RIVERSIDE, Calif. – This is a harrowing story of a California Highway Patrol officer stabbed seven times while saving a suicidal man from certain death.
CHP Officer Dane Norem rushed out of his car, sprinted to the curb, jumped and grabbed the suicidal man by the ankle just as he straddled the top of the overpass fence. A busy highway roared beneath them.
If Norem let go, the jumper would die. Cars would swerve and crash. Others might die too, reported Brett Kelman for the Desert Sun.
But a determined Norem wrapped the man’s leg in a bear hug and lifted his feet, using his body to anchor the jumper to the overpass. Unfortunately, the man had too much leverage for Norem to pull him off the fence, but Norem – a big cop loaded with gear – was too strong and too heavy for the man to yank free.
Suddenly, it was a tug-of-war between life and death.
Yet the jumper was armed with a knife, and in violent, desperation, he began to stab downward, slicing Norem in the process.
“When I got struck in the face, it didn’t really hurt,” Norem said. “It felt like I had been punched and it felt wet, like a water balloon had popped. I came to figure out later that was my eye.”
Five years ago, CHP Officer Dane Norem was stabbed seven times while stopping a suicide on “The Riverside Freeway” in Southern California. Dash cam video captured the entire incident.
Stabbed Seven Times
Over the next two minutes, Norem would be stabbed seven times, including once in his right eye, according to Kelman’s report in the Desert Sun. Yet he would refuse to let go. The “Chippie” as CHP officers are affectionately known, knew that his grip was the last defense against catastrophe.
The heroic rescue, which occurred Oct. 25, 2012, would become the defining moment for a hero police officer, praised across California for bravery so remarkable that it makes other cops pause in awe.
Norem’s selflessness would save a life—likely more than one—but in the process he would be so viciously wounded that he nearly lost his eyesight, his career and his identity, wrote Kelman.
Three-Year Recovery Process
Three years! That is how long it would take Norem to return to full duty as a police officer. Three long, painful, incredible years benefitting from state-of-the-art surgeries.
Hence, he would finally return to duty just in time to respond to the San Bernardino terror attack, when California needed its cops more than ever.
California Air National Guard
And throughout his recovery, Norem would maintain enlistment in the California Air National Guard. Moreover, he was deployed to the Middle East this year. Not that long ago that seemed to be impossible.
“It would have been very easy to give up,” Norem said, speaking to The Desert Sun in his first-ever interview about the stabbing. “I could have just medically retired, but instead I kept working to find an answer. And now, because of that, I get to keep doing what I love to do.”
Vicious Details Made Public
So Norem’s incredible rescue occurred nearly five years ago. But the vicious details have never been publicly described. Understandably, Norem has previously been unwilling to speak publicly about the incident for fear of jeopardizing the prosecution of his attacker, Javier Hernandez.
The criminal prosecution has been completed. As a result, crime scene photos and video footage from Norem’s dash camera became public earlier this year.
Norem was driving east on what Californians refer to as the “Riverside Freeway,” or simply “The 91.” Halfway through his night shift, when the radio in his patrol cruiser blared to life, reporting a distraught man had climbed the fence on the La Sierra Avenue overpass and was dangling his body over traffic.
Norem knew he was the closest available unit to respond. He had just driven under that specific overpass. Fatefully, as he became aware of the crisis, the overpass was vanishing in his rearview mirror.
As a result, Norem took the next exit, hit the overhead lights, and quickly returned to La Sierra Avenue. He arrived within a minute to see a slender man in a dark T-shirt and jeans was sitting on the sidewalk. The distraught man was hugging his knees against his chest. As the CHP patrol car approached, Hernandez stood and then began climbing the barrier fence that separated the overpass walkway from the traffic below.
The Knife Sliced Across His Eyeball
There was no time to think, just act.
Norem didn’t see the knife until it was too late. He screamed as the pocketknife slid along his cheekbone and sliced across his eyeball, but he did not let go. He ducked his head to protect his face, then Hernandez began to rhythmically stab and slash downward, jabbing the blade into the cop’s shoulder, arm and elbow.
Norem unwrapped his arms from the man’s leg, trying to retreat out of reach of the knife while still clenching Hernandez’s ankle. He kept his grip, but as blood poured out of punctures in his back and arm, his strength was fading, according to Kelman’s chronicle.
