Exactly a year ago today, FBI agent John David Kuchta was sitting in a corner of a tiny third-floor office in D.C. police headquarters when a 25-year-old District man walked in, wordlessly pulled a machine gun from his coat and started shooting.
In less than four seconds, a D.C. police sergeant and a fellow FBI agent -- each an arm's length from Kuchta -- went down, mortally wounded. Kuchta pulled his 9mm handgun and fired at the gunman, who stood at the opposite end of a sofa barely six feet away. As the man turned toward him, Kuchta squeezed the trigger and silently prayed. Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. . . . A bullet ripped into Kuchta's heart and two more slammed through his right leg bone. He slumped to the ground, kept firing, faded in and out of consciousness. Waiting for his attacker to finish him off, he hoped for the strength to defend himself. Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.
It was not his hour. Though horribly wounded, Kuchta moaned to rescuers that he would not leave his 8-month-old daughter, Anastasia, fatherless. And now, a year after surviving one of the most shocking outbursts in a crime-weary city, Kuchta is certain of this:
He wants to return to the killing ground.
Kuchta, 32, still is recovering from his wounds and walks with a limp. But he plans not only to resume full duty with the FBI but also to go back to the job he was doing with his slain colleagues, FBI agents Martha Dixon Martinez, 35, Michael John Miller, 41, and police Sgt. Henry Joseph "Hank" Daly, 51. Soon Kuchta intends to rejoin the District's "cold case" squad, a team of FBI agents and police detectives who investigate old, unsolved slayings.
"While I was in intensive care, I made a promise to my God, my family and my country," Kuchta said. "My promise is that my friends' ultimate sacrifice will not be in vain."
Since May, Kuchta (pronounced koof-ta; the name is Czech), who has a law degree, has been working as a federal prosecutor in Alexandria, a job he plans to continue for another six months until he is well enough physically to return to the FBI. Outside the courtroom, he has been decrying what he considers a lax criminal justice system that allowed the massacre to occur.
Kuchta has spoken passionately at memorial services for slain law officers, on a radio talk show, to groups of students. He invokes Thomas Jefferson when he rips into legal practices and societal attitudes that excuse violent behavior.
He rattles off Justice Department statistics on the time that convicted murderers, rapists and armed robbers spend behind bars, noting that the median sentence actually served by convicted killers is a little more than five years. He reminds audiences that Bennie Lee Lawson, the killer who ended his rampage at police headquarters by taking his own life, had received early parole for a weapon violation.
"He robbed us of three of the finest people I have ever known," Kuchta said.
"I'd be lying to you if I told you that while I was in the hospital with tubes in me, thinking about the possibility of dying, wondering if I would ever walk again, I'd be lying if I said I didn't think about quitting," he said in a recent interview. "I thought about it, whether I want to keep doing this job.
"But morally, I couldn't look into my daughter's eyes -- I couldn't look into any child's eyes -- if I had the opportunity to make this a better country and instead I walked away. I couldn't live with myself. It's the age-old struggle between good and evil, and you have to stand up to all the bad that's out there."
A Catholic who attends Mass regularly with his wife, Helena, Kuchta said his faith is one of the reasons he wants to continue to fight crime. While he lingered near death during eight hours of surgery last year, a priest waited, comforting Helena but also preparing to administer last rites.
Kuchta was shot at least five times. The bullets in his heart and legs barely missed major blood vessels; any could have been fatal. Two others struck his arm and upper chest. Another hit his Timex watch and lodged in its spring; had it struck his wrist, his left hand might have been rendered useless.
Kuchta is acutely aware that he beat long odds to survive.
"There's just no reason I should be here today," he said. "I have to believe that, for whatever reason, God kept me alive, and I'm quite thankful for that and for the time I get to spend with my daughter and my wife.
"This incident will always be with me, but I don't dwell on it," Kuchta continued. "It happened, and I've come to accept it, but I think it's built a resolve to continue this fight against all the problems that are out there. And it's really highlighted the good in people."
Kuchta speaks often of the bravery of fellow officers who rescued him, the skill of the doctors who kept him alive and the kindness of those who helped him and his family.
In the moments after the shooting, police Detectives Neal Trugman, Chris Kauffman and Brian Callen -- none of whom was wearing a bulletproof vest -- rushed into the office where Kuchta lay and pulled him into a hallway. "They didn't know if the gunman was still alive," Kuchta said. "That was a true act of bravery."
At Washington Hospital Center, trauma surgeon Bikram Paul pulled Kuchta from the brink of death. "He and the other surgeons who worked on me are just phenomenal," Kuchta said.
There were others: The FBI agents who volunteered to guard Helena and Anastasia Kuchta at their home. The scores of schoolchildren and hundreds of others, including President Clinton and former president Ronald Reagan, who sent get-well cards. FBI Director Louis J. Freeh, who visited and called. The little boy who sent his favorite teddy bear while Kuchta was still in intensive care.
During his 10 days in intensive care, while he was pumped with morphine and lapsing in and out of consciousness, Kuchta had nightmares of the shooting. He struggled until earlier this year when Nancy Davis, a counselor who works with FBI agents, gave him a relaxation tape, which she said enabled him to sleep again and regain the ability to concentrate and read. "He's determined to heal and to get back to normal," Davis said.
Kuchta stayed in the hospital for almost four weeks; he went in at 190 pounds and came out 50 pounds lighter. Today he is back up to 183. His shattered leg carries a metal rod that doctors inserted for support.
The FBI conducted an exhaustive review of the shooting that is chronicled in a 500-page report. Investigators found that Lawson fired 19 shots, 10 of which hit law enforcement officers. An 11th shot wounded a teenager who entered the office with Lawson.
Kuchta fired 12 times, but investigators could not confirm that he hit Lawson. Martinez fired four shots before she died, one of which disabled Lawson's Mac-11 machine gun. One bullet went through Lawson's hip, but the FBI could not confirm who fired it.
Even in a city where deadly gunplay has become routine, it was a startling attack, especially because it occurred two days before Thanksgiving. Lawson was a member of a drug crew who had been questioned about a previous triple homicide. Investigators believe he attacked either because he mistakenly believed his arrest was imminent or to prove to his fellow gang members he was not a snitch, or both.
This Thanksgiving, Kuchta and his wife plan to drive Anastasia, 20 months old now, to Pittsburgh, where the couple grew up. They will have Thanksgiving dinner with dozens of relatives from both families. One they will see is Aaron Zecker, a nephew of Kuchta's.
In August 1991, when Kuchta graduated from the FBI Academy in Quantico, Aaron, then 7, cried when Kuchta was presented with his gun. Helena asked what was wrong, and Aaron answered that he was afraid his uncle would be killed.
After the ceremony, Kuchta took Aaron outside to show him the FBI's Wall of Honor, inscribed then with the names of 29 agents slain in the line of duty since the agency's founding in 1908.
See how few agents have been killed over all those years, Kuchta told Aaron. Then he said this: "I promise you my name will never go on that wall." CAPTION: FBI agent John Kuchta, almost recovered from bullet wounds in the November shooting at D.C. police headquarters, and his wife, Helena, entertain their daughter, Anastasia. CAPTION: FBI agent John Kuchta, also a lawyer, has been working since May as a federal prosecutor, but he longs to return to duty solving murder cases.