The single 9mm bullet that struck Daniel Ficker sank into his left side near the armpit, punching through rib and lung before resting near his spine.
As the echo rattled through the sleeping Parma neighborhood, the 27-year-old crumbled onto the narrow patch of grass between the sidewalk and the white bungalow he shared with his girlfriend. By the time Tiffany Urbach gave up on her call to 911 and ran to his side, Ficker was struggling for breath, eventually finding enough air to tell her he loved her.
Parma Police arrived quickly, only minutes into the a.m. hours of July 4, 2011. They found Cleveland Police officer Matthew Craska standing on the sidewalk, his warm Glock 17 still unholstered and angled at the ground. Urbach held her gasping boyfriend in her arms. "You shot him!" she wailed as blood flooded up from Ficker's nose and mouth. The Parma officers pulled her off, cuffed Ficker, and started probing for the gunshot wound as his consciousness slipped away.
More police and EMS were en route, the sirens cutting up the mild night air still hung with the aftertaste of spent fireworks. They came from Parma, along with units from Cleveland who swarmed the street corner upon learning that shots had been fired involving one of their own. For hours, onlookers and neighbors, family and news crews descended, held back from the lawn by a police barricade. When asked what had happened, cops just shook their heads or shrugged.
Ficker was taken to Metro hospital. Within an hour, he was dead on the operating table.
On the last day of his life, Daniel Ficker shuffled through the same holiday motions as everyone else: He spent July 3 making the family rounds between backyard parties and drinking along the way.
On paper and according to friends, Dan was an ordinary guy with an unremarkable backstory. Cleveland-born and raised in Old Brooklyn, he watched his parents split when he was two and was raised mostly by his mother, Bernadette Rolen. Once he'd waded into adulthood, Dan and his father, Dennis, a muscular bald guy with his son's likeness unmistakably stamped into his own features, became close again — more like good friends than father and son.
For the last six years, Dan had shared the house in Parma with his high school sweetheart. The bills were paid with the good money Dan pulled down at Legend Automotive in Berea, but he would cut anyone off mid-sentence who called him a mechanic. "I'm a tech," he'd always insist.
Almost a decade into the relationship, their home life had come to center around an eight-year-old son and six-year-old daughter. Many say Dan was an attentive father, and especially close with his grandparents on his mother's side; every week without fail, he would visit the ailing couple at their house in Cleveland, cooking and cleaning for them.
But Dan Ficker wasn't an altar boy. The image he cut was rough-edged — belying the nice guy on the inside, friends say, but rough nonetheless: His slightly jutting ears were pierced, his wiry frame inked over with skulls, dice, and a grim reaper, among other tattoos. He partied with friends who went at it hard; Dan too could hold his liquor and didn't pass up the occasional hit of weed. In addition to some minor scrapes with the law, a night at the bar in 2005 ended with a drunken Dan in cuffs and facing a weapons charge. According to reports, he became angry and threatened patrons in the bar; police later found an unlicensed gun in the glove compartment of his car out front. Friends and family say it was a one-time wig-out, not par for the course.
On the afternoon of July 3, Dan and Tiffany piled the kids into the car and steered north from Parma toward Cleveland. Fifteen minutes later, they pulled up to the Old Brooklyn home of Tiffany's cousin, Kim Mindek. It was a modest neighborhood popular among cop families, and Mindek's husband Dave was one of them. Out back, Fourth of July festivities were warming up.
Although the cousins had never been close, Tiffany and Kim had been trying to mint a tighter bond after their grandfather's death the year before. But it hadn't completely taken, in part because of Dan. During a 10-month separation from Tiffany, he tagged along for her birthday party at a Parma bar. While the booze flowed, Kim spotted her cousin's ex dancing with another girl and confronted him.
"I didn't care. It was pretty entertaining," Tiffany recalls today. "She got angry and was yelling at him, and then he left." The dust-up left bad blood between the two.
But by the time Dan and his family stepped into the Mindeks' backyard, any animosity had seemingly been shelved. About 20 people were there, though Tiffany recognized only about seven family members. The fenced-in backyard included a tiki bar and the sound of music spun by a hired DJ. While the kids played inside, Tiffany and Dan sat at the bar bullshitting with Kim, the party's lone host. Dave Mindek was on duty that day.
Dan and Tiffany put in about two hours at the party before saying their goodbyes and heading to the home of Tiffany's mom in Strongsville for the evening. The kids ended up spending the night there, freeing up Dan and Tiffany to head back to Parma alone.
They spent an hour at a bar near their house — just long enough for a shot and a beer, and a quick game of pool. At some point, Tiffany's phone buzzed with a Facebook message from Kim's sister saying to call Kim. Assuming she wanted them to swing back to her party, Tiffany ignored the message until they headed homeward at around 11:30. Tiffany called Kim five times from the car, getting no more than empty rings and voicemail every time.
Dan and Tiffany crawled north up a side street toward their home at the corner of Wareham and Pelham; the driveway was about 20 yards down the sidewalk, past a small backyard jammed with a picnic table, clubhouse, and trampoline. The couple was in good spirits and planned to throw on a movie.
From their approach, they didn't notice the Cleveland Police car parked at the curb or the uniformed cop leaning against it. As Dan pulled in, they both spotted another man in street clothes standing on the lawn.
"Who is that?" Dan asked.
Tiffany was puzzled at first, then grew worried that something was wrong with a family member when she recognized who was waiting for them.
"That's my cousin."