Editor’s note: In honor of Behind the Badge OC’s one-year anniversary, we will be sharing the 30 most-read stories. This story was originally published Sept. 17.
That’s how long it had been, roughly, since the cop last saw the boy.
When Garden Grove Police Officer Thi Huynh walked into the Juvenile Justice Center adjacent to PD headquarters Tuesday afternoon, a young man of 17 stood rigid straight in his Police Explorer uniform and extended a hand to greet him.
It took a second or two, but Huynh recognized the teenager.
“When I last saw you,” said Huynh, holding his hand chest high, “you were this tall.”
Pascual Villasenor, now standing about an inch taller than Huynh, smiled.
Pascual’s face no longer was that of a distraught 12-year-old who had discovered his father lying in the driveway dead of a heart attack – a tragedy that brought Huynh to the Villasenor home the evening of Nov. 28, 2009, to take a report.
Looking around that night, Huynh saw the devastated and confused faces of six children ages 4 through 15 and their grieving mother, Maria, who had just lost her husband, Pascual Sr., 49, two days after Thanksgiving.
Huynh decided to adopt the Villasenor family for the holidays. He asked colleagues to pitch in.
On Christmas Eve 2009, a caravan of Garden Grove cops on motorcycles joined Huynh in delivering toys, food and holiday cheer to the family.
The family never forgot their kindness.
Up until the sudden death of his father, he had loved the board game “Operation” and planned to become a forensic pathologist.
Huynh inspired him to become a cop.
“I always thought police officers just patrolled the streets and gave out tickets,” Pascual said Tuesday. “He (Huynh) broke the stereotype. He made me realize I could pursue a career like his and still be able to help people.”
At their brief but heartfelt reunion Tuesday — it all was a surprise to Huynh, who was told by his superiors he was needed for his translation skills — the patrol officer and the police explorer caught up.
“How you doing?” said Huynh, 33. “It’s good to see you. How’s your brother?”
Great, Pascual told him. Gerry Villasenor, 21, the oldest of the six siblings, has joined the Marines.
“Awesome,” Huynh said as Pascual waited for the weekly meeting of police explorers to begin.
Pascual joined the program 2 ½ years ago.
“How you liking this?” Huynh asked.
“I like it a lot.”
Garden Grove Police Explorers, who range in age from 14 to 20, perform a variety of community services, such as crowd control at parades, festivals and special events. Sometimes they are called out to assist police officers in emergency situations, such as searching for missing children, searching for evidence and assisting at major disaster scene.
“You’re looking good, man,” Huynh told Pascual.
As they visited, a handful of Garden Grove PD brass looked on, including Capt. Todd Elgin and Lt. Ben Stauffer.
“This is all the result of the fruits of your labor,” Elgin told Huynh, whose wife, Kelly – a community services officer – also swung by for the reunion.
“This shows how the police and the community can work together to strengthen their relationship,” Kelly Huynh said. “It’s amazing how good deeds go around.”
Special Officer Jason Perkins of the Youth Services Unit of the Garden Grove PD said he only learned about the Pascual-Huynh connection a few weeks ago when the 17-year-old casually mentioned it.
“Thi came into Pascual’s life on his worst day and because of the compassion he showed, it inspired Pascual to be where he is today,” Perkins said. “He’s obviously never forgotten what Thi did for his family.”
Huynh and Pascual wrapped up their visit.
“So you want to become an officer,” Huynh told the teen.
“Nice,” Huynh said.
“That’s really cool,” Huynh told Pascual, a senior at Nova Academy in Santa Ana. “I’m really proud of you.”
The two then embraced.