A large contingency of law enforcement officers from throughout Stanislaus County paused Wednesday to remember the officers who were killed in the line of duty during 2013 as well as countywide since 1935.
Birgit Fladager, Stanislaus County District Attorney, was the keynote speaker at the annual Peace Officers Memorial held at Lakewood Memorial Park near Hughson. Fladager said the sacrifices made by officers are a "special burden they bear to give the rest of us the safety and peace we sometimes take for granted.
"Law enforcement is not about badges and uniforms," she said. "It is about taking a stand to preserve the rights of neighbors and strangers and shielding them from danger. The officers listed on these walls stood their ground, did their jobs, and along with their family and friends, paid the highest price. That is the legacy of these brave officers and is a legacy that time cannot diminish."
The ceremony paid homage to the 10 California peace officers killed in the line of duty last year. Fladager mentioned them all by name, noting that three of them were killed during a Feb. 3-12, 2013 killing spree staged by former Los Angeles police officer Christopher Dorner who sought revenge for his previous dismissal.
"Ten fallen officers might not seem like a lot for a state the size of California," said Fladager, "but it is most certainly 10 too many."
Ceres Police Lt. Brent Smith, the president of the Stanislaus County Peace Officers Association, said it's important to remember those who died while protecting others. He cited personal connections to four men whose named are etched on the granite memorial - Sgt. Howard "Howie" Stevenson, CHP officer Earl Scott, Modesto Police Sgt. Steve May and Sheriff Deputy Robert Lee Paris Jr. Paris, who died in a hail of gunfire during an April 12, 2012 eviction attempt in Modesto. Paris was the last officer death in the county.
"The loss of Sgt. Stevenson was a very tough one for the Ceres Police Department," recounted Lt. 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."
Smith said time moves on and Howie's fellow officers gathered last September to watch his son, Bryce Stevenson, become 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 things for a while.
"I found my way back to it and realized this is where I want to be," said Bryce.
Members of the local fallen officers who attended the ceremony included Stevenson's widow, Kathy Stevenson, son Bryce Stevenson, Howard's sister, Carmen Stevenson, and his mother Phyllis Stevenson. They took turns at the end of the ceremony placing flowers at the wreath placed at the base of the granite memorial etched with their loved one's name.
"It's very honoring," said Carmen, who drove from Sacramento to be at the event in which her brother was remembered. "They do this for the families. They do this for the officers. I cannot not be here. It's a tribute. It's always important to be here."
The pain for the Stevensons is still present and real but not as intense as nine years ago, said Carmen.
The May 7 ceremony also remembered the 15 officers who died on the job in Stanislaus County since 1935. As he read off the names and their "ends of watch," Sheriff Adam Christianson choked up and paused for a long while on the date of Stevenson's death. Christiansen and Stevenson had attended the police academy together and worked a while together for Ceres Police Department.
Turlock Police Department suffered both the first and greatest single loss of officers - five in total.
The first officer in Stanislaus County to die on the job was Lavon B. New who crashed his Turlock Police motorcycle and died four months later on Aug. 14, 1935.
Turlock Police officers Joe Kerley and Glenn Winans were scheduled to go off duty at midnight on Nov. 1, 1949 but decided to respond to a prowler call before clocking out. They joined with Officer George Bredenberg, who just came onto his shift. The three piled into a patrol car and traveled into thick tule fog which shrouded a railroad crossing where they entered the path of a passing train. Kerley and Winans were killed instantly and Bredenberg died two days later in the hospital.
For 16 years there were no officer deaths in the county. However between 1965 and 1973, six officers died, among them Sheriff's Deputy Billy Joe Dickens who was killed responding to a Jan. 27, 1970 Hughson Avenue bank robbery. Dickens was shot in the back after taking on two robbery suspects at the same time.
Sheriff's deputy Harold Thornton died as he responded to a south Modesto domestic violence call on Aug. 23, 1967 and was ambushed by the suspect.
Officer Raymond Willert, 26, a five-year Turlock police veteran, died on Feb. 9, 1973 as he responded to a Turlock bank robbery. The first officers on the scene detained a person matching the description behind the bank. Willert approached from the front of the bank, using the bank as cover. Unfortunately, officers did not know that the real suspects were inside the bank and preparing to execute bank employees to eliminate any witnesses. Willert walked by the front glass window and was shot in the head at nearly point-blank range. The sound of the fatal gunshot alerted officers in the back and were able to kill one of the robbers while capturing the other two. Authorities said all of the bank hostages who were seconds from being murdered had survived because of the actions of Willert's death, which left a wife and a three-year-old daughter.
For the next 32 years, officer safety was taken for granted in Stanislaus County. But on Jan. 9, 2005, Ceres Police sustained its first officer death when Sgt. Howard Stevenson was ambushed and slain outside of the George's Liquors.
A year later, on Feb. 17, 2006, the county was rocked by the death of CHP officer Earl Scott of Hughson. He was gunned down by Columbus Allen Jr. during a Highway 99 traffic stop just south of Hammett Road near Salida.
Modesto Police officer Steve May died on July 23, 2009 after falling into a seven-year coma from injuries sustained when a felon crashed into his car during a July 29, 2002 crash at South Santa Cruz and Mono Drive. May started his police career working in Ceres before transferring to Modesto Police in 1979.
More than 1,545 California peace officers have died in duty since statehood.
President John F. Kennedy signed a proclamation in 1962 setting aside the first Wednesday in May as Peace Officers Memorial Day.
The ceremony featured a police plane fly-over, a 21-gun salute performed by the Modesto Police Honor Guard, taps and the playing of the hymn, "Amazing Grace" on the bagpipes. Patrol cars from all police agencies rolled a vehicle by the memorial. A riderless horse was led along by a Stanislaus County Sheriff's deputy.
Among those attending were Sheriff Adam Christianson and former Sgt. Sam Ryno who was seriously wounded in the mortal attack on Stevenson.
According to the Officer Down Memorial Page website (www.odmp.org) a total of 38 officers have died in the United States so far this year. A total of 21,739 law enforcement officers have died in the line of duty since 1791.