By Lou Baldwin

Special to The CS&T

PHILADELPHIA – Police Officer Mariano Santiago will never forget Oct. 30, 2007. That’s the night he took a bullet from a would-be killer, but lived to tell the story.

“I still get pain from it, especially at night,” said Santiago, who firmly believes his survival is due to the intercession and protection of his favorite saint.

He is one of a number of police officers who will be honored for valor by the National Liberty Museum on Oct. 21. The ceremony was supposed to be held Sept. 11, but was postponed due to the funeral of Officer Isabel Nazario, one of four police officers to die in the line of duty this past year.

Santiago, who was born in Puerto Rico, lives in the Far Northeast but maintains membership at Incarnation of Our Lord Parish in North Philadelphia. He’s been a member of the Police Department for 19 years and on traffic duty for the past decade.

On Oct. 30 last year at 10:25 p.m. Santiago was cruising near 33rd and Market Sts. when the call came over the radio. Three people had been shot at 15th and Sansom Sts. as they came out of a restaurant. A suspect was believed to be fleeing the scene in a dark Chevy Suburban.

Responding to the call, Santiago noticed an automobile speeding the wrong way without lights on Market Street. He switched on his flasher lights and radioed he was following a possible suspect. At 22nd and Sansom, the pursued car stopped so suddenly he actually bumped into it. The suspect jumped out of his automobile firing a gun, and in that split second, Santiago ducked, but nevertheless was struck by a bullet in his shoulder. Two more bullets tore into the headrest of his vehicle.

In spite of his wound, Santiago popped his head up and fired a single shot through his windshield at the suspect, who was at this point fleeing westward. Santiago chased the suspect for four blocks, until another patrol car arrived. Seeing Santiago was injured, the responding officer wanted to take him to the hospital immediately.

“I told him, ‘No, go after that guy on 24th Street,'” Santiago recalled. The officer did, but before he could catch him, the suspect jumped into the nearby Schuykill River. Four hours later his body was found floating in the river.

According to investigators, he was a professional hit man, hired to kill two of the three people he first shot, none of whom died.

Santiago spent three days in the hospital and a year later, still carries the bullet in his shoulder. He has not yet returned for duty, but is determined to do so, even though he could probably leave the department on permanent disability.

“This is my profession, I love to do what I do and can’t change that,” he said.

This was not Santiago’s first brush with danger. In 1996 he was involved in another firefight, and another time was injured when his police cruiser overturned.

The danger of his work is not lost on his wife, Rosa, and their children, Jacqueline and Melanie.

“They are scared, they are afraid for me. When a police officer is shot they know it could be me,” he said.

“But my wife believes I’m blessed by the Lord and He will always be behind me.

“I pray, I go to church every day. I have a tattoo on my left arm of St. Michael the Archangel. I believe it was he who that night forced me to take cover. He holds a sword in his right hand; the bullet struck his left hand, and lodged near my shoulder blade.

“I believe he was there for me that night,” Santiago said. “I’m one of his soldiers and I’m here for a reason.”

Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.