Forty-two years after Turlock Police Officer Raymond Willert was gunned down during a robbery, his widow Connie Rossi is still haunted by questions of what if.
What if Willert hadn’t of gone to work on what was supposed to be his day off?
What if the thieves had robbed a Western Union in Modesto as they had originally planned?
What if the first officers on the scene had known the suspects were in a Western Union office and not a motel office?
And most of all, what would their future together have been like if their married life had not come to a sudden end just four years after saying ‘I do.’
“I wonder what our life would have been like and what kind of husband and father he would have been,” said Rossi.
Willert was the fifth Turlock police officer to die in the line of duty. On the job for just five years, Willert was killed on Feb. 9, 1973 in an attempt to stop an armed robbery.
Described by his friends and fellow officers as a quiet, kind-hearted, laid-back, and patient man, a career in law enforcement may not have seemed like his first inclination, but Rossi said her husband had a calling for service.
“He believed in the concepts of right and wrong,” she said. “He believed in his commitment to justice. He wanted things to be right in the world.”
Born in Kansas City, Willert moved with his parents to Modesto as a young man. He was studying police sciences at Modesto Junior College when he became entranced with the neighbor’s babysitter, a high school senior by the name of Connie.
Rossi was equally smitten with Willert and was thrilled when he offered to accompany her to her prom.
“I made my own dress and I was really anxious that night. Ray was late and when he showed up, he was in shorts. I think I was about to burst into tears.”
Rossi recalled that Willert quickly realized his joke was not going over well and rushed to get the tuxedo he had brought along on and get his date to her prom.
Bad practical joke aside, Rossi was in love with Willert and the two married right after she graduated high school. It was soon after that Willert graduated MJC and began working for the Turlock Police Department, first as a dispatcher and then as a patrolman.
It also was around this time that their daughter Wendy was born.
“He enjoyed his job, but he didn’t want to be a patrolman forever,” Rossi said. “He was taking classes at Stan State because he wanted to eventually teach criminal justice and train others going into law enforcement.”
Willert worked shifts on patrol and held a full-course load, all while keeping his family as his primary focus.
“We made trips to Disneyland, and the Oregon coast. He liked to go skiing, so we went to Bear Valley a lot together,” Rossi said.
The family had plans to go up to Bear Valley on Feb. 10 and Willert was going to use his day off — Feb. 9 — to get everything together, but instead he was called in to work a 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. shift.
Rossi remembers she dropped him off at the police station and was putting Wendy down for a nap about an hour and a half later when she got a call telling her that Willert had been injured. A second call told her Willert was being taken by ambulance to Doctors Hospital in Modesto. She was getting her daughter ready to go when another officer and his wife showed up at her front door and offered to take them to the hospital.
“I remember I was praying all the way that the gunshot wound would be to his arm or leg and that he would be ok,” Rossi said. “We had had the conversation that he could be killed in the line of duty, but we didn’t believe it would ever really happen here in Turlock.
“When we got to the ICU, I realized there was no chance,” Rossi recalled. “It looked like he had been hit by a cannon.”
Tragic chain of events
It was about 4:30 p.m. and Bertha Yahn, an employee at the Western Union office in Turlock, was on the phone with Kathy Moore a copywriter at the Turlock radio station KCEY. The women were talking when two men rushed into the office and shouted at Yahn that they were armed and wanted cash.
Yahn screamed and dropped the phone, keeping the line open for Moore who could hear everything happening at the office and called the police to report the robbery in progress.
The two men, later identified as Paul Jacobs, 27, and Charles Draper, 30, took Yahn into a bathroom and tied her up with the cord from an adding machine. The men were demanding cash and Yahn through tears was trying to tell them the office had no cash on hand. Through the dangling phone, Moore said she could hear the men saying they should kill Yahn so that she couldn’t identify them. She recounted her story to the Turlock Daily Journal, stating she heard one of them yell the police were there and then she heard a single shot, followed by a volley of gunfire.
