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A decade worth of healing follows loss
Sgt. Stevensons killing changed Ceres in many ways
The community paused Friday to remember the Jan. 9, 2005 killing of Ceres Police Sgt. Howard Stevenson. - photo by Contributed to the Courier

America was not the same after Sept. 11, 2001.

Likewise, Ceres was not the same after Jan. 9, 2005.

Shockwaves ripped through the fabric of the Ceres community during the shooting death of Ceres Police Sgt. Howard "Howie" Stevenson and injuring of Officer Sam Ryno that, while lessened, are still felt today.

The passage of a decade's worth of time has brought about a lot of healing but for many who were in Ceres at the time, the cold-blooded and senseless assassination was the galvanizing event of the community's lifetime.

"I remember going to work the next day and how somber it was and how we all prayed for Sam," said former city worker Lee Brandt. "It sure brought us city of Ceres employees together. In our hearts, Howie is still with all of us."

Anthony Cannella, who was then a member of the Ceres City Council, said the tragic shooting death of Ceres Police Sgt. Howard Stevenson really made him passionate about serving in government to improve public safety. Out of the horrible experience he switched his focus from community development to beefing up public safety and ultimately winning a state Senate seat in 2010.

The horrific event prompted the community to pass, in 2007, a half-cent sales tax increase in Measure H for public safety. Ceres Police later purchased an armored vehicle which would have come in handy the night of Jan. 9, 2005. The community memorialized Stevenson in a memorial grove at Ceres River Bluff Regional Park and the Howard Stevenson Memorial Interchange at Highway 99 and Whitmore Avenue. And the name of Sam Ryno, the officer who was injured in the Stevenson shooting, has been assigned to a park currently being developed on the west side.

It was evident on Friday, the 10th anniversary of the tragic shooting, that much healing has taken place both in the Stevenson family and in the community. They gathered, as family does, at a luncheon that has marked every Jan. 9 since the sergeant's death.

Kathy Stevenson, Howie's widow, served up food cooked up by members of the Ceres Lions Club. She stood beside Howard's mother, Phyllis Stevenson, who travelled the four hours from Lakeport to assist with dispensing salad.

The annual tradition is good therapy for the Stevensons, who surround themselves with the men and women who either knew Stevenson or came to work for the same department years since his death. The death permanently folded the Stevenson family into the Ceres Police Department family.

"It's been 10 years but it seems like 10 minutes at the same time," said Phyllis Stevenson. "But this is so good being with the people he loved."

Carmen Stevenson, Howie's sister, said healing has occurred but each day of the calendar seems to reset to Jan. 9, 2005. There is a void that forever remains empty, she said.

Michael Stevenson, Howie's dad, said he always respected his son for choosing such a noble field of work but always felt "uncomfortable" about his son being in such a dangerous occupation. Had his son not been cut down 10 years ago, he'd still be a Ceres officer, he said.

"He would still be here today. He loved Ceres. This is where he wanted to raise his kids. He just really loved the community. His daughter was in sports and he was a coach."

"The loss of Sgt. Stevenson was a very tough one for the Ceres Police Department," said Acting Ceres Police Chief Smith. "Howard was not only a fellow officer, he was a close friend and hunting partner. The last time I saw Howie was on Jan. 7, 2005 when he shared a duck hunting blind together. I never realized it would be out last hunt together. His loss caused a void in our lives that I know we can never fill and brought our police department closer as a family and closer with the Stevenson family as well."

The pain of such a loss never goes away, said Kathy Stevenson, but it has lessened with intensity. Since the death she has not remarried but has drawn on her faith in God to be a support to her children, Bryce and Mikaela.

Because Howard Stevenson was a man who enjoyed life and would expect his family to get on with theirs, they have done just that. Bryce Stevenson became a sworn member of the Merced County Sheriff's Department. Bryce was determined to be an officer before his father was murdered - he was scheduled to start criminal justice college classes the day after the shooting rocked his life - but he postponed it for a while.

"I found my way back to it and realized this is where I want to be," said Bryce, who remembers riding along in a patrol car with his father. "It strengthened my desire to be an officer. The honor and courage is something I've wanted to do."

