Stanislaus County law enforcement and area officials gathered at Lakewood Memorial Wednesday for a somber and reflective tribute to the area's 14 peace officers who were killed in the line of duty.
The Stanislaus County Peace Officer Association's memorial tribute to the 14 fallen officers included a flyover, a motorcade of service vehicles, and a keynote address from California Highway Patrol Commissioner Joseph Farrow, who recalled the loss of the officers, not just to the community they served, but to their friends and family.
"These heroes weren't just officers," Farrow said. "They were friends, colleagues, and family."
From 1935 to 2012, there have been 14 law enforcement members killed in the line of duty in Stanislaus County. There have been no law enforcement deaths in the county for the last two years. California saw 13 peace officers die in the line of duty last year.
"The sacrifices of these brave men and women are a constant reminder that we must never swerve from our sworn duties," Farrow said.
National Police Week is May 10 to May 15. It began in 1962 when President John Kennedy proclaimed May 15 as National Peace Officers Memorial Day and the calendar week in which May 15 falls, as National Police Week. National Police Week pays special recognition to those law enforcement officers who have lost their lives in the line of duty for the safety and protection of others. The week includes several ceremonial tributes in Washington D.C. that this year the Turlock Police Department Honor Guard will be joining.
The May 6 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.
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 while responding to a Jan. 27, 1970 Hughson Avenue bank robbery. Dickens was shot in the back after taking on two 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.
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.