LOU MUMFORD // South Bend Tribune

Jeff Dunlap sits at his desk at Niles City Hall where he's in charge of the Niles Utilities Department. A former Niles Township employee who initially worked as a police officer, he narrowly escaped injury or worse during a shootout 24 years ago. (July 21, 2013)

NILES -- The city of Niles has had a number of utilities department managers over the years but it's a safe bet only the current one, Jeff Dunlap, was ever involved in a shootout.

The 53-year-old Dunlap, a former Niles Township employee who earlier this month took over as city utilities manager, said the incident took place Feb. 13, 1989, at a Save Mart store (currently Big Lots) at South 11th Street and Bell Road. Then a Niles Township police officer, he was off-duty, he said, and had stopped at the store about 10:30 p.m. to pick up diapers for his then 1-year-old son.

As he waited in the checkout line to pay the cashier, a woman that he knew well, he sensed the situation wasn't normal.

"I remember she (the cashier) had this look on her face. I knew something was wrong," he said. "I looked around ... and I saw a guy standing at the end of the checkout lane acting suspicious."

Thinking fast, he moved closer to the cashier and, pretending he didn't know her, said, "Ma'am, do you take checks?"

"She leaned in close and said, 'They're in the office with guns,'" he recalled, pointing out she talked soft so no one else could hear.

Glancing around once again, he spotted another man standing farther back in the store who also appeared out of place. Seconds later, yet another man ran out of the store's office and yelled, "Let's go!'' Dunlap said.

"So against all my training, I ran to the end of a counter, drew my weapon and yelled, 'Stop, police!'" he said. "The guy at the end of the aisle took a shot at me. I returned fire."

The ensuing scene was chaos, as Dunlap said two of the armed men collided at the exit door in their haste to get out and knocked one another down. Dunlap said he shot at each but didn't hit either one.

"I made a classic mistake, splitting my shots," he said, referring to firing at one target and then the other.  "What you should do is concentrate on one target at a time."

Dunlap said as the gunmen returned his fire, he could feel the bullets zip past his head. After firing the fifth and last round in his weapon, Dunlap, who had no backup ammunition, said he at least had the presence of mind not to "click" on an empty chamber.

"That's a death sentence to a police officer," he said, explaining the sound might have alerted the robbers to his predicament.

At that point, Dunlap, knowing the store's exit was blocked, ran toward an aisle seeking cover and spotted the man he had observed earlier toward the back of the store -- he later was identified as John Ford, of Gary -- rise from behind a counter with a handgun. It's possible, if not likely, Dunlap's life was saved by a floor-to-ceiling post about 4 inches wide.

"I ran by him, he fired four or six shots at me, and ... the shots hit the post as I ran by. I know more than one hit it," he said, indicating the bullets struck the post at the same elevation as his head. Dunlap said he immediately dove into an aisle next to the frozen foods.

"I think he (Ford) thought he'd hit me," he said.

Ford then ran out the door but ran past the getaway car where, by then, the two other robbers had already joined the getaway driver. A subsequent track later turned up Ford but the other three escaped.

Collecting himself, Dunlap realized how lucky he'd been.

"God was with me that day," he said. "I fired five shots, and they fired at least 10. The only spot that got hit was the back of my jacket."

The lack of blood in the store indicated the robbers hadn't been wounded either. An estimated 15 employees and shoppers also escaped injury, Dunlap said.

Two of the three gunmen who escaped were later identified and arrested, but the identity of the third man, believed to be the getaway driver, is still a mystery. As it turned out, Ford was the only one of the four to receive a prison sentence -- 10 years -- and it was for a crime other than the one in Niles.

"Ford had a plea bargain in which the charges were dropped here and he was charged with a robbery in Three Oaks. He got 10 years," Dunlap said.

"Of the other two who were arrested, one was acquitted and the other wasn't bound over (for trial) from his preliminary exam."

As for Dunlap, he continued as a township police officer until the department was abandoned in 2005 and he became the township's building official. Now, as Niles utilities manager, his attention will turn to the city's electric, water and wastewater services.

That might sound lackluster compared to his police work but, Dunlap said, he doesn't look at it that way.

"It's not boring at all," he said. "I enjoy not having to fight with people."