Like it was yesterday, Kathy Stevenson remembers Howie, a 19-year Ceres Police veteran, coming home from work for a quick bite to eat the evening of Jan. 9, 2005. He was on a short break, anxious also to pluck feathers from the four ducks he shot with his father in Lakeport over the weekend.

They had met when they both worked at the old Handyman store on McHenry Avenue in Modesto. Stevenson worked there in 1985 when he was a reserve with Ceres Police. They were married in 1988.
A call came in over the radio about the discovery of a chop shop and the sergeant had to get on his way, but he said he would be back in a short time.

"I said what I always said, ‘Love you' and ‘Be safe,'" said Kathy. "I did get an extra kiss."

Her stocky, dark-haired husband slipped outdoors into the cold rainy night and would never return home.

A short while later, Sgt. Stevenson was on his way to an ominous report of a man in front of George's Liquors who told a 911 operator: "I got a young man with a rifle with him." He said he had been shot or shot at. It was reportedly gunman Andres Raya himself.

None of the officers could know that the 8:05 p.m. emergency call was a cowardly set up for an ambush of officers that would cost the life of Stevenson and end Ryno's police career.

Raya, a disaffected 19-year-old Marine who was home during AWOL, was waiting with an SKS semi-automatic gun, loaded with high-caliber rounds, slung beneath a rain parka. The 2003 Ceres High graduate waited for the first officer to arrive.

Coming from the northwest, Ryno and partner Officer Chris Melton poked their heads around the corner of Jiro Tires Plus shop and spotted Raya in front of the liquor store and ordered him to show his hands. Raya replied: "What the f--- for?" before ducking behind the block wall abutting at the west end of the store. After another peak around the glass of the tire shop, hell rained down on Ryno and Melton in the form of gunfire and exploding glass. Raya, trained by the Army how to kill for service in the Iraq War, unleashed a torrent of bullets, one of them exploding the bone in Ryno's left leg below the knee. Ryno remembers feeling that the end of his life was near as the gunman continued firing.

Officer John King arrived and also started shooting at Raya. Melton was able to drag the badly wounded Ryno to safety behind their patrol car. Had he not, Ryno would have been the first casualty of the night.

Moments later Sgt. Stevenson approached the store from the east, crouching down behind the short masonry wall that separates George's Liquors from the neighboring home and yard to the east. Raya saw Stevenson coming and opened fire through the windows of a car parked in front of the store. Shots peppered the wall and Stevenson was down. Raya ran up to Stevenson and fired rounds into his head, leaving him mortally wounded in the flower bed.

Raya fled on foot eastbound on Caswell Street and jumped over a fence into a backyard where he perched himself in a tree as he waited to kill more officers. Police tried to flush him out. Raya finally came out into the alley charging at perimeter officers from other agencies when he was cut low in a hail of gunfire.

Raya's slaying may have satisfied the community's thirst for justice but has left nagging questions about motive. Some national media outlets spun the Ceres crime as the collateral domestic violence inflicted by a war-shocked veteran who slipped off into the deep end. However, the Sheriff's Department, which investigated the shooting, painted a much more sinister picture of Raya. Officials said Raya was loaded up with cocaine the night of the shooting, was a full-blown gang member who bragged of things back home that never happened and had a hatred for the United States and President Bush. That hatred was vividly displayed on the floor of the Ceres High gym when during a Dec. 28, 2004 break-in, Raya and friends ripped up the American flag to spell out "F--- Bush." Raya had the audacity to go to Ceres High School and ask for a camcorder, accidentally left in the gym with a tape documenting the crime, back. When he was informed police would be called, he left.

Raya's bedroom contained evidence of gang affiliation, including photos of Raya throwing gang signs with his hands - one on the night of his high school graduation.

"The world's a dark place," commented Kathy Stevenson. "If there's anything I've learned it's that we've got to keep our kids away from gangs. If you're paying attention you'll know. But kids can be good at hiding things. We have to be diligent as a community to keep these kids out of gangs. Studies tell us that gangs develop out of a mutual instinct to be a part of a family."