On Sunday, driver after driver saw a man attacking a Baton Rouge, Louisiana, police officer who’d tried to arrest him, but just kept going.
Only one stopped to help him – a petite grandmother who jumped out of her car and onto the man’s back, possibly saving the officer’s life in the process.
Vickie Williams-Tillman, 56, was heading to a Sam’s Club in Baton Rouge early Sunday morning to buy fixings for a “nice Sunday meal” for her husband when she saw an officer on the side of the road in a heated exchange with a suspect.
Concerned, she slowed her car to a stop – and saw the suspect lunge at the officer.
“They began tussling on the other side of the car,” she tells PEOPLE. “It didn’t look good.”
Thinking fast, the mother of three and grandmother of four dialed 911.
“But that wasn’t enough,” says Williams-Tillman, who works at a Catholic school during the day and cleans offices at night.
“I thought, ‘They’re not going to make it in time.’ There was just a small amount of time before something could have happened.”
According to Baton Rouge police, Cpl. Billy Aime, 44, a 21-year police veteran, found drugs in the suspect’s vehicle during a traffic stop just before 8 a.m. on Sunday on Harry Drive.
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When Aime tried to handcuff the suspect, identified as 28-year-old Thomas Bennett, he allegedly became aggressive, Baton Rouge Police Department spokesman Sgt. L’Jean McKneely tells PEOPLE.
Bennett allegedly grabbed Aime’s baton, using it to repeatedly hit him in the head, says McKneely.
That’s when Williams-Tillman took action.
“I put the window down and I asked, ‘You got it?’” she says.
Still struggling with the suspect, the officer mouthed the word no.
At that moment, she says, “The officer and I just locked eyes. I will never forget the look in his eyes. His eyes said, ‘Help me.’”
Risking her own safety, the 5’2″ Williams-Tillman “jumped out of her vehicle and onto back of the assailant,” according to police. “It was just instinct,” she says, adding, “God led the way.”
She doesn’t remember exactly what happened in the frenzy that ensued, except that the suspect, who only had one wrist handcuffed, was allegedly trying to take the gun out of Aime’s holster.
“They both had their hands on the gun to see who would get it first, so I twisted the suspect’s arm,” she says. “Then we were all falling. I didn’t let go of his arm until we all fell. My tennis shoe came off in all of this, too.”
She didn’t realize she had bruises until later, she says. “But I’m a big girl. I’m a strong woman. It didn’t matter at the time.”
Aime “was banged up pretty bad,” she says. “He said his head was hurting pretty bad.”
Just then, backup arrived and subdued Bennett with a stun gun. He was taken into custody and booked into East Baton Rouge Parish Prison on counts of aggravated battery, disarming a police officer, battery on a police officer, resisting an officer with violence, possession of cocaine and possession of drug paraphernalia, according to police.
He is being held on a $167,500 bond. He has not gone to court yet and has not yet entered a plea. It is unclear whether he has retained a lawyer.
Court records show that Bennett was on probation when he got arrested Sunday. According to the Department of Corrections, Bennett was arrested in September 2014 for possession of oxycontin, a Schedule 2 narcotics charge. He was placed on probation in October 2014, which was scheduled to end this October.
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After the attack, Williams-Tillman said she and Aime hugged each other. “All these emotions came out,” she says. “It was like we already knew each other.”
Williams-Tillman, who hurt her hand and wrist, was taken to the hospital afterward, along with Aime and the suspect, where she was treated and released.
While her family was relieved she was OK. “But my oldest daughter started crying, saying, ‘What if you didn’t make it back to us?'”
“I didn’t fear anything,” she says. “There was no time to fear. I just walked in the path God had for me.”
‘It Doesn’t Matter If You are Black, White, Big or Small’
Now that the incident is over and Williams-Tillman can breathe a sigh of relief, she is being hailed as a hero – especially since the department lost officer Montrell Jackson, 32, and Matthew Gerald, 41, in last summer’s fatal attack on Baton Rouge police. (The attack also claimed the life Brad Garafola, 45, of the East Baton Rouge Sheriff’s Office.)
On Sunday, the Baton Rouge Police Department thanked her on its Facebook page. On Monday, Mayor-President Sharon Weston-Broome held a special press conference honoring her.
“What Mrs. Tillman did is certainly not something we hear a lot,” Weston-Broome tells PEOPLE. “She was motivated by her concern for someone in distress – in this case, a police officer who serves our community. I have such great admiration for her for demonstrating to all of us the best of mankind.”
Baton Rouge Police Chief Carl Dabadie tells PEOPLE: “Words cannot explain the gratitude I have for the bravery and total disregard for her own safety to physically step in and save the life of Cpl Billy Aime. Her unselfish and heroic act sends the message that our community supports and needs its law enforcement.”
After embracing the diminutive and teary-eyed Williams-Tillman at the press conference, Aime also grew emotional, his voice cracking as he thanked her, saying, “This is a true hero right here that saved my life.”
Williams-Tillman saved not one – but possibly two lives, McKneely tells PEOPLE.
“This was a life and death encounter,” he says. “The officer would have been within his right to use deadly force since the suspect was striking the officer about the head with the baton.”
“We have just lost too many men,” she adds. “Thank God I was able to help.
“It doesn’t matter that I am a civilian and he is an officer. It doesn’t matter you black or white, big or small. I wanted to help him.”