After receiving the call from the radio station, several officers headed for the scene at 1070 N. Highway 99 (now Golden State Boulevard). The first to arrive were Sgt. Dwight Mueller and Officer Charles Holmes. As they arrived they saw a man exiting the office of the DeLuxe Motel, located on the same property as the Western Union office. Believing he might be a robbery suspect the two men stopped him at gunpoint and called for backup. But the real suspects were still in the Western Union office unnoticed.
Willert was the first backup officer to arrive and took up a tactical position, using the Western Union office as cover. As he cautiously approached the officers holding a man at gunpoint, he passed the directly in front of the Western Union office. One suspect, later identified as Draper, turned and seeing Willert in front of him, fired a single shot, striking Willert in the forehead.
The shot alerted the officers to the suspects’ location and they began firing as Jacobs ran out the front door and Draper made an escape by crashing out of a window at the back of the office.
Mueller caught up with Jacobs in a nearby field and took him into custody.
Draper ran to a waiting car idling a short distance away and sped off towards Modesto.
Law enforcement from all over the area joined in on the pursuit or rushed to the scene to help Willert. Officer Bill Wallen would later testify that the traffic was so heavy that he left his patrol car and ran on foot to help his friend and fellow officer.
The pursuit for Draper made its way to the airport neighborhood in Modesto. Modesto Police Officer Jack Smith stopped the car, and as he approached the vehicle Draper jumped out, firing his gun. Smith returned fire as Draper ran away. Additional law enforcement arrived and they tracked Draper down in a warehouse, wounded in the cheek and shoulder.
Two others were also found in the car. Melva Denise Pruden, 22, was Draper’s girlfriend and later identified as the getaway driver. Martin Kenyon, 20, was arrested along with the others, though later it would be learned he was an informant for the police in Modesto.
Willert was rushed to the hospital, but the gunshot had done too much damage and he died later that night. He was 25 years old and left behind a young wife and a 3-year-old daughter.
The loss of an officer, especially one so young, left the community in a daze. Officers and their wives converged at the police department to console one another. Bill Ladd, the Turlock police chief at the time summed up the community’s shock when he said, “You think no, it can’t happen here. But it did.”
In the days after Willert’s death, cards, letters, flowers and donations flooded in for his young widow and daughter.
“It does your heart good to see so many people showing that they care about you, but at the time I was in a fog,” Rossi recalled. “For me he was bigger than life and I couldn’t understand how one bullet could take that all away.”
All four suspects were charged with first degree murder and all initially entered not guilty pleas.
Kenyon argued he should be given immunity because he had been an informant for the police, and had even told them of the plans to rob a Western Union. Kenyon claimed the group had a plan to rob the Western Union in Modesto and that he informed undercover agents about the plan. But the plan was scrapped when they went to the Western Union and noticed a patrol car in the area. Instead, Kenyon suggested they go to his wife’s home in Turlock. He said the four made a plan to rob her of cash and a gun, but that plan also fell through when they arrived at the house and he saw his mother-in-law’s car parked outside the home. That was when the hastily made plan to rob the Turlock Western Union was hatched.
Kenyon, who supplied the car, gun and a knife, eventually entered a guilty plea to manslaughter and was sentenced to prison.
Pruden argued she had nothing to do with the robbery and was just along for the ride, but she would eventually enter a guilty plea to robbery and a charge of forgery for an unrelated incident.
Draper was scheduled for a trial when he suddenly changed his plea and pled guilty to first degree murder, robbery and forgery. He was sentenced to life in prison, but because of the sentencing structures at the time, he was eligible for parole just a few years after his sentencing. His parole was denied repeatedly.
Jacobs was the only one to take his case to trial. His defense argued that he only went along with the plan because he was scared of Draper. He was found guilty of first degree murder, robbery and two counts of assault on a peace officer.
Life for Rossi continued on as her daughter grew and eventually had two children of her own, but the memory of her first love never faded, nor the question of what if.
“I look at my grandsons and I can see Ray in them,” Rossi said. “I hope that I have lived a life that would make Ray proud.”