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 2013 as well as countywide since 1935.
Birgit Fladager, Stanislaus County District Attorney, was the keynote speaker at the annual Peace Officers Memorial held at Lakewood Memorial Park near Hughson. Fladager said the sacrifices made by officers are a “special burden they bear to give the rest of us the safety and peace we sometimes take for granted.
“Law enforcement is not about badges and uniforms,” she said. “It is about taking a stand to preserve the rights of neighbors and strangers and shielding them from danger. The officers listed on these walls stood their ground, did their jobs, and along with their family and friends, paid the highest price. That is the legacy of these brave officers and is a legacy that time cannot diminish.”
The ceremony paid homage to the 10 California peace officers killed in the line of duty last year. Fladager mentioned them all by name, noting that three of them were killed during a Feb. 3-12, 2013, killing spree staged by former Los Angeles police officer Christopher Dorner who sought revenge for his previous dismissal.
“Ten fallen officers might not seem like a lot for a state the size of California,” said Fladager, “but it is most certainly 10 too many.”
Ceres Police Lt. Brent Smith, the president of the Stanislaus County Peace Officers Association, 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 April 12, 2012, eviction attempt in Modesto, was the last officer death in the county.
The 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 Department.
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 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.
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 they 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.
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.
More than 1,545 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 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.