It’s been fifty years…but when it counted, James Vernon’s combat training kicked in. The 75-year-old veteran is being hailed as a hero, after he took charge and overpowered Dustin Brown when he burst into the Morton (Illinois) Public Library last week.
Brown was on a self-described “mission” to take as many lives as he could and then his own. His target: a roomful of children enjoying a home school chess club meeting.
The assailant, free on bond and awaiting prosecution for possessing child pornography, said he wanted them all to die. Brown has admitted planning his attack for two weeks. With two knives stashed in his backpack, their handles wrapped in tape, he entered the building at about 3:25 that afternoon.
Sixteen children and a handful of their mothers found the only door to their room blocked by the 19-year-old Brown, screaming, “I’m going to kill some people!”
The children, aged 7 to 13, scurried under tables. That’s when Vernon stepped in.
“I tried to talk to him. I tried to settle him down,” he said. “I didn’t, but I did deflect his attention” from the children “and calmed him a bit. I asked him if he was from Morton, did he go to high school. I asked what his problem was. He said his life sucks. That’s a quote.”
As Vernon spoke, he stepped closer to Brown. “He backed away when I’d get closer.” With a few steps, Vernon was between Brown and the door, with the children under the tables behind him.
“I gave them the cue to get the heck out of there, and, boy, they did that! Quick, like rabbits,” Vernon recalls.
“There were no more potential victims in the room. He focused on me. There was no more talking.”
Vernon watched the assailant closely. “I knew he was right-handed. He was whittling on his left arm” with the knife in that hand, “making small cuts. He was trying to scare me, and he did.”
He observed that if Brown attacked, “I knew which hand it was coming from.”
Suddenly, Brown slashed from the right toward Vernon, who blocked the blade with his left hand.
“First rule of combat: Be fast and vigorous,” said Vernon, recalling what the military taught him about knife-fighting.
His medium build was enough to overcome the smaller Brown.“I grabbed him and threw…somehow he wound up on a table” with the knife in his left hand pinned under his body, Vernon said. “I hit him on the (right) collarbone with my closed hand” until Brown, his arm numbed by the blows, dropped the knife.
The much older man, “bleeding pretty good,” held him until a library employee was able to get the knives. The two of them restrained Brown until police and paramedics got there.
Had he brought a firearm instead, “It would’ve been a different story,” James Vernon said Thursday.
He won his “90 seconds of combat” with Brown, he says, “but I felt like I lost the war.” Two arteries and a tendon were cut when he blocked Brown’s knife swipe.
Vernon, who retired in 2002 from his information technology career at Caterpillar Inc., is recovering at his Morton home from surgery for his wounds. Brown was ordered to be held on $800,000 bond, pending a Nov. 5 court appearance to face charges of attempted murder, armed violence, aggravated battery to a person over the age of 60 and burglary for entering the library with intent to commit a crime.