The first noticeable feature was the smile.
A smile that “lit up Nick’s whole face,” said John Vella, brother of Huntington Beach Police Officer Nicholas Vella. “Chin to forehead, cheek to cheek, Nick had a smile for the ages.”
John Vella was among the family members, friends, and fellow officers who delivered eulogies praising Nicholas Vella during a memorial service for the fallen officer at the Honda Center on Tuesday.
On Feb. 19, Vella, 44, and his partner were responding to a disturbance call in Newport Beach when their helicopter crashed into the ocean, killing Vella. His partner survived the crash.
Huntington Beach Police Department’s Air Support Unit also serves Newport Beach and Costa Mesa under contracts with those cities.
Vella is survived by his wife, Kristi, daughter, Dylan, parents, John and Marcella Vella, brother, John, and multiple extended family members.
Law enforcement officers from throughout the state made up the majority of the thousands of mourners who filled the arena’s lower bowl.
John Vella spoke of his brother’s innate desire to fight for the underdog and come to the aid of anyone being bullied.
“Nick knew from an early age that he belonged as part of this body (of police officers), that he was a guardian, a protector, a peacekeeper,” John Vella said. “He devoted his entire career to that cause.”
Nick embraced the outdoors, especially the ocean, his brother said. He loved surfing at San Onofre and mountain biking.
Until Vella married his daughter, his father-in-law, Ron Tovar, said he knew nothing about the brotherhood and sisterhood of law enforcement.
“Through him, I personally learned a lot,” Tovar said. “I learned to value police in a time when there was a lot of criticism. We learned to respect first responders and members who are in that field.”
Tovar was impressed by the ability of Vella, and all police officers, to transition from the sometimes-hardened demeanor needed on the job, to the softhearted side of life with family.
“I cannot even imagine how you shift gears from the things from you see and the way sometimes we see in social media how people talk to police,” he said. “I can’t image how you can shift from that to be kind and gentle to your family but he did that. He was just an influence on us all.”
The day started at the Huntington Beach Police Department, where a procession of hundreds of police vehicles made its way along Pacific Coast Highway to Magnolia Street to the freeway headed to the Honda Center. At the Honda Center, the procession traveled underneath two American flags hanging from ladders on fire trucks and into the arena entrance.
Vella was born in Whittier. He lived with his family in Mexico City during his early years in high school before returning to California, where he attended St. Margaret’s High School in San Juan Capistrano. At St. Margaret’s, Vella played football and basketball and sang in the school choir. Vella began his career in public service as a lifeguard for the City of Laguna Niguel.
He was hired by the City of Laguna Beach as a seasonal beach patrol officer in 2002 and then started his law enforcement career as police officer in that city in December 2003. With a goal of flying helicopters, Vella lateralled to the Huntington Beach Police Department in April 2008.
During his 14 years with Huntington Beach Police Department, Vella served in patrol and was a member of the SWAT team. He served in air support for the past six years, participating in several operations and earning 80 commendations.
“One thing I do know is that he loved to fly,” said Francisco Jimenez, a fellow Huntington Beach police officer and Vella’s good friend. “We tried to get him into investigations but he said no, he was doing what he loves. Nick was a great.”