Mistakenly shot by a Des Plaines cop, teenage musician never gave up on his dream
Doctors said Rylan Wilder might never be able to play guitar again. He didn’t let that stop him. Not through repeated surgeries and months of physical therapy.
“We’re Monarchy Over Monday,” the 17-year-old kid from Logan Square said to about 30 people there to hear his band. “It’s been a while since we’ve played. Getting shot puts you out of commission for a while.”
The howl and thrash of the music filled the air. Rylan’s dad Tom Wilder, teary, raised his camera to capture the moment. His mother Lucia Morales stood on a bench, swayed and beamed.
The performance last weekend was something his parents could only hope they’d ever experience after a Des Plaines police officer, on the trail of a bank robber, came into the Northwest Side music school where Rylan was an intern and opened fire with a semi-automatic rifle on Nov. 19, 2019, accidentally shooting the Chicago teenager. The bullet tore a playing-card-sized hole in the crook of Rylan’s left elbow, destroying an artery, shredding a nerve, obliterating bone, casting his dream of using his guitar to carve out his future in grave doubt.
Days after, Rylan’s mother spoke with reporters.
“No one can imagine what that’s like to see their child . . . like that,” Morales said of seeing him on the operating table. “The amount of doctors working on him, the amount of blood everywhere is unbelievable.”
Now, a year and a half later, Rylan’s dad tears up when he talks about what happened or even when a physical therapist kneads Rylan’s forearm in an effort to loosen unwilling muscles.
The Wilders still have questions — which they hope a lawsuit they’ve filed will help answer — about why the police officer was allowed to chase the bank robber into the city from Des Plaines and fire what their lawyer calls a “weapon of war” in a place filled with innocent bystanders.
“He’s from Des Plaines, and he comes to Chicago with an assault rifle — with a military assault rifle — and just starts blasting away, playing cowboy,” Tom Wilder says.
The Wilders — Rylan, who’ll soon start his senior year at Lane Tech, his parents and his sister Kailey, 14 — live in a brick two-flat in Logan Square. It’s filled with Tom’s tiki mug collection, hundreds of LPs and artwork they’ve collected over the years from estate sales and elsewhere.
When they head out every day, they tell each other, “I love you.”
Rylan, broad-shouldered with curly chestnut hair, says he didn’t always want to be a musician. But rock ‘n’ roll was a constant at home.
“TV was on maybe an hour a week,” his father says. “And music was playing 15 hours a day.”
He and his wife took their kids to concerts and street festivals.
“We always had earplugs for them to make sure we didn’t damage their hearing,” says Lucia, an elementary school teacher.
At her urging, Rylan took violin lessons starting in second grade. Pretty quickly, though, he started setting aside his bow and strumming the instrument instead.
In time, he switched to guitar. To master it, he’d disappear into the basement to listen to his favorite songs over and over so he could nail the guitar parts.
At 10, he caught the eye of Alex White, the frontwoman for the Chicago rock band White Mystery. She was a volunteer mentor at a guitar school where Rylan took lessons.
“Rylan really demonstrated some serious talent on guitar, especially relative to other kids his age, where he’s playing complex solos, able to play very mature classic rock songs,” says White, who became friends with the family.
At 12, at a jam session, Rylan met his future Monarchy Over Monday bandmates.
A year or so later, after one long day of practicing, Rylan says he realized: “I just want to keep doing this forever.”
At bars in the band’s early days, sometimes the only people who came to hear the kids play were their parents. To others there, the music was just background noise.
It didn’t matter.
“Even when you play to nobody, it’s still better than playing in your practice room,” says Jose Ceniceros, 18, the drummer.
At one place they played, Rylan says he was told he’d have to pay if he wanted a glass of water — tap water. The band’s take that night: $3.
But they kept at it.
Then, at one place they were playing, the bartender pulled out her phone and started recording.
“The bartender was, like, ‘Those kids are amazing. How old are they?’ ” says Tom, a real estate broker and day trader who manages the band. “I’m, like, ‘That’s my son. He’s 12.’ ”
They started getting better gigs, drawing bigger crowds. In May 2019, they were one of six teenage bands invited to play the House of Blues.
“That show in particular was pretty surreal because, right before we went on, I was, like, ‘Wow, we’re about to play the House of Blues,’ ” Jose says. “It’s kind of insane.”
Tom sent a video of the House of Blues show to the organizers of Riot Fest. He also emailed them — a lot.
“Probably once a week, every week, for close to a year,” he says. “That’s what you have to do.
“Two or three weeks later, I got an offer to play Riot Fest, and I was, like, of course, we are going to play Riot Fest,” Tom says.
Rylan: “After Riot Fest, I definitely felt like we were going to do major stuff.”
Looking to the future, he thought: “If we blew up before we graduated, we’d probably try not to go to college.”
His father: “I didn’t see any reason why he wasn’t going to be able to get to that level. He had the ability, the talent, the drive to do it. It was something I just felt was going to happen.”
