was not unusual that the 43-year-old was armed in the gun-friendly state with loose regulation.
“It was very visceral and instincitve – I had to help,” said Yoxall, who became emotional during the press conference.
The 37-year-old Pennelas-Escobar was in the country illegally, a drug user and was believed to have once worked as a Mexican police officer, Milstead said. Still, Pennelas-Escobar had no known criminal history.
Andersson arrived at the rollover scene about 55 miles west of downtown Phoenix to find Pennelas-Escobar holding his injured girlfriend, 23-year-old Vanessa Monique Lopez-Ruiz, on the edge of the roadway.
She had been ejected in the high-speed rollover and was later pronounced dead. The cause of the collision hasn’t yet been determined. Pennelas-Escobar was believed to have been the vehicle’s driver.
Andersson, a 27-year department veteran, suffered gunshot wounds to the right shoulder. He underwent surgery and has since been released from the hospital. Milstead says he has several more surgeries scheduled but is in “good spirits.”
Milstead hailed Yoxall as a hero and credited him with saving Andersson’s life.
Yoxall said he considers himself to be an ordinary person put in an extraordinary circumstance. He said it’s “difficult to reconcile” that he took someone’s life to save Andersson.
“Doing the right thing sometimes has a price, and that price is severe – this is something I will live with,” Yoxall said. “But I wouldn’t change it because another man gets to go home to his family.”