Editor’s note: From Wednesday May 17 through Saturday, May 21, cyclists from Orange County traveled to Sacramento, then biked back to Westminster, Ca., in the Code 3 for a Cause memorial ride that raises funds and commemorates fallen and injured law enforcement officers. This was the 10th annual ride, organized by the Westminster Police Department’s Cmdr. Kevin MacCormick and Sgt. Bill Drinnin. Behind the Badge went along for the ride and filed dispatches from the road.
One by one, more than 40 bike riders, motorcycle cops and volunteers solemnly stopped in front of Kristi Tovar and daughter, Dylan Vella, and dropped a single carnation each into a basket cradled by Dylan.
The gesture was to honor the widow and daughter of Nicholas Vella, the Huntington Beach policeman who died in a helicopter crash while on duty in February providing aerial support to Newport Beach Police Department.
It was a fitting emotional climax to Code 3 for a Cause, a four-day bicycle trek from Sacramento to Westminster that raises funds, honors and commemorates officers who have died in the line of duty and their families.
Kristi held a “Thin Blue Line” American flag that has come to represent support for law enforcement, and Dylan was dressed in a black hoodie and hat that commemorated her dad.
“The last three months have been tough for me,” said Dylan, 17.
She called her late father, “the best person,” adding that “all his partners and his friends loved what he did.”
Kristi thanked the police for keeping in touch and being available to help out when needed.
“The professionalism, compassion and respect is felt,” she said, but added, “It’s never enough to bring him back.”
Huntington Beach Police Chief Eric Parra said he and his officers would continue to do all they could to provide compassion and support.
“We’re all here as one family,” he said. “We said we’re not going away, and we’re not.”
Dylan said she appreciates the condolences. She is particularly happy when she and her mom visit the police department or the helicopter pad with cookies or for taco parties.
The 22 riders who made the Code 3 trek were accompanied by about a dozen more riders from Huntington Beach and several supporters as well as a motor caravan escort that met them in Seal Beach.
At the impromptu ceremony in Huntington Beach, Westminster Cmdr. Kevin MacCormick and Sgt. Bill Drinnin presented Kristi Vella with a $15,000 check from proceeds from the 10th annual ride.
MacCormick said the ceremony was important because it is what the memorial ride is all about.
“It’s important (Kristi and Dylan) know we care. We’ll make sure people don’t forget the sacrifice (Nicholas Vella) made,” he said.
After the brief ceremony, the caravan pushed off down Goldenwest Street toward the Westminster Police Department headquarters.
After turning off All American Way in Westminster toward Civic Center Plaza, the riders were greeted by their families and well wishers.
After passing under an arch of blue and black balloons, the bikers made their way to the city’s Police Officers Memorial. After beginning their ride at the California Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Sacramento, the gathering at the Westminster monument brought the trip full circle.
Then the riders were off to the embraces and congratulations of families, loved ones, and officials.
Police Chief Darin Lenyi was on hand to offer support. In addition to praising the purpose of the ride, he said, “I am proud of my members and the others who rode so far and so hard.”
City Councilman Carlos Manzo was also on hand.
“I am proud of all these guys and all the families for their support,” he said.
Milestones, memories and a sacred cause
After 10 years, the Code 3 ride has gathered local renown for being a well-run, close-knit, and intimate memorial ride. Police and first responder rides across the country range from sprawling events, such as the National Police Unity ride, which attracts more than 1,000 riders, to smaller state, county, and city events.
The Code 3 ride has been run by MacCormick and Drinnin since its inception. For them it is a labor or love and respect that they are hoping will continue long past their tenures.
“Kevin and I are at the tail end of our careers,” Drinnin said. “I know we’ll do it next year.”
However, Drinnin admits it takes extraordinary dedication for all involved.
“The logistical planning is crazy,” he said.
This year, the ride raised about $62,000, a particularly strong year in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic that threatened but couldn’t derail the ride.
“We won’t leave until we pass the baton where we’re 100 percent sure,” Drinnin said of the long-term health of the ride.
“Ten years down and we carry the torch forward and get the message out,” MacCormick said.
Riders agreed this year the ride kept its reputation as sometimes grueling, sometimes inspiring, and ultimately rewarding. Along the way, the riders endured temperatures that exceeded 100 degrees coming off the asphalt and pushed through days with thousands of feet of elevation gain.
At times they were rattled by big rigs bearing down on them along Highway 101, or dodging and weaving through cars and surfers along Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu. Riders were also treated to the pain and pleasure of classic California scenery, such as the rocky windswept slopes of the Central California Coastline, along with daunting climbs.
Chris Yuriar, a Long Beach police officer riding for the first time in the event, said the magnificence of the Big Sur Coast was inspiring, though not always easy to appreciate.
“It’s hard to do, but when you can step back and take a look around, it’s kind of surreal sometimes,” he said.
Ben Johns, an Orange County Sheriff’s Deputy, said the hardest part of the event was “getting in the saddle every morning when you’re sore from all the miles.”
However, he said it was worth it for the friendships engendered on the ride, either new or strengthened.
“This is a lifelong thing,” he said of police work and the bonds shared through the miles.
Rev. John LaBelle, the oldest cyclist in the ride, rode this year for the first time after served as a volunteer a year earlier. In addition to rebounding from a tumble over a guardrail on the first day, he said that he learned a lot about the event after being involved on both sides.
“The unity is the same,” he said of what riders and support crews share. “I am glad I did support. If you don’t do support, you have no idea. I know how much work support does.”
The job for Jonathan Figueroa, who drove the support box van, didn’t end with arrival at the day’s destination. After trailing riders and feeding them at lunch, he would load and unload bikes, make grocery runs, fill the van with gas and handle the day’s financial details.
Although it was his first year on the ride, after he was recruited to participate, he said, “If you’re going to do it, give 100 percent.”
The riders had their own travails. Each day they arrived at a new hotel, faces creased with grit and sweat, muscles and joints sometimes screaming for relief. They would unwind with lively conversation and jokes. But always, underscoring the ride, is its sacred cause.
Dan Schoonmaker, who has been involved with the ride since its first days, and before when the Orange County Sheriff put on a ride to benefit its memorial charity, Project 999, said his view and appreciation for the ride has evolved over the years.
“The longer you stay, the more (colleagues) you lose and the more meaning the ride has,” he said. “You just figure out in all parts of the job that life is fragile.”
Schoonmaker, a former Deputy Chief with Westminster, said that in life, as in cycling, “you just have to keep it going, that’s what it’s all about.”
The long distance rides provide a unique perspective.
“Four days you sit in the solitude of the ride and think about it and appreciate the ones who didn’t make it out,” he said. “It’s pretty noble. It’s a pretty noble event.
Read more about the 2022 Memorial Ride: