The death of a peace officer in the line of duty can rattle any community, but when three are killed in a single incident it can send shockwaves through a community that last for years. Such is the case with three Turlock Police officers who were killed when their patrol car was struck by a train.
Between 1935 to 1973 the Turlock Police Department has lost five officers — Lavon B. New, Joe Kerley, Glenn Winans, George Bredenberg, and Raymond Willert. While their photos adorn the new Public Safety Facility, their histories are fading from the collective community memory. The Turlock Journal has partnered with the Turlock Police Department to retell their stories.
Turlock was a much different city to patrol in 1949. Eighty-six year-old Glenn D. Winans, a Turlock resident and the son of Glenn E. Winans, recalls most of his father’s patrol shifts back then consisted of checking to see if the doors were locked in the downtown Mercantile building and escorting home those citizens who had imbibed too much. But the town had been pestered of recent by a peeping tom, so when a call came in shortly before midnight on Nov. 1, 1949, that the culprit had been spotted in the area of Orange Street, Officers Glenn Winans, 39, and Joe Kerley, 61, hopped into one of the police department’s two squad cars and set out after him. Before leaving the department, the two officers stopped to pick up Officer George Bredenberg, 37, who had arrived early for his shift.
The three men were rushing to the scene when their patrol car rammed into the side of a Tidewater Southern freight car at the Lander Avenue crossing. The force of the impact was so great that it derailed the train car and broke the wheels off the train on the opposite side of the collision.
Officers Kerley and Winans, who were in the front seats, died instantly. Bredenberg was seated in the back and sustained critical injuries. He was rushed to Emanuel hospital where he never regained consciousness and died three days later.
It has been 65 years since his father’s death, but the memory of that night can still bring Glenn Winans to tears.
“We were asleep in bed when an officer came by with my mother and told us what had happened to dad,” Winans recalled. “It was such a shock for us. Really, for all of Turlock. Everybody knew each other back then and the loss of the three men was felt by the whole town.”
Glenn E. Winans joined the Turlock Police Department as a reserve officer in 1939. He became a full-time officer when a position opened up after an officer was killed off-duty in a collision with a train. He was a big man with a respected reputation for being fair and honest with people. Winans recalled his father had the presence of a tough and hard man, but really he was “a teddy bear.”
“He enjoyed his job tremendously and really liked people and helping them out,” Winans said. “If he caught someone doing something, he would give them a warning that he better not catch them doing it again, and often times that was all it took.”
That same type of commitment to the community he served could be found in Officer Kerley, a seven year veteran of the Turlock Police Department. His grandson Joseph E. Kerley III, never had the chance to know his grandfather, but grew up hearing stories about him and his work as a peace officer. Kerley recalled hearing stories of how his grandfather would give people around town rides home when they needed it.
“He cared. It was because he cared I grew up without him, but have tried through the years to emulate that idea,” said Kerley.
Bredenberg had only been with the police department for seven months when the accident happened.
“There were lots of people coming by to see George in the hospital and encourage him to come out of his coma,” Winans recalled. “It would have meant a lot to the community had he survived.”
The death of the three men ignited a debate over railroad safety in Turlock. The area where the collision occurred was manned by a flagman, but many in town argued that on foggy nights, like it was on the night of the fatal collision, a flagman was hard to see. In the wake of the fatalities, there was a vocal outcry to have signals and lights installed at the location. The city requested the railroad company install warning lights at the location, but the railroad company believed it was too costly. The city eventually asked the state to investigate the crossing and determine if signal lights were needed.
The deaths of the three officers also inspired a lasting legacy with the Turlock Police Associations Widows and Orphans Foundation. Started as a benefit fund for the families, the effort grew into an organization that has been caring for the families of the fallen and those within the department dealing with a tragedy or loss.
In the immediate days after the accident, police officers and community members raised more than $500 to give to the families of the three men. Kerley was a widower, but left behind a son. Bredenberg left behind a wife and two young sons. Winans was survived by his wife and four children.
The Journal will have a future story recounting the life of fallen Turlock Police Officer Ray Willert.