YOUNGTOWN, Arizona – The gunshot that struck state trooper Ed Andersson was “one in a thousand,” he said.
“A half inch to my right, it would have missed me,” the Arizona State Police officer told CNN. “A few inches to my left, it would have hit my vest.”
But, the bullet found Andersson’s right shoulder – paralyzing it and preventing him from reaching his own weapon.
At 4:30 in the morning, it was dark and desolate along Interstate 10 near Tonopah, Arizona.
The only other person around was the man who just shot Andersson and an injured female companion.
And, the attack wasn’t over.
His gun now empty, the man charged Andersson, striking him with the weapon and bashing his head into the pavement.
“I kicked him into the fast lane, hoping that a car would come by and hit him,” Andersson said.
But, it didn’t work.
Andersson rolled onto his right side, shielding his weapon from the attacker.
“I knew, if he got my gun, it’d be all over right then,” he said.
Then, Andersson heard a voice and gunshots.
It was over.
The attacker lay dead in front of him.
Andersson was alive.
But, who saved him?
A former felon, he would later learn: a man who turned his life around and found God; a lifelong hunter who begged a judge to reinstate his rights, allowing him to carry a gun again – the one he just fired; a man who is now Andersson’s friend for life.
“God… put me in that place”
Thomas Yoxall woke the morning of January 12, thinking he’d be taking pictures by the end of the day.
The photographer was headed for a conference in Anaheim, California and had just began the five-hour drive along I-10 when a patrol car sped past him.
“I was thinking, not a good way to start the morning with someone getting pulled over,” Yoxall said.
The flashing lights faded into the foreground as Thomas took a sip of his morning coffee.
The lights re-emerged, though, as Thomas approached mile marker 84.
Andersson hadn’t pulled anyone over.
He was responding to calls of a man shooting his weapon at cars on the highway.
As he arrived, he spotted an overturned vehicle just off the roadway and two potential victims along the shoulder.
A female passenger had been thrown from the car.
“I saw a male subject kneeling and holding a female in his arms,” Andersson said.
So, he blocked the slow lane with his car, set out flares and called for a medical helicopter.
When he returned to the victim, the man was missing.
“I scan with my flashlight, and I found him standing in the emergency lane,” Andersson said. “I could tell he already had his weapon pointed at me.”
The man wasn’t a victim at all.
He was the shooter who motorists were reporting to police.
And, lucky for Andersson, he was down to his last bullet – the same one he plunged into Andersson’s right shoulder before he punched Andersson to the ground.
“I would try to get my taser out,” Andersson said. “But, every time I would do that, he would strike me in the head and pound my head on the pavement.”
That’s when Yoxall drove by the scene, seeing the man on top of Andersson.
“He’s beating him in a savage way, just fist after fist,” Yoxall said.
Yoxall pulled over, took his legal firearm from the center console of his pickup and exited onto the highway.
“I yell out to the suspect to stop. I said ‘Get off him!'” Yoxall said. “His facial expression, the look in his eye (was) ‘evil’ if I had to put a word on it.”
The suspect refused to stop, continuing to beat Andersson.
“I hear a voice… ask me if I needed help,” Andersson recalled. “I said ‘Yes, I do.’
“Shut up!” the attacker shouted.
Yoxall said he moved to his left, assuring Andersson was not in the line of fire.
The attacker resumed his brutal assault as Andersson bled from his head.
“The next thing I hear is two shots,” Andersson said.
The first struck the man in the chest, the second in the head.
The threat was over.
The attacker, later identified as 37-year-old Leonard Penuelas-Escobar, was dead.
Investigators are awaiting toxicology results to determine if drugs were a factor in the attack.
A chopper Andersson had called to transport an accident victim instead airlifted him to the hospital.
After surgery and more than 100 stitches and staples, doctors stabilized him.
From his hospital bed, Andersson realized he’d likely be dead if not for Yoxall.
“As much as I fought, at one point, I probably couldn’t have gone on anymore,” Andersson said as his emotions swelled. “I probably wouldn’t be here (if not for him).”
If the attack had happened two decades ago – it may have ended differently.
That’s when Yoxall was, by his own admission, a different man.
“People who know me best know I’ve come full circle in my life,” Yoxall said.
Yoxall was charged with theft in 2000.
The felony case prevented the avid hunter and shooter from carrying a gun.
But, when the case was pleaded down to a misdemeanor in 2003, Yoxall said, it allowed him to petition the judge to reinstate his gun rights.
They were granted, and Yoxall has carried his firearm ever since.
“God chose to put me in that place at that particular moment,” Yoxall said of the roadside encounter that saved Andersson. “I just can’t see an evil like that perpetuated without intervening.”
A lifelong bond
With Andersson’s arm in a sling, he still finds a way to embrace Yoxall each time they meet.
In the weeks that followed the shooting, the pair have met a handful of times, forging what they said is “always going to be a bond.”
“And, not just between me and him,” Andersson said. “But, between my family and him, too.”
Col. Frank Milstead, director of the Arizona Department of Public Safety, said the incident shows what can happen when citizens and law enforcement work together.
“Thomas didn’t help Ed out based on whose side he was on. He did it because it was a gut instinct that told him he needed to get involved,” Milstead said. “It’s beautiful. It’s pure.”
Andersson recognizes lives were lost that day (the female passenger in the overturned vehicle also died), but he hopes people won’t judge Yoxall for pulling the trigger.
“I hope people understand that he had to do what he had to do to save somebody else’s life,” Andersson said. “Getting involved isn’t a bad thing, even if it’s just stopping to call 911.”
Yoxall said he has no regrets but admits it’s “hard to relive sometimes.”
“No member of our law enforcement should have to be in that situation of fear and being alone with nobody responding,” he said.
In this case, Andersson wasn’t alone for long.
The encounter lasted only minutes, but Yoxall’s actions will be felt for life.
“I get to see my grandkids grow up, my daughters get married eventually,” Andersson said. “He did a fabulous thing.”