(Editor’s Note: This is Branden’s story, because it is told by his father. It is not meant to minimize the loss of Sgt. Steven Robin, also a hero and a warrior in his own right who deserves to have his own story told. We hope to be able to do that in the coming days. We at Darkhorse Press grieve equally with each family involved with this horrible tragedy.)
Grief is a powerful force.
A force which stops some dead in their tracks, unable to move, paralyzed in a moment they’ll never get back. For some, it’s a catalyst, driving a need to inform the world of what has been lost, of the deficit the world now suffers in the absence of a great spirit.
For Ian Estorffe, father of fallen Bay St. Louis police officer Branden Estorffe, it is the latter.
He paces as he talks on the phone, making sure he knows every detail in full color. He describes his son’s day leading up to the critical event frame by frame, bringing the 23-year-old back to life in those words, in those moments leading up to his heroic sacrifice.
It’s only when he’s silent that it seems that Branden is gone. So the moment comes, and it passes, and Ian is animated again. At least for now.
Like father, like son
“I was the proudest father on the planet,” Ian said as he reflected on watching his son graduate from the academy in November with the Firearms Award. Himself a veteran of state and local law enforcement and a firearms instructor, Ian took great pride in the fact that his son beat out his other classmates — some with prior military experience — for that honor.
“There was a little pressure because of the family name,” he said.
His son had wanted to be a police officer for as long as Ian could remember, and Branden had taken to his new career and his new department like a fish into water, in part because he was raised around law enforcement. Of course the camaraderie and the brotherhood came naturally.
“He would tell them his back was hurting from carrying the department,” Ian said, laughing at his son’s good-natured ribbing of his brothers in blue.
In the wake of Branden’s death have been stories of Branden’s kindness and his well-known smile, from civilians who had been pulled over by him to a man who served him regularly at Taco Bell, and from veteran cops who had watched him grow up with a huggy personality just a little more openly emotional than his dad’s.
“I’ve lost the most precious thing I ever had,” Ian said. “Branden was a big ole softy. Now this is making me a big softy too.”
As Branden’s training progressed as a police officer, he had begun to receive attention from other law enforcement agencies, but he told his dad Bay St. Louis was where he wanted to be. He adored his chief, Toby Schwartz, and he really liked and respected his sergeant, Steven Robin. He was proud to be a part of the department.
So much he decided he was going to try out for the county-wide SWAT team.
Pushed to the extreme
On December 12, Branden worked the overnight shift, and was up again within hours for SWAT tryouts, his father said, which were at noon on December 13th.
“They push them to the extreme,” Ian said of tryouts, which include officers from Bay St. Louis, Waveland, and the Hancock County Sheriff’s Department. The tryouts consist of rigorous physical requirements, including running, crawling, emotional and physical stamina, and shooting among other things.
The last photo Ian would ever receive from his son was that day. It was something of an inside thing between the two of them: because of their firearms training, he always encouraged Branden to clean his gun as soon as he was finished using it. After SWAT tryouts, Branden sent his dad the photo of his cleaned weapon to show he remembered his training.
Once Branden became a police officer, every morning Ian would text his son when he woke up around 6 a.m.
“You good?” he’d write, which was affirmed by Branden upon receipt.
Until December 14.
That morning he didn’t have a chance. He got a call from a friend that had heard it on the police radio — Branden had been shot. Rumors were flying. Was it two officers? Was it one? They knew Branden was shot, but the details were coming through in pixels… Ian flew through the streets to Oschner Medical Center – Hancock. He knew the address by heart — 149 Drinkwater Boulevard in Bay St. Louis. That’s where Branden was born on August 16, 1999.
He had been shot, along with Robin, as they dealt with a potentially mentally ill suspect who had her child in her car. Robin had been killed instantly. Branden was still clinging to life.
As Ian and his wife Heather made their way into the hospital, there were officers everywhere. There were many he knew, and some he didn’t, but he noticed one thing, they all had that stare. It’s unmistakeable to a veteran officer.
When Ian found his son, he was breathing and slightly responsive, but his wounds were catastrophic.
“I was able to tell him I loved him and how proud I was of him,” he said. “They loaded him up and we followed that ambulance on that cold rainy night down 98 to Gulfport.”