Suddenly, Hernandez’s foot slipped out of his shoe and up into his jeans, leaving Norem gripping a handful of empty pant leg. Hernandez pulled so hard his pants began to slide off.
Norem realized he would soon be standing on the overpass alone, holding an empty pair of jeans, as Hernandez’ pantsless corpse was crushed in the traffic below.
“I would have struggled with that guy until I absolutely couldn’t do it anymore. I wasn’t quitting. But neither was he,” Norem said.
“If those other guys hadn’t showed up, either me or Mr. Hernandez would have died that night.”
John Walker, an off-duty sergeant with the San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department, was driving through Riverside with his girlfriend when he saw the CHP patrol unit speed past him on “The 91 Freeway.”
After 20 years on the job, Walker knew what it looked like when a cop was driving with purpose.
I wonder what kind of call he is responding to, Walker thought. I hope everything is OK.
Moments later, Walker exited onto La Sierra Avenue, and then stopped at a red light. He peered through a thin line of roadside shrubs, where again he saw the patrol car. It was hap-hazardly parked on an overpass—a sure sign something wasn’t right.
The off-duty sergeant saw the “Chippie” struggling with a man who had climbed the fence.
Walker knew he had to help. He ran the red light and parked behind the patrol car, then rushed up to the trooper, who was desperately clinging to the pant leg of the man on the fence. Blood was pouring down the right side of the trooper’s face.
To Dane Norem, it was as if the voice had come from nowhere.
‘I’m a Cop’
“Hey brother,” Walker said. “I’m a cop and I’m here to help.”
“Grab my baton,” Norem said back, never taking his eyes off the man on the fence.
Walker grabbed the asp—collapsible baton—off of Norem’s belt, extending it with a flick of the writs. He circled around to Norem’s left shoulder, climbed two feet up the fence and began swinging the baton at Hernandez, trying to knock a small pocketknife out of his right hand. But Hernandez swung back.
For a moment, the two men clung to the fence, dueling, trying to smack and slice each others’ weapons away.
Another Off-Duty Officer Stops to Help
Nathan Asbury, an off-duty Riverside police officer, pulled over to assist Norem, and a few civilians followed, although there was not much that could be done. Walker’s girlfriend, Angela Madrid, also an off-duty police officer, retrieved a handgun from Walker’s car, just in case.
But no one could match Norem, who was bloodied and half-blind but still holding Hernandez’s pant leg in a vice grip. Amazingly, nearly three minutes had passed since Norem was stabbed the first time, and he continued to hold on.
“It was a true testament to who he is,” Walker said later, describing Norem. “If it wasn’t for Dane’s mindset, his determination to prevent someone else from getting hurt, that guy would just have gone up and over and caused an accident.”
Eventually, like all stalemates, this one came to an end. Another Highway Patrol officer arrived with a shotgun and pegged Hernandez with a less-lethal beanbag round, which is the equivalent of a baton strike. Hernandez immediately went limp, then collapsed on to the overpass, pulled to safety by the crowd of cops that had gathered around Norem.
Hernandez landed hard and seemed to be knocked out. Walker kicked the knife away and pointed a handgun at the suspect as other officers pinned him to the concrete.
Madrid handcuffed Hernandez before taking a deep breath of relief.
Norem’s Injuries Were Horrifying
She believed the danger was over until she saw Norem’s face for the first time.
Oh my god, she thought.
Streaks of red ran from Norem’s right eye down his cheek and neck. His elbow had been slashed open, and the hair on his forearm was slicked with drying blood. Furthermore, bloodstains grew on his back, where deep stab wounds in his shoulder were oozing through his khaki colored uniform.
“He had so much blood on him,” Madrid said. “It was like a cup of blood, and although I couldn’t really tell where it was all coming from, you knew it was severe.”
The Call Every LEO Spouse Fears
Amanda Norem was asleep at her home in Hemet when her phone awoke her. The caller was a CHP officer who worked with her husband in Riverside. This was the call she had feared since the day she fell in love with a cop.
“Amanda, this is Seth,” the highway patrol officer on the phone said. “Dane is OK, but he has been hurt.”
“Ok” is such a relative term.
“He’s has been stabbed. A few times,” said the officer.
Amanda rushed out of bed and dressed while a CHP officer drove to her house to pick her up.
