Overcast skies mirrored the somber tone of Wednesday morning’s Stanislaus County Peace Officers Memorial service held at Lakewood Memorial Park as those who lost their lives protecting and serving the public were honored.
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 2015 as well as countywide since 1935.
The ceremony paid homage to the four California peace officers killed in the line of duty during 2015. They were: San Jose Police officer Michael Johnson, March 24, 2015; Bakersfield Police Officer David Nelson, June 26, 2015; Hayward Police Sgt. Scott Lunger, July 22, 2015; and San Bernardino Police Officer Bryce Hanes, Nov. 5, 2015.
Modesto Police Chaplain Don Crooker of Waterford offered a prayer for law enforcement officers while praising the bravery of one mystery officer who responded to the San Bernardino terrorist shooting and led a group of civilians to safety after saying to them, “Are you ready? I will take a bullet before you do, that is for damned sure.”
Jill Silva, chief of Stanislaus County Probation Department, was the keynote speaker and thanked surviving family members for their sacrifice.
“I know how critically important it is that we never forget the price your loved ones paid to protect and serve our community,” said Silva. “We owe so much to you and to them. We know we can never repay that debt but we must do all that we can to keep their memories alive.”
Silva related how she sat in on a recent talk sponsored by the Hughson Historical Society to honor the late Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Deputy Billy Jo Dickens who died in a Jan. 27, 1970 Hughson bank robbery. Among those who spoke were former bank tellers who shared their experiences during the robbery.
“One of the tellers was pregnant at the time and for her there was the added fear for her unborn child,” said Silva. “Despite the amount of time that had gone by, their memories were still very vivid. Of course they remembered the ugliness of the bank robbers but for me that wasn’t the important part of their story. Their message was about the courage of the officers who rushed to the bank without any regard for their own safety.”
Silva said she imagined that Dickens and his partner, Deputy Charles Moore, had fear but “courage isn’t the absence of fear, it’s continuing to move forward despite that fear. Without a doubt, Billy Jo Dickens and his partner were courageous. They were heroes to those bank tellers. They knew the officers had saved their lives and protected our small city.”
Dickens, she noted, was one of “too many officers” who died while protecting the public. She also mentioned how probation officers are exposed to great risks in protecting citizens.
“They enter homes of known violent criminals each and every day, not knowing what they will encounter as they enter room after room. They supervise the most serious of offenders, including those housed in our juvenile facilities. I have the honor and privilege of leading this fine group of people. They’re courageous and they’re dedicated.”
Ceres Police Chief Brent Smith 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 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," said 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 we shared a duck hunting blind together. I never realized it would be our 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."
Members of the local fallen officers who attended the ceremony included Stevenson's widow, Kathy 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.
The ceremony 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 moment 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.
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 jumped 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.
For 16 years there were no officer deaths in the county. However, between 1965 and 1973, six officers died, including Dickens.
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, who 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 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 H. 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 as the victim of 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 with Ceres Police before transferring to Modesto Police in 1979.
Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Deputy Robert “Bob” Lee Paris, Jr., was killed April 12, 2012 while he and another deputy were serving an eviction notice at the Whispering Woods apartment complex on Chrysler Drive in Modesto.
More than 1,602 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 Sheriff’s Department helicopter 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 Congressman Jeff Denham, 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 a total of 33 officers have died in the United States so far this year. A total of 22,481 law enforcement officers have died in the line of duty since 1791.