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 in 2017 as well as countywide since 1935.
Modesto Police Assistant Chief Police Rick Armendariz was the keynote speaker at the annual Peace Officers Memorial held at Lakewood Memorial Park near Hughson. The ceremony paid homage to the six peace officers who died in the line of duty in California during 2017. They included Sheriff's Deputy Jason Garner who died in a solo car crash on May 13, 2017 on Crows Landing Road near South Seventh Street in south Modesto.
The annual event is a way for the Stanislaus County Peace Officers Association (SCPOA) to pay homage to fellow officers who have died on the job. Six officers in California were killed in the line of duty during 2017 with 16 officers in Stanislaus County killed since 1935.
"The 16 names listed on the memorial wall behind me are all different," said Ceres Police Lt. Chris Perry, who is president of the Stanislaus County Peace Officers Association. "They came from all walks of life, however, one thing they all had in common was their calling to serve this community and ensure safety for all of us. So as we reflect on these officers today, let us remember there is no greater call in life than when a man or woman lays down his or her life in the service of others. It is important to understand that the names carved on this monument never wanted this recognition."
He thanked survivors of fallen officers for allowing their loved one to risk their lives to protect others.
Armendariz cited how Deputy Dennis Wallace was active with youth in the Salida and Hughson communities, as was CHP Officer Earl Scott, who has a Hughson park named in his honor.
He likened the so-called "thin blue line" of law enforcement standing between good and evil as more of a "thin blue thread that is inner-woven within the fabric of our community, keeping us together and strong. Without this thread, communities and society would collapse. Whether we see ourselves as a blue line or a thin blue thread, we are all public servants."
Ceres Police Chief Brent Smith read out the names of California peace officers who died on the job last year. Aside from Garner they were: Whittier Police Officer Keith Boyer, Sacramento County Sheriff's Deputy Robert French, CHP Officer Lucas F. Chellew, Lake County Sheriff's Deputy Robert Rumfelt and CHP Officer Andrew Camilleri Sr.
District Attorney Birgit Fladager read names of the county's fallen officers since 1935 with the ringing of a bell and the release of white doves. She grew emotional when she came to the name of Dennis Wallace.
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 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. The bank is now home to the Hughson Historical Museum.
Deputy Harold Thornton died as he responded to a south Modesto domestic violence call on Aug. 23, 1967 and was ambushed by a suspect.
Officer Raymond Willert, 26, a five-year veteran of Turlock P.D., died on Feb. 9, 1973 responding 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. Officers did not realize that the real suspects were inside the bank and preparing to execute bank employees. Willert walked by the front glass window and sustained a single gunshot wound to the head at nearly point-blank range. The sound of the deadly shot alerted officers who were 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. His widow, Connie Willert Rossi was present at the memorial.
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.
Stanislaus County Sheriff Deputy Robert Lee Paris Jr. died in a hail of gunfire during an April 12, 2012 eviction attempt on Prescott Road in Modesto.
Deputy Dennis Wallace, 53, was murdered during a Nov. 13, 2016 traffic stop at Fox Grove, miles upstream from his final resting spot. The 20-year veteran of the Sheriff's Department lived in Hughson and was assigned as a DARE officer at Dena Boer Elementary School campus in Salida where he was a friend to students. David Machado was arrested later that day but ruled mentally incompetent to stand trial.
Wallace's widow, Mercedes Wallace, and family members could see his headstone just feet from the memorial. Below a color portrait of her late husband's headstone picture is etched words he repeated often: "Kids don't care what you know until they know that you care."
The widow and sister of Modesto Police Officer Leo Volk, who died at age 24 in a May 21, 1973 police pursuit of a suspect, attended the ceremony and reflected on their loss 45 years ago.
Janet Hopper Volk said she and Leo were high school sweethearts while attending Ceres High School and married two years after graduation in 1967. While in high school Leo was determined to go into law enforcement and had worked as a security guard at a local hospital.
"He was a good student, he was the class clown," said Janet.
"It's like it was yesterday," said Janet of the date of the crash near Snow White Drive-In on Yosemite Boulevard in Modesto. At the time, their only child, a son, was two.
The driver Volk was chasing was never apprehended.
"He never called it in," said Leo's sister, Roberta Volk Robinson of Ceres.
Both of them said the pain of losing Leo has not subsided. Janet said the outpouring of the community was "fantastic."
President John F. Kennedy signed a proclamation in 1962 setting aside the first Wednesday in May as Peace Officers Memorial Day.
Members of the local fallen officers who attended the ceremony included Stevenson's widow, Kathy Stevenson, and Howard's sister Carmen 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.
The ceremony featured a helicopter fly-over, a 21-gun salute performed by the Modesto Police Honor Guard, taps by Wayne Hill and the playing of the hymn, "Amazing Grace" on the bagpipes by Randy Francis of Turlock. Patrol cars from the various police agencies rolled a vehicle by the memorial. A riderless horse was led along by a Stanislaus County Sheriff's deputy.
According to the Officer Down Memorial Page website (www.odmp.org) a total of 48 officers have died in the United States so far this year. A total of 23,297 law enforcement officers have died in the line of duty since 1791. A total of 1,634 officers in California have died on duty since its early days.