"I was staring at the small gun barrel," D.C. Superior Court Judge Frank Schwelb says now of the March night two men tried to rob him outside his Southwest Washington apartment building. "I heard a 'pop,' saw a flash of light, then I felt a burning sensation.
"It felt like I had been hit with a pea shooter or a pellet gun . . . I had always thought that when a person was shot, he was knocked off his feet and there was blood everywhere."
The 47-year-old judge is back on the bench now after recovering from surgery to remove that "pea" -- a .22 caliber bullet -- from his stomach. He says he has come back to his job with a "new sensitivity" to the plight of the victim of crime and with a greater appreciation for life.
"I suppose I was always sympathetic, but I had never given much thought to what it's like to be a victim of crime," Schwelb said in a recent interview. "I think that even more than a concern for the victims of crime, the shooting brought my own mortality into clearer focus.
"If the bullet had been one inch the other way, it would have gone through the aorta, and it would have been all over for me," said Schwelb. "But here I am, as though nothing happened -- except I've lost a few pounds and I wanted to do that anyway, although I would have preferred another method."
Schwelb was shot after he refused to turn over his wallet to his two assailants. The two men then fled, leaving behind the wallet, which contained between $30 and $40. Neither has been caught.
Schwelb, who is fond of Gilbert and Sullivan and a student of Shakespeare, used one of the first opinions he wrote on his return to describe his experience.
Schwelb wrote, in a case involving a dispute over garbage removal at a delicatessen: ". . . the Court finds it gratifying to have the chance to attempt to resolve the dispute, no matter how unpoetic its subject matter may seem to be."
"Shortly after the trial, the Court came into voluntary contact with two prospective participants in the criminal processes of Superior Court, who unsuccessfully attempted a nunc pro tunc redistribution of the wealth by demanding the Court's wallet, who failed in that endeavor, and who left a lead bullet in the Court's abdomen."
"Nunc pro tunc" generally is used by lawyers to describe something that should have been done sooner rather than later. In this case, Schwelb said when asked about it, he meant something that was done "on the spot, at my expense."
Schwelb, who formerly was a civil rights lawyer and a Justice Department official, was sworn in as a Superior Court judge last Dec. 20.
Three months later, he was walking the two blocks from where he parked his car to his apartment at 101 G St. SW when the two young men tried to rob him.
The judge would not comment on how the experience has affected his view of persons brought before him who are charged with violent crimes.
Schwelb, who has been assigned to small claims court and minor civil trials during his five months on the bench, is currently in charge of "family calendar control," an assignment in which he reviews the status of juvenile cases, including some felonies.
"A lot of my friends have greeted me in the spirit of having stood up to some hoodlums," Schwelb said. "But I was not trying to pull off any John Wayne heroics. The whole thing happened very fast. It was a heavily instinctive reaction. I don't know what I would do on another occasion."
Once before, Schwelb also refused to hand over his wallet when two men tried to rob him. But that time, the men fled when Schwelb refused to cooperate.
But on March 16 refusal brought gunfire. Schwelb said he clutched his side, walked to the apartment building where he lived and stumbled up to the front desk.
"I told the man at the desk that I wasn't sure, but that I thought I'd been shot," Schwelb recalled. "A young woman seated nearby said, 'You mean you have a bullet in you?' I said, I don't know, maybe we ought to take a look.'"
Schwelb was rushed to the hospital that night by two security guards driving a van. Moments later, as he was being wheeled into the operating room, he received a telephone call.
"It was Mayor Barry," Schwelb said. "He wanted to know how I was. I told him I was okay and that I thought I was going to be all right.
"Then I said something that I'll never know why I brought it up," Schwelb said. "I asked the mayor if he knew that I was in Mississippi as a Justice Department lawyer in the early 60s at the same time he was there as a civil rights worker with SNCC (the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee)."
After his somewhat awkward exchange with the mayor, Schwelb was taken to the operating room where he underwent 2 1/2 hours of surgery to remove the bullet from his stomach and to repair holes in his liver and small intestine.
Since the shooting, Schwelb said he has avoided the block where he used to park and keeps an eye out for his assailants.
"If I'm walking down the street," he said, "I wonder for a fleeting moment whether a certain person is armed or whether they might want to do me some harm."