It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience against one-in-a-million odds.
That’s how San Diego Police officer Jonathan Wiese characterized his harrowing rescue on June 13 of a man who drove off Sunset Cliffs with his twin 2-year-old daughters inside his truck. All three miraculously survived thanks to Wiese’s quick thinking and herculean efforts.
It wasn’t the first time the 43-year-old Wiese, a 22-year police veteran who works the canine unit, was involved in an emergency. He was involved in arresting the shooter at a Poway synagogue a year ago.
A father of two young children himself, Wiese was patrolling with his dog in mid-City during the night shift about 4:30 a.m. when a call came in of a man who’d taken his toddlers in his truck and said he would drive off the Coronado Bridge.
So Wiese broke for Coronado. “I was thinking, maybe I can talk to him, change his mind, talk him out of it,” he said, adding the man was believed to have a handgun.
Wiese camped out at Coronado. “I don’t know if he saw me or what but he never showed up,” he said, adding he was unaware the truck driver had changed course for OB.
Meanwhile, a police lieutenant from Western Division was patrolling down Hill Street near Sunset Cliffs and had spotted the suspect’s vehicle parked on that street with its brake lights on.
“The truck started pulling away at a high rate of speed then goes over the cliff,” said Wiese, recalling his first thought was, ‘Please, tell me he dropped those girls off.’”
Wiese drove his patrol car up to the cliff edge alongside the lieutenant’s car. “We looked down, 50 or 60 feet, and the truck was upside down in the water and the whole cab was submerged and I thought, ‘There’s no way they could have survived.’”
But then he thought, “What if they’re stuck inside the truck?”
It was high tide, with lots of rocks, making swimming out difficult. Then it occurred to Wiese that he might use his dog’s leash to rappel down the side of the cliff. Looking down, Wiese could see that the guy was out of the truck in the water with at least one of his girls. In the meantime, several other police had arrived at the scene. So Wiese took this 100-foot leash, unraveled it. wrapped it around himself underneath his armpits tethering one end to other officers on the clifftop who were securing it.
“I’m going to do it,” said Wiese who began rappelling backward down the cliff eventually ending up on the rocks below. “I was slipping, falling and wobbling like a newborn deer,” Wiese said. “I could see that the man had both girls out of the truck and was in the water with them.”
Wiese swam out to them noting one toddler had her arms wrapped around her dad’s neck, while the other appeared lifeless. “I needed to get all of them out,” noted Wiese, whose idea was to latch on to all three to push them all to shore.
It was then that a firefighter, who’d shown up with an engine, stripped down to his shorts and swam out to assist Wiese with the rescue, taking the more seriously injured of the two girls from him. But, pointed out Wiese, “I still had this guy I was worried about who’d tried to commit suicide.”
Just then a lifeguard on a paddle board showed up to take the unresponsive girl to shore while Wiese stayed with the suspect. “He (suspect) was mad and kept cursing about his wife,” he said. “I asked him where the girls were in the car and he said, ‘On my lap.’ He’d had both girls without seat belts on his lap when he drove over the cliff, which was probably the only thing that saved them because the (rest of the) cab was completely crushed and submerged and they would have been dead if they’d been (strapped) in car seats.”
Another obstacle to be surmounted was getting both injured girls up the cliff face to the paramedics up top. One of the officers on the clifftop attached a backpack to the same leash Wiese had used to rappel down.
“The second (less-injured) girl didn’t want to go in the backpack, what kid would want to?,” Wiese said, adding a helicopter arrived that subsequently picked up the man, who’d been in shock and was bleeding and complaining of back pain. “We put him in a harness and the helicopter transported him up to the cliff to the paramedics.”
Wiese’s reaction when it was all over was, “Holy cow, what just happened? It was crazy.”
He said it seemed like the whole incident had only taken five or 10 minutes, when it actually was more like 1 ½ hours.
Reflecting back, Wiese said, “Dad mode is what put me there and pushed me over the cliff. It hits you a lot harder when something hits closer to him. This is the craziest thing I’ve ever done, and hope never to do again.”
The Marine veteran was already scheduled to be awarded officer of the year for the role he played in arresting the Poway synagogue shooter a year ago, which has been delayed by the pandemic until July 31.
“I guess I’m trying to live up to what they’re going to give me, make sure they had the right guy,” Wiese said.
The suspect, Robert Brians, 47, has been charged in a 13-count criminal complaint with child abuse, making criminal threats, child abduction and burglary. He is being held without bail and is due back in court July 22 for a readiness conference. The girls were hospitalized in stable condition following the crash.