At first, as hundreds sat together at dusk, there was silence, save for the soothing trickling of a fountain.
Then, just after 7 p.m., 14 motor officers representing brethren who have died in the line of duty slowly rolled past the Orange County Peace Officers’ Memorial at the Orange County Sheriff’s Department’s Regional Training Facility in Tustin, their lights flashing.
Thus began the 2019 memorial ceremony and candlelight vigil for peace officers who have lost their lives while on duty in Orange County, as well as for all those in law enforcement who charge on.
From Robert Squires of the OCSD in 1912 to Jon Coutchie of the Laguna Beach PD in 2013, a total of 53 fallen peace officers were honored at the poignant ceremony on Thursday, May 30.
That number mercifully has remained fixed over the last five years, a blessing that did not go unnoticed at the event, sponsored by the Orange County Chiefs of Police and Sheriff’s Association and the Orange County Sheriff’s Advisory Council.
The motors were followed by a procession of the Peace Officers’ Memorial Honor Guard, and then a riderless horse, an ancient military custom invoking the death of warriors.
Following a multi-agency presentation of colors and the singing of the National Anthem, Chaplain Bernardo Ramirez of the Tustin PD delivered the invocation.
“Heavenly Lord, we are blessed to be in your presence,” Ramirez told the gathered. “Thank you for the privilege you give us today to honor our fallen officers here at this Orange County Police Memorial Ceremony. We are grateful for their service and sacrifice. May they rest in peace.
“We pray for the families left behind and ask that you continue to give them strength, understanding, and peace through your love.
“Lord, I pray that you bless and watch over every police, sheriff, deputy sheriff, and police officers from our county as they serve our communities with honor and valor.
“In the spirit of love and unity, let us celebrate this ceremony and be uplifted in faith to love one another.”
Several speakers at the ceremony noted that five-plus years have passed without another on-duty death in Orange County.
“I want to thank you all for being here this evening,” Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes said in his welcoming address. “This evening is both a solemn time in that we’re remembering those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice. It’s also a celebration because for the fifth year in a row, we are not adding a name to this wall.”
The audience quietly applauded.
“Our nation began this week honoring the men and women of the armed forces who died in service to our country,” Barnes continued. “Tonight, we honor the 53 brave heroes who died in service to the people of Orange County….
“Across our nation, a total of 106 peace officers laid down their lives while protecting their communities last year. The loss of … even one member of the law enforcement family, no matter the location, is a loss we all mourn and a life we must make certain is not forgotten….”
“The 53 names on this wall and the 106 peace officers who made the ultimate sacrifice in 2018 are individuals who gave their own last full measure of devotion for the safety of others – for the safety of us.
“We must not forget their sacrifice. I’m heartened to see you all here tonight honoring their memories…. The (people on this wall) are individuals who stood against those who perpetrate violence, who sought to bring calm in times of crisis, and who were a helping hand to communities in need.
“They fulfilled the law enforcement call to duty and were servants to the people.
“As we honor and remember tonight, let us also continue to dedicate ourselves to such actions and ideals. In doing so, we are carrying forth the work done by these 53 to ensure Orange County remains a community of safety and compassion for all of our residents.”
At the beginning of his address, Bruce D.D. Mac Rae, president of the Sheriff’s Advisory Council, told attendees to close their eyes.
“I want you to think of the people that are not here with us right now, your family members. I want you to realize something: that even though we pray loudly, God answers in a whisper. So tell your loved ones you love them, tell them you miss them, and listen for God’s answer.”
Michelle Steele, vice chair of the Orange County Board of Supervisors, made brief remarks.
“This memorial is a daily reminder that the peace and freedom we enjoy in our local communities is not free,” Steele said. “Sadly, it comes at a terrible price paid for by men and women who wear the badge of a peace officer in Orange County….It is important that we gather to remember them, to honor them, and to let their families know we will never forget them.”
Keynote speaker Darin Lenyi, chief of the Placentia PD, then addressed the crowd.
Lenyi was a captain at the Laguna Beach PD when Coutchie was killed on Sept. 22, 2013, when the motorcycle he was on collided with a pickup truck. Coutchie had been responding to a call of a speeding motorist who had evaded another officer.
“We are here to remember those that were taken too soon,” Lenyi said. “It is our duty and it is our honor to keep them alive in our memory…. Every day, despite the inherent dangers of our profession, law enforcement professionals here and around the nation continue to go out on the streets day and night to protect their communities….
“Knowing firsthand the pain of losing a fellow officer, I cannot tell you how thankful I am.”
Lenyi wondered what messages the fallen 53 would want to deliver to their loved ones.
“Of course, they’d want to express their love to their family and friends and how much they miss them,” he said. “But in addition to that, I believe they’d want their brothers and sisters in blue to walk away with three basic ideas:
“One, be dedicated to keeping our community safe and do it with dignity and respect. (Two), be there and support one another both in good and bad times. And lastly, do your job safely. And I emphasize safely with pride.
“So I ask all the men and women in uniform here tonight to try to live up to these three honorable ideas in the memory of our heroes. I do believe they would expect nothing less, and they deserve nothing less.”
The names, agencies, and date of death of O.C.’s 53 fallen peace officer then were read aloud, with members of the honor guard whose agencies they belonged to standing up and saluting in tribute.
Singled out at this year’s event for recognition were James Ketchum and John Libolt, two Costa Mesa PD officers and helicopter pilots who died on March 10, 1987 in a mid-air collision with a Newport Beach PD helicopter. The NBPD helicopter was able to make an emergency landing.
Ketchum and Libolt had been assisting on a call involving a fleeing motorist. A civilian observer flying in the Costa Mesa helicopter also was killed.
A rose then placed on a wreath, followed by a three-volley salute and the playing of “Taps.”
Members of the honor guard then were dismissed.
As they left, they turned to salute families of the fallen sitting in the front row with Barnes and other dignitaries.
The AOCDS Pipe Band then played “Amazing Grace.”
Relatives of the fallen then placed candles on the memorial above plaques commemorating their loved ones as they warmed themselves in the evening chill.