Her mind raced and the minutes seemed to last forever. Her husband had been stabbed. Where? How? Was he still in danger? With no answers, she clung to the only good news she could think of. The highway patrol had called. If her husband were going to die, someone from the command staff would have come to her doorstep instead.
Breaking the News
On the way to the Riverside Community Hospital, Seth told Amanda that her husband had been stabbed in the eye. She shuddered, picturing a dagger in his socket, thrust in up to the hilt.
If he had been stabbed like that, she thought, how “OK” could he really be?
At the hospital, she got her answer. Norem lay in a hospital bed with streaks of blood leaking from a white bandage wrapped around the top half of his face. The sheet beneath his shoulder was dyed a deep red. Doctors were stapling a gash across his elbow shut, according to Kelman’s report.
Light-Hearted Mood Amid Tragedy
There was a light-hearted mood amid the tragedy. CHP officers had crowded into the hospital room to visit Norem. The cops—as they often do in a crisis—were joking around. Participating with his partners, Norem was in pain but still laughing.
Amanda breathed a little easier for the first time since her phone had rang.
“It was a sight that I wish I didn’t have to see,” Amanda said. “But I was glad to see everyone was joking around.”
Good News and Bad News
Doctors had good news and bad news. The stab wounds on Norem’s back, shoulder and elbow were painful but superficial. Therefore, his recovery should be only a matter of time, they said. That was the good news.
The bad news involved his eye. Consequently, the damage was much more complex.
The knife blade had sliced the face of Norem’s eyeball, spilling out a watery fluid that keeps an eye pressurized from within. Therefore, doctors could inject more fluid to keep the eyeball from collapsing, but they couldn’t repair a slash across Norem’s iris – the colored portion of his eye –, which now flopped open like a peeled banana.
Hence, the hanging flap of iris had to be removed so Norem’s eyeball could be stitched closed, but the surgery left his pupil shaped like a keyhole, unable to contract under bright lights.
Going Home, But Not to Work
Norem was out of the hospital in about two days. The “Chippie” was sent home with bandages on his arm and a large, itchy eye patch he was told to wear for at least a week. His wife tried to keep his spirits high, joking that now he had potential as a pirate. Furthermore, his kids nicknamed him Mike Wazowski, a reference to the goofy, one-eyed hero of Monsters, Inc.
But, inside, Norem was frustrated and afraid. His misshapen pupil was unable to adjust to light, so his eye could barely read or decipher faces. As a result, it stung when he tried to watch TV or look at his phone. Daylight was blinding, while fluorescent lights were torture.
Most importantly, with so much damage to his dominant eye, Norem could not functionally aim down a rifle sight.
If he couldn’t do that, his time in uniform would be over.
“Pretty much everyone thought I was done,” Norem said. “I was all but 100 percent certain that I was not going to return to the job. At that point, I was just wondering what I was going to do.”
Stuck at home, scarred and bandaged, Norem tried to imagine himself as anything other than a police officer. He had wanted to be a California Highway Patrol ever since he was a teenager, back when he racked up a few tickets and a benevolent highway patrol officer cut him some slack.
Norem first applied for the job at age 21, but he was told he needed “more life experience,” so he joined the United States Air Force, where he became a nuclear weapons technician instead.
After 12 years in the USAF, Norem returned as an applicant for the CHP. Although this time he was more qualified as he sought his dream job.
After being hired and completing the academy, he spent two years on the road in central Los Angeles. Afterward he was transferred to Riverside, where he worked the night shift patrolling “The 91 Freeway.” This stretch of freeway connects L.A., Orange, Riverside, and San Bernardino Counties, and is one of the busiest thoroughfares in Southern California.
Like many cops, Norem was happy working night shift.
Severe Injuries Change Paradigms
Now that entire life was in jeopardy.
“I thought that I couldn’t be a patrolman and I’d probably be removed from the Air Force as well,” Norem said, describing his life after the injury. “It’s what I loved doing, but what do you do now? Maybe you could sell furniture? Or work on cars? Maybe you have other talents? But where do you even restart?”
Light Duty Assignment
In the end, Norem decided not to restart at all. About three months after the stabbing, he anxiously returned to work at his station, limited to “light duty.” The CHP started finding odd jobs for Norem to work on.
His assignments included painting, desk duty, shuffling court paperwork, and administrative responsibility for calibrating Breathalyzers.