But his mother told him: You should have a backup plan. In case.
That’s why he went after an internship working at UpBeat Music in Old Irving Park.
“I told him it would look good on his resume,” Lucia says.
UpBeat is a music school for kids that proclaims, “Music is important, but treating each other with love and respect is first.” Rylan would check in students, update computer files, whatever was needed.
The evening of Nov. 19, 2019, Rylan was finishing his shift at Upbeat. Surveillance video from inside the school shows him with a bag of trash he’s about to take out. That’s when he turns toward the sound of sirens and the blue blur of police lights outside.
He had no idea two men had just held up a Bank of America branch in Des Plaines. Or that one of them, with police in pursuit, had gotten off the Kennedy Expressway at Irving Park and Pulaski.
Then, Christopher Willis, one of the men the police later said robbed the bank, runs in to the store.
“He runs toward me,” Rylan says. “I see that he’s holding a gun.”
Someone yells, “Oh!”
Then, a Des Plaines officer, James Armstrong, chasing Willis, a semi-automatic rifle at his shoulder, shouts to him: “Drop it!”
Rylan, then 15, can be seen on the video ducking and running for cover as Armstrong squeezes off a series of shots.
Willis slumps to the floor, to be pronounced dead not long after at Illinois Masonic Medical Center.
In an adjacent room at UpBeat filled with students and teachers, everyone scared, Rylan remembers feeling a “crazy amount of pain” in his left arm.
“At first, I thought I had just smacked my arm on the door — like I hit my funny bone,” he says. “I look down and see my shoes are just red. I see blood dripping everywhere.”
One of the teachers rushes Rylan and some students outside, where an officer applies a tourniquet to Rylan’s arm.
“I’m lying there, staring at the sky, and wondering if I’m going to die right there,” Rylan says. “I remember lying in the ambulance, and they are arguing about what hospital to take me to. Which I thought was kind of funny at the time.”
Tom had been on his way to pick him up. But traffic was so backed up on the Irving Park exit ramp that he had to find another way off the Kennedy.
And then the side streets were blocked by police cars.
His phone rang.
“It was the person,” Tom says. “It was the person in the ambulance. And she said that Rylan had been shot and that ‘he is still with us.’ ”
And that they were taking him to Lurie Children’s Hospital.
He asked to talk with his son. Not now, the paramedic told him.
His wife texted him. She couldn’t reach Rylan. Tom called her right away. He told her what the paramedic said — that “he’s still with us.”
Lucia: “To me, that means my child is dying in this ambulance, and I don’t even know where he is or who he is with or if there is anyone holding his hand.”
Together, they raced to the hospital. In the emergency department, doctors and nurses surrounded Rylan, working on him.
Lucia: “You feel so helpless. You see your child gasping for air and having that mask on. The amount of blood, the amount of people around him.”
Rylan lost half of the blood in his body, they say they were told later.
The bullet that tore apart his left arm made a relatively small hole — about an inch in diameter — behind his elbow.
But as it exited, it blew apart bone, muscle, nerves and a major artery supplying blood to the hand.
And it fragmented. Pieces of it lodged in his abdomen. But none struck any vital organ, X-rays showed.
Doctors were able to stitch together the severed nerve and one of two arteries to keep the blood flowing to Rylan’s hand, while Dr. Vineeta Swaroop pieced together what could be salvaged of his elbow, holding it in place with a 10-inch-long titanium rod. In time, that would be replaced by a metal plate.
The work repairing the bone and joint was critical to keeping the nerves and arteries stable so they could heal.
Swaroop, at Lurie since 2008, says she sees bone fractures all the time but nothing like this.
“His case, his injury and this family will stay with me forever,” she says.
In the waiting area, Tom went to get water, his mind churning with confusion and worry over what the doctors told him and Lucia.
He says that’s when a police officer came up and told him in a voice just above a whisper: “You’re going to find out that the only person who did any shooting were police.”
He says he was too worried about Rylan then for the words to really register.
Despite the blood loss, Rylan never lost consciousness. When he saw his parents, he asked: Was anyone else at the music school hurt?
And where was Kailey? He didn’t want his little sister to worry.
And: “Am I ever going to be able to play guitar again?”
“Anything is possible,” she finally said.
In the year and a half since then, Dr. David Kalainov, a Northwestern University orthopedic and hand surgeon, has operated on Rylan twice.
“Luckily, Rylan is a teenager,” Kalainov says. “But he’s not expected to get the near full recovery you’d expect from a baby.
“The nerve never regains normal function the older we get for numerous reasons we understand and that we don’t understand,” he says.
But, as badly wounded as he was, Rylan had a couple of very important things working in his favor.
He was prepared to use his guitar to get his fingers moving again and help them recover.
And he wasn’t prepared to abandon his dream of being a professional musician.
He doesn’t remember precisely when he held a guitar for the first time after the shooting. His dad says it was at the hospital just before Christmas.
