Seven desks over.
That’s how far Veronica Gardea moved to start her new assignment at the Fullerton Police Department — about 100 feet down the same row of cubicles in the Investigations Bureau.
But the short relocation a few weeks ago capped Gardea’s long journey of becoming a police officer — and also marked a milestone at the agency.
Gardea, 31, is the first female detective in the history of the Fullerton PD to be assigned to Crimes Persons — a unit nicknamed the “A Team” that, until now, exclusively was filled with male police officers well into their careers.
The Crimes Persons Unit, with four detectives and a supervisor, Sgt. Matt Rowe, investigates homicides, suspicious deaths, assaults, robbery, criminal threats, elder abuse and missing adults.
Prior to her new assignment, Gardea worked for four years on the other end of the second-floor department as a detective in the Family Crimes Unit, investigating everything from sexual assaults against children and adults to child abuse, missing juveniles, stalking, domestic violence and lewd conduct.
“I’m very excited, and I think I’ll learn a lot,” Gardea said a few days before heading to San Bernardino for two weeks of homicide investigation training.
Gardea knew she wanted to become a police officer when she was 6.
Realizing that dream wasn’t a breeze.
Gardea grew up in Artesia with two younger brothers, an older sister, her maternal grandmother and parents who always supported her childhood dream of becoming a police officer.
She recalls visits to her classroom at Burbank Elementary School by Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department deputies who would ingrain in the youngsters’ minds such messages as the importance of staying in school and shunning drugs and gangs.
“Ever since I was in the first grade, I just knew I wanted to help people,” Gardea said.
Seeing some of her former classmates make bad decisions as they got older only reinforced her desire to enter law enforcement.
Gardea attended Gahr High School in Cerritos, where she played junior varsity volleyball, kept statistics for the wrestling, football and baseball teams and where, as a freshman, she started dating the man she ended up marrying, in 2012: Eric Gardea, a certified pump operator at a water service agency.
Veronica Gardea learned about police cadet programs during her second semester at Cerritos College, when she was majoring in Administration of Justice. She started working as a paid, part-time cadet at the Fullerton PD in September 2003.
Gardea loved reviewing citations and reading police reports while assigned to the Records Bureau and then, about eight months later, working public events as a cadet assigned to the Community Services Bureau.
In December 2004, six weeks into her six-month program as a recruit at the Orange County Sheriff’s Department Training Academy, located in Garden Grove at the time, Gardea was forced to drop out due to an injury to her right shoulder.
She wasn’t sure how she strained it exactly, but the injury was bad enough to force her to drop out of the academy. Gardea then returned to Fullerton PD where she was assigned to the front desk.
Just after completing physical therapy, Gardea entered the academy again in June 2005, but the nagging injury forced Gardea to drop out a second time.
She worked as a Communications Aide in the Communications Bureau and assisted the FPD dispatchers, while wondering:
Will I ever become a police officer?
Gardea wasn’t going to ask her FPD superiors to support her a third time at the police academy. But the department stepped up and sponsored her when, after completing her associate’s degree at Cerritos College, she started a 10-month extended academy at Fullerton College in January 2007.
“I wasn’t expecting that,” Gardea says.
The Fullerton PD hired her as a full-time officer that November. Gardea worked three years as a patrol officer before joining the Family Crimes Unit in January 2011.
After being a police officer for about a month and a half Gardea met, for the first time, her father’s half-brother — her uncle — who also was in law enforcement. One of her former police academy classmates was working for the Pasadena PD and put her in touch with her uncle, Commander John E. Perez, who runs the Pasadena PD’s Criminal Investigations Division.
None of Gardea’s siblings have gone into police work. Her older sister, 34, is a registered dental assistant and Gardea’s two younger brothers, 26 and 19, are still in school.
Eight months into her assignment in the Family Crimes Unit, Gardea was tapped to be the lead detective on a particularly ugly child molestation case.
In August 2011, two brothers, Cristobal Ortiz Rodriguez and Eduardo Ortiz Rodriguez, were arrested on suspicion of molesting two girls, ages 3 and 7, who lived in their neighborhood.
They were accused of molesting the girls between May 2010 and August 2011 while the defendants were together, one after the other, and on their own at separate times.
In May 2014, the Rodriguez brothers — ages 38 and 36 at the time — were sentenced to 50 years in state prison after pleading guilty to 11 felony counts of lewd and lascivious acts on a child under 14 and four felony counts of continuous sexual abuse.
“They could have gotten a lot more time if the case had gone to trial,” Gardea says. “But the outcome still made this a very rewarding case for me to work on.”
Gardea said her career plans at the FPD never included joining the Crimes Persons Unit so soon — but she is thrilled with the new assignment and grateful for the opportunity.
“I believe I’m thorough in my reports and investigations, and that I will do a good job,” she said. “This is a great department to work for. They were very supportive of me, and it’s the way they treat all their officers and employees.”