(9News) Oct. 14, 1969, started out as the happiest of days for Antoinette Cuccia and her family, who were celebrating her daughter Michele’s first birthday at their home in Trinidad in southern Colorado.
Things were going well. The cake was about to be served. And then the phone rang.
“My sister reminds me all the time that she baked me a cake and they didn’t get to eat the cake,” Michele said.
Denver Police Officer Robert Sandoval — Antoinette’s brother and Michele’s uncle — had been gravely wounded in the line of duty.
“It’s very hard to get news like that at such a time, on such a happy day,” Antoinette said. “My [older] daughter had just finished icing the cake and we got the call and we just flew into the car and took off.”
The family headed to Denver, where Sandoval, a rookie cop, was hospitalized in critical condition. Doctors weren’t sure if he would make it through the night.
“He was in bad shape, real bad shape,” Antoinette said.
When she got to Denver, Antoinette learned that her brother had been responding to a call for a burglary at a home on St. Paul Street in Denver.
Two officers went to the front of the house. Sandoval went around back, alone, because his partner had called in sick that day.
“He didn’t announce himself, but he shook the handle to see if the door was open, and the man was inside and felt that he was the robber, possibly, and fired through the door, and it hit him right in the head, in the front and out the back,” Michele said.
Sandoval was hospitalized and in physical rehab for about five months.
“He lost a big part of his frontal lobe. The doctor said he was a miracle that he survived,” Michele said.
When Sandoval finally got out of the hospital, it was clear that he would never be a police officer again. It was a great disappointment for a young man who loved being a police officer, though his family said he was not bitter.
“I know he didn’t feel any anger towards the man. Like he said, the man felt he was in danger,” Michele said.
Though paralyzed on his left side and having serious visual impairments, Sandoval learned to walk again, going for daily walks with a brace and a cane.
But over time, his health began to decline, and in 2012, he moved in with Michele and her family in Northglenn. The little girl who turned 1 the day her uncle was shot was now his primary caregiver.
“I took on the care 24/7 on my own,” Michele said. “I respect him for the fact that at 29 years old, he pretty much lost his life, is the way I see it, and he didn’t feel that way.”
Eventually, though, Sandoval’s body simply gave out. He died at the age of 80 on Oct. 29, 2020.
Earlier this year, Denver Police determined that Sandoval’s death was in the line of duty because it was caused by injuries suffered when he was shot. As a result, last month, more than 50 years after his last day as a cop, Sandoval’s name was added to the Denver Police Memorial Wall. A formal ceremony will be held on Thursday.
“You wish he knew, and maybe he does, what they’re doing for him,” Antoinette said. “I think it will be great for people to know his story. He was a great guy.”
In addition to his niece and sister, Sandoval is survived by two daughters and his brother, who was also a Denver police officer.