All of the work was important, but none of it was the job Norem had dreamed of. He wasn’t out on patrol, keeping the roads safe. On light duty, he wasn’t allowed to wear a uniform or carry his badge or gun.
As a result, he felt like he was barely a cop at all.
The Life of a Hero
In the two years after he was maimed with a knife, Norem became used to getting awards and posing for pictures. This was the life of a hero cop, reported Kelman.
First, in April 2013, Norem was given an award by the Riverside County Law Enforcement Appreciation Committee at a gala in Temecula. Four months later, Gov. Jerry Brown gave Norem the California Medal of Valor—the state’s highest honor—at a ceremony in Sacramento. Then the CHP gave Norem a second Medal of Valor, praising him for his “courage, dedication and quick-thinking.”
After that, the Riverside County District Attorney’s Office took its turn, calling Norem “our hero” and thanking him for the “bravery and selflessness he showed by never letting go.”
Medals Don’t Heal Wounds
But awards and kind words don’t heal wounds. And Norem’s wound wasn’t getting any better.
By the spring of 2015, Norem had spent more than a year and a half on light duty at the patrol station in Riverside. So he was limping along as a cop with no uniform, badge or gun. However, he knew this couldn’t last forever. Since light duty is always intended as a temporary assignment it has to come to an end. At some point, he would be expected to recover enough for full duty or retire because he could not do the job. That is simply the real world.
But Norem wasn’t ready for either. He hadn’t prepared for another career. Furthermore, doctors had said a year ago that his eyesight was as good as it was going to get. Norem had tried to return to full duty in 2014. He rode on patrol with a partner on a trial basis. But the CHP decided his vision just wasn’t good enough.
Five years ago, CHP Officer Dane Norem was stabbed seven times, including once in the eye, while stopping a suicide attempt on State Road 91 in Riverside.
New Surgical Procedure
Desperate, Norem began to search online for an answer that had been overlooked. Maybe, out there somewhere, there was an eye surgery option that his doctors had never considered.
Finally, he found an answer. It hadn’t been overlooked at all. It was new surgical procedure.
A state-of-the-art procedure, so cutting edge that his other doctors didn’t know about it was now in the works at nearby UCLA. Surgeons were replacing damaged irises with new prosthetics that could block light and restore vision, according to the Desert Sun report.
The Food and Drug Administration hadn’t approved the devices for a clinical trial until 2013; a year after Norem had been stabbed on the overpass.
There Is Hope
Ecstatic, Norem emailed UCLA. University doctors called back, saying they weren’t taking any patients for at least 18 months, but they knew someone who was. They directed Norem to Dr. Sam Masket, a renowned Los Angeles ophthalmologist who was collecting patients for the same trial.
After meeting Norem for the first time, Dr. Masket knew he had to help.
“He was so modest. He didn’t in any way try to let me know he was a hero,” Masket said, describing his first impressions of Norem.
“And I couldn’t imagine such an act of violence—attacking someone who was trying to save you. It made no sense to me. It still makes no sense to me.”
Silicon Disc Prosthesis
Masket explained how the new prosthesis worked. He would take detailed photographs of Norem’s good eye to serve as a model for a custom-made silicon disc, less than a half of a millimeter thick. This would replace his damaged iris. The disc would correct Norem’s misshapen pupil and filter out excess light. As a result, the process will vastly improve his vision. And his rebuilt eye would appear almost indistinguishable from his real eye.
The surgery sounded too good to be true. Yet soon enough, Norem saw the proof. In Masket’s office, he crossed paths with another patient—the son of highway patrol officer—who had been born with no irises due to a congenital defect.
Masket had given him two silicon implants.
Dane and Amanda peered deeply into the young man’s new eyes. They looked normal.
“That blew us away,” Amanda said. “Suddenly, we were so hopeful.”
But, of course, there was another problem.
Because Norem had been injured on the job, all of his medical treatment fell under the stringent, bureaucratic purview of California’s Workers Compensation Program. As a general rule, workers comp will not pay for procedures that are in FDA trials. They are wary of spending public funds on unproven surgeries. Consequently, Norem’s case was no different. Most noteworthy, despite all of California’s praise for the officer, the state did not plan to pay for his prosthetic. It appeared Norem would be stuck paying for the surgery himself—a cost of about $38,000.
