For nearly 50 days, James Tullier has barely left the Baton Rouge hospital where he’s held vigil for his son, a sheriff’s deputy wounded in an ambush that killed three other officers — not even when his family was hit by a second tragedy, their homes wrecked in historic flooding.
Tullier doesn’t have time to mourn the damage to his house, or the neighboring homes of his other two sons. Doctors initially feared that Nick Tullier had less than 24 hours to live after the shooting.
“The house could have washed away. It’s just not a priority to us. Nick is our priority,” James Tullier said during an interview at Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center, where James, his wife, Mary, and Nick’s fiancee take shifts at his bedside.
Now, the family sees a miracle. James Tullier said his 41-year-old son is in a coma but began responding to relatives’ words less than a week ago — by blinking an eye, moving toes and squeezing his mother’s hand.
“Medically, he’s not supposed to be here,” Tullier said of Nick, who has two teenage sons, Trent and Gage.
Early estimates indicate more than 150,000 homes in south Louisiana were destroyed or damaged in the flooding. While tens of thousands of residents have returned to salvage waterlogged belongings and muck out their homes, James Tullier hasn’t even set foot inside his.
He recently stopped by the property in Denham Springs — a Baton Rouge suburb where floodwaters damaged roughly 90 percent of homes and businesses — to fix his mailbox. It’s all he’s seen of the damage from water that topped the light switches on the home’s first floor.
His 83-year-old mother is living with 10 dogs — nine of them hers, one she took in after the flooding — on the second floor of the damaged house because her trailer home flooded. James Tullier’s other two sons also were displaced by the damage to their homes. Tullier, 62, is staying in a motor home parked outside the hospital, while his wife and Nick’s fiancee sleep at the hospital.
James has taken breaks from the bedside vigil only a handful of times: to meet with President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden during their respective visits after the flooding and the officers’ shootings, and to attend funerals for two of the three slain officers.
The fate of his home is an afterthought, though his prayers for his son’s recovery now extend to friends and neighbors who lost everything in the floods.
On the morning of July 17, Nick Tullier was working the day shift and eating breakfast with another East Baton Rouge Parish sheriff’s deputy when they heard a radio call about an armed man near a convenience store about a mile away.
They drove to the store and stopped to check on a suspicious vehicle. It belonged to the gunman, 29-year-old Gavin Long, of Kansas City, Missouri.
Sheriff Sid Gautreaux said surveillance video shows Tullier look into the car, which contained firearms, and walk back to his vehicle. That’s when Long emerged from a wooded area and opened fire.
“They never saw him,” Gautreaux said. “He hit Nick first.”
A SWAT officer killed Long after he fatally wounded another sheriff’s deputy and two Baton Rouge police officers.
James Tullier heard about the shootings from his mother, who saw a news report.
“We tried to call Nick and couldn’t get him,” he said. “Somebody with the department called my wife’s phone number and told her we needed to get to the hospital quick.”
There, they learned a bullet had shattered Tullier’s skull and damaged his brain. Another shot pierced his abdomen, damaging his intestines. A third ripped through his left shoulder.
Nick Tullier underwent roughly a dozen surgeries, all to his abdomen, in the first week after the shootings. Doctors also have operated on his head at least twice.
His external wounds are slowly healing, but the internal damage remains a concern.
“He’s in the hands of God,” James Tullier said. “Nick is a fighter, and God is right in there with him fighting.”
Relatives of the slain and wounded officers met privately with Obama on Aug. 23. The president also met with the family of Alton Sterling, a black man whose fatal shooting during a July 5 altercation with two white Baton Rouge police officers sparked widespread protests.
James Tullier said the president introduced him to his personal physician, who called him Monday to discuss options for transferring his son to a rehabilitation facility. The family doesn’t have a timetable yet for a move.
“Wherever Nick goes, we go,” his father said.
Tullier joined the sheriff’s office nearly two decades ago, serving the past 10 years in the traffic division.
“He’s a professional law enforcement officer, but he’s more than that,” Sheriff Gautreaux said. “He knows he was called to do this.”
Dr. Steven Gremillion — chief medical officer at the hospital, where five of the six officers shot in the attack were taken — said Tullier’s survival has lifted the spirits of staff there, too.
“In some ways, even though you never want events like these, it brings you together,” he said. “It’s black and white. It’s nurse and physician. It’s everyone coming together.”
The night before the shootings, Nick Tullier was driving home to his fiancee, Danielle, when he stopped to help a woman with a flat tire. He used a spare from his own vehicle and followed her home.
The woman’s daughter posted a video of the encounter on Facebook that night, writing, “Not all cops are bad cops.”
Tullier’s father was amazed to learn that the woman with the flat tire, Tyla Carter, is related to Montrell Jackson, one of the officers killed in the shooting. Carter is the aunt of his widow, Trenisha.
At Jackson’s funeral, Carter and James Tullier hugged.
“Nick is a hero. He’s our hero,” Carter said. “We’re like family now, all connected together.”