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 in 2012, as well as countywide since 1935.
Retired Modesto Police Chief Mark Harden was the keynote speaker at the annual Peace Officers Memorial held at Lakewood Memorial Park near Hughson.
“I recognize the courage, the bravery and the constant vigilance required of police officers, a job that requires officers without hesitation to put their lives on the line in service of those they don’t even know,” said Harden, now a private citizen. “The selfless acts of courage have been demonstrated time and time again as we can see by the names etched on this memorial. These officers paid the ultimate sacrifice, they gave their lives so we can sleep in peace, they stood between evil and us, displaying courage that is so constant and commonplace many take for granted and that is something we should never, ever do.”
The ceremony paid homage to the two peace officers who died in the line of duty in California during 2012. Stanislaus County Sheriff Deputy Robert Lee Paris, Jr. died in a hail of gunfire during an April 12, 2012 eviction attempt in Modesto. California Highway Patrolman Kenyon M. Youngstrom was killed by gunfire on Sept. 5 last year.
The May 1 ceremony also remembered the 15 officers who died on the job in Stanislaus County since 1935. 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.
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 veteran of Turlock P.D., died on Feb. 9, 1973 responding 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. His widow was present at the memorial.
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.
Members of the local fallen officers who attended the ceremony included Stevenson’s widow, Kathy Stevenson, his children Mikaela and Bryce Stevenson, Howard's sister, Carmen 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 featured a police plane fly-over, a 21-gun salute performed by the Modesto Police 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 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 Sheriff Adam Christianson, Ceres Police Chief Art deWerk, Lt. Brent Smith, former Sheriff Les Weidman, former Ceres Police Chief Pete Peterson and former Sgt. Sam Ryno who was seriously wounded in the mortal attack on Stevenson.
According to the Officer Down Memorial Page website (www.odmp.org) a total of 39 officers have died in the United States so far this year. A total of 21,463 law enforcement officers have died in the line of duty since the nation was founded.