Ed Thornton was five years old when he last saw his father, Stanislaus County Sheriff Deputy Harold Lee Thornton, who walked out the door for the swing shift nearly 56 years ago on the afternoon of Aug. 23, 1967.
Deputy Thornton would be shot to death that evening to become one of 19 law enforcement officers in Stanislaus County to die or receive fatal injuries while on duty since 1935. Their sacrifice, and those of 15 peace officers who died in California during 2022, were remembered at the Stanislaus County Peace Officers Memorial service held Wednesday morning at Hughson’s Lakewood Memorial Park.
Deputy Thornton death came while responding to a 10:20 p.m. that sweltering summer evening call reporting a random stabbing at a south Modesto trailer park at 604 Olivero Street. When he got there, the stabbing suspect and former mental patient John Britton Miller opened fire on the 33-year-old deputy, fatally wounding him with rounds from a .38 caliber revolver.
“You never forget when they knock on the door to give you the news,” said Ed Thornton, one of the late deputy’s six children, who came out to pay his dad tribute just as he has done for the past five or six years.
Deputy Thornton’s widow passed away last year.
When time came for survivors of the fallen officers to lay a single rose at the base of the granite memorial engraved with the names of fallen officers, Ed reached out to touch his dad’s name to the mournful tunes of a bagpipe.
“He was basically ambushed,” said Thornton. “He was called out on a domestic call and it was sort of a ruse to get an officer out there and that’s how he was shot.”
In the hail of gunfire, Deputy Thornton managed to squeeze off rounds at Miller, seriously wounding him.
“He (Miller) lived and he spent the rest of his life in prison. He did spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair. My Dad paralyzed him and I hope he was miserable.”
Miller reportedly held a grudge against Deputy Ed Lyman and expected him to show up to the call. But Lyman was on vacation and replaced by Deputy Thornton.
Riding with Thornton was 17-year-old explorer scout named Jim Waddell, who had walked away from the scene just before the volley of gunfire.
Waddell, who would later become the police chief of Waterford, remembers Miller screaming at officers at Scenic General Hospital, «Give me a gun and I’ll shoot all you bastards.”
Miller was found guilty of first degree murder and sentenced to death. When California overturned the death penalty, Miller’s sentence was commuted to life in prison where he died about 12 years after his conviction.
The drama represents the dangers routinely faced by peace officers each shift.
It was fitting that the keynote address was given by California State Assemblyman Juan Alanis – who is still technically a Stanislaus County Sheriff’s deputy but on leave. The Republican lawmaker related his experiences with some of the men whose names are etched on the granite memorial marker.
Alanis began as a Sheriff’s Department explorer scout in 1994 and was a 16-year-old Honor Guard member at the funeral of the late retired Sheriff Lynn Wood. Alanis remembers attending the Sacramento funeral of Officer William Bean and being impressed by the sheer number of fellow law enforcement officers with code three lights on – and citizens who stopped to salute as the hearse rolled by.
Pointing to the tall memorial slab of granite, Alanis said: “There are also other names that aren’t on there, some who didn’t make it, …(who) may have lost their battle with a mental health crisis or maybe cancer or something like that that may have taken them from us.”
He singled out Alfredo Alvarez, Doug Millsap and Mark Ottoboni as “guys who were battling with demons that they had or just with life in general.”
Alanis recalls the day Scott was murdered along Highway 99 as “the first time I ever saw an officer on the ground with a blanket over him.”
As a deputy, Alanis called off a family camping trip when he heard the news of the shooting death of Deputy Robert “Bob” Paris in 2012.
When Deputy Dennis Wallace of Hughson was murdered on Nov. 13, 2016, Alanis was on a Boy Scout outing in Monterey.
“I remember trying to get back to Stanislaus County as fast as I can to join the efforts in finding his killer. That was another long day and was also very emotional and also for family because they knew Dennis as well.”
Alanis later was assigned as the Sheriff’s Department liaison to Wallace’s widow, Mercedes, even accompanying her to the national Peace Officers Memorial in Washington, D.C.
He spoke of the sad moments when learning of the news of the May 2017 traffic deaths of Deputy Jason Garner and Community Service Officer Raschel Johnson; and Deputy Tony Hinostroza in a Nov. 25, 2018 crash; and Newman Police Officer Ronil Singh, fatally shot in a Dec. 26, 2018 traffic stop.
The freshman lawmaker remembers how Crime Scene Investigator Mary Donahue was preparing for a New Year’s party when she was struck and killed on Santa Fe Avenue in Hughson in December 2011. He mentioned how the names of Donahue and Johnson are not inscribed on the memorial because they were not sworn peace officers.
He called for law enforcement officers to continue providing emotional support and assistance for the families of officers who were lost in the call of duty.
Sheriff’s Sgt. Erich Layton addressed the crowd and cited the loss of the county’s 19 men who died on the line of duty is a “reminder that the work of law enforcement is never easy but vital.”
Layton desired to become an officer having been raised in a family of officers, including a grandfather who was a deputy.
“Sadly, he died shortly after retirement just as many do following a long career,” said Layton, who became a Modesto Police explorer scout.
