ORANGE PARK | The federal agent ambushed outside a Clay County Publix in September spoke exclusively with Times-Union news partner First Coast News about the shooting that nearly took his life and his miraculous recovery over the two months that followed.
Drew Stokes, an aviation enforcement agent with U.S. Customs and Border Protection Air and Marine Operations, was shot five times outside the Oakleaf Publix on Sept. 26.
“[I] took a late lunch, decided to go to Publix, and that’s when everything went south,” Stokes told First Coast News.
Stokes was walking to his car after leaving the grocery store and remembered every detail of what followed.
“And then that’s when I hear ‘I — — hate cops,’ and then I heard the gunshots,” Stokes said. He was wearing a T-shirt with “CBP Federal Agent” on the back and a shoulder holster at the time.
“I saw the blood running like a river beside me and then I knew that it was gonna be quite the struggle after that,” he said.
As he lay injured on the ground, Stokes’ training kicked in and he never doubted that he would survive. He pulled his own gun and readied for another attack, but was quickly told there was no more threat. Authorities said the shooter, 18-year-old Thomas Jacob Lewis, took his own life shortly after. Lewis was wanted on a narcotics warrant and had recent troubles, but had no prior contact with Stokes, authorities said.
As people rushed to Stokes’ aid, his wife was working in Mandarin. Amanda Stokes said Drew had texted her to see if she wanted anything from the grocery store. Minutes later she got an alert on her phone from a community social media page about the shooting.
“And that was within six minutes of the text that Drew had sent,” she said. “So I knew instinctively at that moment that it was him.”
Over the coming hours and days, Stokes wavered between life and death. During a second surgery to repair Stokes’ liver, doctors told Amanda her husband might not survive.
“I can remember just sitting on the floor, I couldn’t even sit in a chair because I couldn’t believe that I kissed my husband goodbye less than 12 hours ago and now they’re telling me my husband may not make it,” she said.
Stokes did make it. He’s now undergoing physical therapy and doing limited workouts on his own to rebuild muscle he lost while at the hospital.
Stokes said doctors credited his physical fitness for his good outcome.
“The bullet that went in through my side is 2 millimeters from my T-12 spine, and my muscle structure helped slow that down,” he said.
Stokes will live the rest of his life with that bullet, along with two others, inside his body.
Despite everything, the two are grateful to the hundreds of people who helped them throughout the past two months. At the top of the list, the first responders on scene and the trauma doctors and nurses at Orange Park Medical Center for never giving up.
“I don’t know what to say, I don’t know how to thank them,” he said.
Most of all, they’re grateful for each other. The marriage of four years was tested under unimaginable circumstances only to come out stronger than ever.
“I’ve learned that you have tremendous resolve and resiliency,” Drew Stokes said. “I couldn’t ask for a better wife.”
“You are the toughest man that I know,” Amanda Stokes said. “And I’m always proud of you … but I am so proud of the way you’ve handled this, and you give me strength to be the person that I am.”
After Stokes’ shooting, people rushed out to donate blood. Stokes said he ended up using 19 trauma units of blood, which is about 2.5 times the amount in his body. But the community stepped up and donated 300 units, which has undoubtedly helped save other lives.
Drew and Amanda Stokes said they wouldn’t have fared as well without the support from the community.