Rylan remembers this: “My fingers were crazy puffy. I was barely able to move them. I was definitely worried about never being able to play again.”
It wast about a month before he left the hospital. Tom would sleep on a sofa bed there, Lucia on a recliner.
“I remember just the amount of pain he was in,” Lucia says. “He would wake up in the middle of the night. I would sit there, trying to massage his fingers.”
Just before Christmas 2019, he came home.
“The first few weeks were really hard,” Tom says. “He couldn’t do anything on his own.”
At first, Rylan carried around a “wound vac” — to suck fluid from the wound and help make sure the skin that was grafted from his inner thigh to his elbow could heal properly.
“You’re changing the dressings on something that looks like a war wound,” Lucia says.
For four hours a day, Rylan would try to move an arm that didn’t want to. Raising it above his head was agonizing and frustrating.
“It’s such simple stuff,” he says. “You’d never think you couldn’t do that.
“Playing the guitar is so many steps ahead of that. If I can’t even lift my arm up, then how am I ever going to be able to play a song?”
His parents also were dealing with their anger over the shooting, with a Des Plaines cop pursuing a high-speed chase on the expressway and firing inside the music school.
“The police are there to protect you,” Tom says. “They are not supposed to shoot you.”
This past April, David Anderson, the new Des Plaines police chief, said that, after viewing the UpBeat surveillance video multiple times, he wasn’t sure that Armstrong fired the shot that hit Rylan. He said it might have been the bank robber.
“If you listen to the video, what I hear is the potential of a shot being fired just prior to Officer Armstrong firing his weapon,” Anderson said.
Not true, the Chicago police quickly responded. “We did confirm that the 15-year-old victim and the offender were shot by Des Plaines police,” said Chicago police spokesman Tom Ahern.
Tim Cavanagh, a lawyer who filed suit on the family’s behalf: “The suggestion that anyone other than a Des Plaines police officer shot Rylan Wilder is nonsense. The video makes very clear that the bullet that struck Rylan’s arm came from a military weapon held by Officer Armstrong.”
The family’s lawsuit, filed in Cook County circuit court, calls Armstrong’s use of force “excessive” and “reckless, willful and wanton conduct.”
Anderson, the police chief, said Armstrong, who remains with the department and wouldn’t comment, was trying to stop “a very violent, active shooter” and that he did the best he could under the circumstances.
Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s office decided not to charge Armstrong with any crime, concluding that he was “justified in using deadly force” against the bank robber, that Rylan being shot was unintentional and that the Des Plaines cop acted “reasonably.”
For a time during his recovery, Rylan stopped even bothering to pick up the guitar, figuring it was probably just a waste of time.
But after months of physical therapy and surgeries that included removing scar tissue to take pressure off a key nerve and cutting away bone that had grown where it shouldn’t at the elbow joint, his range of motion had improved enough that he decided it was time.
Rylan: “All of a sudden, after a while, I picked up the guitar. There were a few more things that I could do. That motivated me to start playing again.
“Guitar is how I communicate,” he says.
Because of the nerve damage, Rylan’s left thumb still doesn’t bend the way it should. He says he doesn’t play as well, as a result, as he used to.
“All my playing was really accurate, really tight,” he says. “It’s a little more sloppy now.”
But somehow that created something unexpected.
“It’s kind of cool,” he says. “I’ve been able to make it sound more like me.”
Rylan’s doctors are amazed at the way he’s been able to compensate.
He took his guitar to a physical therapy session earlier this year and played a couple of cover songs for Kalainov and his therapist.
“He’s extremely determined to recover,” the doctor says. “And that’s a huge part of this.”
When Rylan couldn’t perform, Monarchy Over Monday didn’t, either. He’s the band’s lead guitarist and singer, and the others weren’t about to go on without him.
Jose, the drummer: “There is no band without Rylan.”
As Rylan improved, the band’s rehearsals returned over the past few months to his family’s basement — at times too loud for the neighbors but a cherished bit of normalcy for his parents.
At the end of May, the band played in public for the first time since the shooting — at a barbecue in the backyard of one of Rylan’s old music teachers.
“It was definitely kind of awkward because it had been so long,” he says. “When I was singing, I was staring at the ground.”
Their real comeback show came, finally, last weekend at a farmhouse in southern Wisconsin at the annual Postock festival.
The band had played there the summer before Rylan got shot. It’s two stages and print-making and home-cooked meals. Many of the people there are from Chicago and have known each other for years.
Rylan wore dark shades, a floppy, wide-brimmed hat and checkered sneakers. There were whoops as he started to play his Fender Pawn Shop Super-Sonic guitar.
If you looked closely, you could see the mottled skin on his arm.
You didn’t have to look as closely to see the smiles in the crowd.
The show ends, and Rylan’s mom says: “This is the kid who was told that — they didn’t know if he would ever play guitar again.”
“It was amazing,” Rylan says. “It was so much fun. It felt like I was back to normal — finally, after forever.”