PHOENIX — He had little time to think and just acted instinctively, he said, firing his weapon to save one man’s life while taking another.
His voice breaking, the man who came to the rescue of an Arizona Department of Public Safety trooper Jan. 12 said the aftermath of that confrontation has been “overwhelming.”
Thomas Yoxall, 43, spoke publicly for the first time Tuesday afternoon, describing what happened on a stretch of Interstate 10 in the far West Valley after he came upon the wounded trooper being attacked, his head being pounded into the pavement.
Yoxall ordered the man to stop the assault; when the man didn’t, he fired.
Yoxall described his reaction as “visceral.”
“It’s who I am,” he said. “I can’t arbitrarily stand by and watch a tragedy like that unfold without doing what I can to intervene and stop it.”
In an emotional news conference at DPS headquarters, Yoxall said that while he still struggles with taking a life and has sought counsel from his pastor, he would do the same thing all over again.
As he was driving to California shortly before 4:30 a.m. Jan. 12, Yoxall came across a man who was attacking DPS Trooper Ed Andersson on Interstate 10 west of Tonopah. Yoxall retrieved his own firearm and shot and killed the suspect, whom officials later identified as 37-year-old Leonard Penuelas-Escobar.
“I’m just thankful that I was able to respond, (in a way) that ultimately saved Trooper Andersson’s life,” he said.
Yoxall said he has no military or law-enforcement experience but practices gun-safety techniques several times a year.
“I feel that it’s a right and a privilege to be a private gun owner, and with that right and privilege comes a great responsibility,” he said.
DPS officials said Penuelas-Escobar and 23-year-old Vanessa Monique Lopez-Ruiz had been in a rollover accident just before the attack. Andersson, a 27-year veteran of the department, had stopped to assist when Penuelas-Escobar reportedly “ambushed” him, shooting him in the right shoulder and chest.
By the time Yoxall pulled over, Penuelas-Escobar was pounding Andersson’s head into the pavement, authorities said.
DPS officials said Penuelas-Escobar’s motive in attacking the trooper was unknown. Lopez-Ruiz, who was ejected from the vehicle, was killed.
Similar to a second Good Samaritan who came to Andersson’s aid that morning, Yoxall seemed uncomfortable with the outpouring of gratitude that followed his actions.
“I’m an ordinary person,” he said. “I go to work, I do photography, I hang out with my friends and family. I was put in extraordinary circumstances and may have acted heroically, but I don’t consider myself a hero.”
DPS Director Col. Frank Milstead described Yoxall as an “amazing” guy.
“I’m humbled to have met him, to know what he did,” Milstead said. “Because we’re having this conversation about a hero and not an on-duty death.”
Milstead said Andersson was still recovering and as of Friday had not seen Yoxall in person since the incident.
Yoxall, an Arizona resident who currently works as a maintenance supervisor, acknowledged at the media event that he, like many others, has a “past.”
“Those moments of poor judgment have not dictated my future,” he said, without elaborating.
Maricopa County Superior Court records show a felony charge of theft from the year 2000, which later was reduced to a misdemeanor. According to court records, Yoxall admitted to stealing numerous electronics items from a group home where he worked.
When petitioning the judge to reduce his felony conviction, Yoxall stressed that he was eager to be restored his right to bear arms. A felony conviction strips individuals of their right to possess a firearm, but they may be allowed the opportunity to have those rights reinstated.
“Before this incident, I was an avid shooter,” Yoxall wrote in 2003. “I miss owning a gun. I miss shooting with my friends as well as my son. I hope, if nothing else, you will reinstate my civil rights to include the right to bear arms once again.”
In October 2003, a Superior Court judge vacated Yoxall’s guilty judgment and restored his right to possess a gun.