For the first time since his paralyzing accident last June 10, Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department Officer Santos Cortez donned his blue uniform and wheeled into the City County Building to face the man who put him in a wheelchair.
Jerrel Watkins, 28, was sentenced to three years in prison and 180 days community corrections, the maximum sentence, for causing the drunk driving crash that left Cortez paralyzed on the pavement of West Washington Street that Sunday night.
“He took away my lifelong dream of being a police officer and walking a beat, running a beat, and that wasn’t right,” said Cortez.
However, the Chicago native swore to uphold the law when he signed on with IMPD in 2007.
Cortez said he doesn’t think the sentence is enough, but it is what the law allows.
“Like I explained to the judge, when I’m able to walk, he should be able to walk out of prison.”
If he behaves himself, combined with the time he’s already served awaiting his guilty plea, it’s possible Watkins could be out of prison around the first of the year.
Meanwhile, Cortez continues rehabilitation sessions twice and three times a week, trying to regain the use of his legs.
“My main goal for myself is to try to walk again,” he said. “That’s the next step.”
After the sentencing, which can only be called a milestone and not a victory, Cortez and his wife, Fran, and their son were joined at City Market by Santos Morin, Jr., Cortez’ father, and Paul Morin, his brother.
Cortez’ father served warrants for the Cook County Sheriff’s Department in some of Chicago’s worst neighborhoods for 18 years. His brother has been a Chicago cop for 22 years.
“My second biggest hero,” said Cortez, his eyes brimming with tears as he described the brother sitting next to him. “Watched him become a cop. That was awesome to see him do that, and I really knew that was something I had to do. Something I had to do.
“I learned a lot just by watching them do what they do and kind of playing cop at home.
“One day I will be where they are at.”
Pinned above the right breast pocket on Cortez’ uniform is a short purple bar.
It is IMPD’s Purple Heart, an honor he received in an awards ceremony surrounded by fellow officers last fall.
“I’m proud of him, everything he does, every fight he handles. Every day,” said Paul.
Santos Morin, Jr., leaned on his cane, between his Chicago cop son and his grandson and looked across the table at his baby boy, the one in wheelchair.
Back in the day, dad would take his son along on warrant sweeps to arrest bad guys in some of Chicago’s most dangerous south side neighborhoods.
Cortez remembered how his father would come out of those high rises, his suit crisp and clean, the criminal a bit disheveled and in handcuffs.
“’That is the coolest thing ever,’” Cortez said he remembered thinking. “’I’m gonna do that one day.’
“I’ve always wanted to follow in my brother and father’s footsteps, you know. Show them that I’m a part of the family business so to speak.”
The matriarch of this cop family took the full measure of his son, back in uniform, refusing to be bowed by the cruel twist that will have his assailant walk free before he likely will walk again.
“He’s exceeded anything that I have done in my lifetime as far a police officer,” said the dad. “It’s a family business. I guess it is. I guess it is.”