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Heroic cop finally gets peace of mind

You can see the price he paid in the pounds he dropped.

You can see the price he paid in the hammer and nails he pounds every day.

It is the price of duty done, of lives likely saved. It is the price of making a hard but right choice in a split second. Jim Koch (pronounced Cook) did not want to shoot Terry Mason. A part of him wishes he was not on duty that night, wishes he did not play judge, jury and executioner. That is the personal part of him.

The professional part of him, the part that has been a Hamburg cop for two decades, knows that he was the right man at the right time.

The rest of us are thankful.

Jim Koch is thankful, too. He is thankful that the price he paid for doing his job, and likely saving lives, ended this week. It ended when attorneys Corey Hogan and John Licata, representing Mason's estate, dropped their wobbly wrongful-death civil suit. The lawyers apparently came to the same conclusion that a grand jury, a State Supreme Court judge and the general public reached years ago: Koch is not a renegade cop. Koch is a hero.

"There was not a day that I didn't think about [the case]," Koch said Wednesday afternoon, sitting in the dining room of his comfy suburban home. "This allows me to move on."

He lost weight from the anxiety of the lawsuit. He tackled a home-improvement project to distract his mind, knocking out a living room wall. A saw and a hammer are tools of therapy.

Koch is 47, with solid shoulders, a thick grip and an easy smile. He has two teenagers from his first marriage and a 2-year-old with his wife, Mary Beth. He was a newlywed on the night that changed his life.

On Sept. 9, 2002, he jumped into a car stolen by Mason just as the coked-up career criminal drove off with a 14-year-old boy in the back. The teenager leapt out as Koch climbed in and Mason stomped on the gas pedal.

The wild ride was brief. Koch screamed at him to stop, Mason pushed the speedometer up to 60, the guardrail separating traffic on Route 5 was about to end. Soon only a double yellow line would divide the swerving vehicle from oncoming cars.

Koch -- jammed into the back seat, his legs extended over Mason -- screamed, over and over: "Stop, or I will shoot you."

Mason, in a dare-you act of folly and defiance, turned completely around, let go of the steering wheel, and smiled.

Koch shot him in the face. The car slammed into a light pole and a half-dozen parked cars before stopping. Mason, 34, was dead. Koch was bruised and cut, not seriously.

Compare the paths each man took prior to that night, and there is no comparison. Koch served as head of the SWAT team and did underwater recovery work. Mason logged nearly two dozen criminal convictions and nearly twice as many arrests in a wasted life.

It all should have ended that night. But this is America, the land of litigation. You can always find a lawyer looking to collect on the back of a cop and the town he works for.

This is the hard part of being a hero. You protect and serve, and the vultures come out of the trees.

Not every cop is clean, not every wrongful-death lawsuit is a joke. Sometimes the police mess up. That is not what happened this time.

"My wife was 100 percent there for me," Koch said. "It would have been hard to deal with it alone."

He will take next week off, to work on the living room and spend time with Mary Beth and the kids.

This week, a good man got what he long deserved: not just vindication, but peace of mind.


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