As a teen he helped in traffic control for the funeral of CHP Officer Earl Scott of Hughson, who was murdered on Feb. 17, 2006. The miles of police vehicles in the procession made an impression on him.
“That was my first real dose of the reality of the job I had hoped to do, never having thought about what the dangers or the result of a traffic stop could be until that moment.”
The experience drove him to join the Sheriff’s Department.
Turlock Police Chief Jason Hedden read aloud the names of the county’s fallen law enforcement officers while Stanislaus County District Attorney Jeffery Laugero read aloud the names of 15 peace officers who died on the job last year in California. They were: U.S. Department of Homeland Security Officer Bruce Eckhoff, Jan. 5, 2022; Los Angeles Police Officer Fernando Uriel Arroyos, Jan. 10, 2022; Sacramento County Sheriff’s Deputy Brian Dennis Moore, Jan. 13, 2022; Elk Grove Police Officer Tyler Lenehan, Jan. 21, 2022; Fowler Police Officer Arthur Duron, Feb. 2, 2022; Alameda County Sheriff’s Deputy Aubrey Phillips, Feb. 12, 2022; Huntington Beach Police Officer Nicholas Vella, Feb. 19, 2022; U.S. Department of Defense Lt. Jason T. Dumlao, Feb. 21, 2022; Riverside County Sheriff’s Lt. Steve Taylor, Feb. 24, 2022; Salinas Police Officer Jorge David Alvarado Jr., Feb. 25, 2022; U.S. Department of Homeland Security Agent Daniel Humberto Salazar, May 13, 2022; Los Angeles Police Officer Houston Ryan Tipping, May 29, 2022; El Monte Police Officer Joseph Anthony Santana and Sgt. Michael Domingo Paredes, both killed on June 14, 2022; and Riverside County Sheriff’s Deputy Isaiah Cordero, Dec. 29, 2022.
The ceremony featured a Sheriff’s helicopter fly-over, a 21-gun salute performed by the California Highway Patrol 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 horse without a rider was led along by a Stanislaus County Sheriff’s deputy.
Ceres Police Chaplain Joel Richardson offered the benediction, asking God’s blessings and protection for officers as they keep the peace.
County’s peace officers killed in the line of duty
• Turlock motorcycle officer Lavon B. New, 28, who crashed at Golden State Boulevard and Geer Road during a pursuit and died four months later on Aug. 14, 1935.
• Turlock Police officers Joe Kerley, 61, Glenn Winans, 39, and George Bredenberg, 37, all killed when their patrol car rammed into a train straddled across fog shrouded Lander Avenue on Nov. 1, 1949. Bredenberg died three days later.
• Riverbank Police Officer Harold Harless, 42, was struck by a fleeing suspect and killed as he was setting up a roadblock on Patterson Road at Palmer Avenue on Oct. 17, 1965.
• Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Deputy Harold Thornton, 33, was killed on Aug. 23, 1967 when he was shot answering a report of a stabbing on Olivero Street in a south Modesto.
• Sheriff’s Deputy Billy Joe Dickens, 36, was fatally shot in the back during a Jan. 27, 1970 bank robbery in Hughson where he was taking on two robbery suspects at the same time.
• CHP Officer W.R. “Bob” Court, 33, died in a Feb. 13, 1970 crash during a pursuit of a traffic violator.
• Officer Raymond Willert, 26, a five-year veteran of Turlock Police, was fatally shot while responding to a Feb. 9, 1973 Turlock bank robbery.
• Modesto Police Officer Leo Volk, a 24-year-old Ceres native, died in a May 21, 1973 crash at Conejo Avenue and Yosemite Boulevard in Modesto during a police pursuit.
• Ceres Police Sgt. Howard Stevenson, 39, was ambushed and shot to death by an AWOL Marine on Jan. 9, 2005 outside of George’s Liquors on Caswell Avenue.
• CHP Officer Earl Scott, a 36-year-old Hughson resident, was murdered in a Feb. 17, 2006 traffic stop on northbound Highway 99 just south of the Hammett Road exit near Salida.
• Modesto Police officer Steve May died on July 23, 2009 after a seven-year injury-induced coma stemming from injuries when a felon crashed into his car on July 29, 2002 at S. Santa Cruz and Mono Drive.
• Stanislaus County Sheriff Deputy Robert Lee Paris Jr., 53, died in a hail of gunfire during an April 12, 2012 eviction attempt on Prescott Road in Modesto.
• Sheriff’s Deputy Dennis Wallace, 53, of Hughson, was murdered during a Nov. 13, 2016 traffic stop at Fox Grove.
• Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Deputy Jason A. Garner, 41, died in a solo car crash on May 13, 2017 on Crows Landing Road near South Seventh Street in south Modesto. Also killed was Community Service Officer Raschel Johnson.
• Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Deputy Tony Hinostroza III, 45, died in a Nov. 25, 2018 high-speed car crash into a metal pole at Claribel Road and Terminal Avenue near Riverbank as he was responding to an emergency.
• Newman Police Officer Ronil Singh, 33, was fatally shot in a Dec. 26, 2018 car stop at Merced Street and Eucalyptus Avenue in Newman by a Mexican national who had illegally entered the country.