Heather said it was Ian’s fellow officers that got him into the vehicle to get him to Gulfport Memorial.
“That’s where my mom died and where my daughter was born,” Ian said. “It’s just weird how it all has so much meaning.”
His memories become hazy there after Branden was pronouced dead, he said. Through the blur, he remembers crying and hugging his fellow officers at the hospital. He remembers seeing the Gulfport officers in uniform lining the hall of the hospital, saluting his son as they wheeled him out to be taken to the funeral home.
It’s still not real.
Ian said he’s been over every detail he’s learned of the shooting time and time again, replaying it in his mind, knowing from his experience there was nothing that could have been done differently. The details that have been released publicly and those that haven’t — they all add up to a perfect storm, he said.
The suspect was a mother who was in a mental crisis with her 8-year-old child in the car. There had been recent turmoil in her family in regard to some of her other children, and in her crisis she was believed to have been delusional, officials said. She believed she was being followed and had begun to put her possessions in her vehicle. While Sgt. Robin spoke to her at the door of her vehicle, Branden had stepped away to call Child Protective Services.
Ian Estorffe said it’s his understanding that the suspect didn’t have the weapon on her when she was first speaking to Robin, though it was in the vehicle, and that at some point she grabbed it and shot him point blank.
As Ian describes it: Branden, hearing the shot, turned back toward the vehicle, pulling his gun from the holster as he turned. As Ian tells the story, it’s clear he’s watched him train for so many years and has the motion memorized. Branden, he said, was one of the fastest officers he’s ever trained at the draw.
He went toward the gunfire, by Ian’s description phone still to his ear, and the suspect’s next shot went through his left arm, throwing him back. He continued to advance, his first shot threaded the door frame and impacted the headrest, and the second hit the suspect in the heart, stopping the threat. Her last shot hit him in the head, and as he fell, he came to rest on top of his fallen Sergeant.
“I couldn’t have made that shot, not under those circumstances,” Ian said. “Everything he had done in the last 24 hours, and he still made that shot.”
The child was rescued, physically unharmed.
The ashes, the beauty
At the funeral of his son, Ian will be wearing Branden’s duty belt and boots, as a tribute to the boy who always wanted to grow up and fill his father’s shoes.
“Now I’ll be wearing his shoes,” Ian said.
And Heather said it’s hard to know what to tell Branden’s 7-year-old sister.
“She knows that we know more than we let on,” she said.
After telling her Branden is in Heaven, the astute child asked, “But when are you going to tell me what really happened?”
Sorting through why Branden went toward the gunfire when she’s always been told to run away from guns has been part of the conversation, as well as having to confront another strange new reality.
“We always told her if you’re lost or in trouble, go find a mother with children and she’ll help you,” Heather said. “Now where do you go when you’re not safe? A mom with a kid took her brother away from her. How do I tell her it’s not safe? That’s going to rock her to her core.”
Ian said he wasn’t sure he was going to the candlelight vigil held for his son and Sgt. Robin. He thought it would be too hard, and Heather was sick. But Branden’s childhood friend Andrew Porter called and convinced him to go, and the two of them held each other up through the emotional event.
There were people from all over the coast. People who Ian hadn’t seen since high school. All ages, all races, all stages of life had turned out to show their appreciation and honor for the sacrifice made by the two Bay St. Louis officers in the line of duty. The outpouring of love and support from the community has buoyed the family in the days since Branden’s death, Ian said.
That support has come from within the department as well, Heather said. She said when Schwartz addressed mourners about the tragedy, he made allowances for the fact that his officers won’t only grieve, but they’ll be confronting their own mortality in various ways.
“There will be things that are going to bother you that we may not foresee,” Heather said he said, “We’re not going to think of everything.” But he encouraged them to do what it takes to heal.
Surrounding agencies are patrolling Bay St. Louis, a town of about 10,000, until the department’s family can regroup. Until the community, now standing arm-in-arm in their grief, can start to heal.
The loss of Steven Robin and Branden Estorffe is an unspeakable tragedy, but there is beauty in the ashes, Ian said.
“I’ve said I love you more in the last four or five days than I have in my whole life,” he said. “He — Branden did this.”