Norem hired an attorney, hoping to pressure the state to reverse its position. The argument was simple: If Norem didn’t get the surgery, he would be forced to retire at a young age, which would ultimately be more expensive for the state in the long run.
Dr. Masket took a different approach. Infuriated by the inability to get the surgery paid for, he launched a charity—The Samuel & Barbara Masket Foundation. Most important, the foundation would collect donations to buy artificial irises for patients in need. As a result, Norem would be the foundation’s first beneficiary.
“We had always thought it would be nice to form a foundation, but Dane was the main stimulus to actually do it,” Masket said. “I was so horrified that this incredible young man, with such a story, would be denied the opportunity to have this device.”
In the end, the California Division of Workers Compensation caved to Norem’s attorney, agreeing to pay for his surgery, allowing Masket’s foundation to save its money for other patients. (It has since bought six artificial irises for other patients, the doctor said.)
Finally, Norem had surgery in July 2015. He became only the 157th person in the United States to receive an artificial iris as part of the FDA trial.
Following surgery, Norem went home wearing an eye patch, his new eye hidden underneath like a Christmas present waiting to be unwrapped.
In the morning, he dared to lift the patch as his wife watched.
Light flooded over Norem’s new eye, but for the first time in a long time, he wasn’t blinded. His keyhole pupil was gone.
“The difference was beyond dramatic,” Norem said. “It wasn’t exactly high definition … but I was able to see instantly and clearly, something I wasn’t able to do for the better part of three years at that time.”
With his sight restored, Norem’s next task was to watch Javier Hernandez go to prison.
Over the past three years, as Norem had climbed a steep path back to police work, Hernandez’ court case had crept towards what seemed like an inevitable conviction. Hernandez had been charged with attempted murder of a police officer for the stabbing, and the evidence was strong. Not only had witnesses seen Hernandez attack Norem, but the entire incident was captured on the CHP dash camera.
Regardless of the overwhelming evidence, Hernandez went to trial. His attorney argued that he intended to kill only himself. However, he was convicted of most charges, including attempted murder. His sentencing was set for August 2015, one month after Norem’s surgery.
Norem attended the hearing, but opted not to speak. Punishment, he decided, wasn’t his job. This decision certainly seems consistent with the same man who tried desperately from keeping the man from committing suicide.
“It was mind boggling to me that he wasn’t angry,” said John Walker, the San Bernardino sheriff’s sergeant, now lieutenant who helped Norem on the overpass. “Sitting there in court, Dane held no ill will toward Hernandez. It rang so loudly to me.”
Hernandez was sentenced to life in prison with parole eligibility in 18 years. Riverside County Judge Michele Levine stressed that, as Hernandez was stabbing Norem on the overpass, the cop was well within his right to use deadly force. Norem had stubbornly insisted on saving a life instead of ending one.
‘Quintessential Definition of Courage and Bravery’
“I believe you are the quintessential definition of courage and bravery,” Levine said as the hearing ended.
When the sentencing was over, Norem returned his attention to getting back on road patrols.
He re-enrolled in the CHP Academy in Sacramento, taking courses to get re-certified as a law enforcement officer. He then retook tests for pursuit driving and firearms qualification. Most important, at a rifle range in Corona, he pressed an M4 semi-automatic rifle against his right shoulder, looked down the sight with his rebuilt eye and hit the target every time. Just to be sure, the CHP asked him to do it again.
“That was by far the biggest question – Are you going to be able to do this?” Norem said. “And I was.”
‘Like Going Back to an Old Friend’
Norem returned to full duty in October 2015, three years after the stabbing on the overpass. He picked up right where he left off, patrolling “The Riverside Freeway.”
“It was a great feeling to be back on the road and back in uniform,” Norem said. “Driving out of the little fenced-in area where we keep the cars was like going back to an old friend.”
At a glance, Norem’s bad eye is indistinguishable from his good one. Even if you stare, the only lasting sign of the stabbing is a scar on Norem’s cheekbone.
Most days, Norem will drive under the La Sierra overpass, where he risked it all to save a life.
“Would I do it again?” Norem asked, thinking aloud. “I wouldn’t want to do it again, but I’m still on the job. I’m still taking those calls for help. So, yeah, I guess I’m still doing it.”
He paused to think.
“That’s probably not the answer my wife wants to hear.”
(Photo: Riverside County Court Records/Dashcam footage)