Story of an explorer on the rise and a community service officer in need brings Riverside Sheriff’s awards crowd to tears


Editor’s note: Stay tuned for complete coverage of the 2020 Board of Directors Awards Dinner, sponsored by the Riverside Sheriffs’ Association and the Riverside County Deputy Sheriff Relief Foundation.

At a recent awards ceremony honoring the finest of the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department, a video on the big screen brought several attendees to tears.

During an evening filled with accolades, the story behind Community Service Officer Connie Duke’s Outstanding Community Service Award was a highlight.

The video, played during the Feb. 21 gala at the Riverside Convention Center, and lasting some 10 minutes, recounted the tragic, and ultimately life-affirming, story of Explorer Michael Ojeda, 20, and Community Service Officer Vanessa Runner, 35.

One of the reasons Duke got the award was for linking Runner and Ojeda up in what would turn out to be a lifelong bond – even though Ojeda no longer is alive.

Explorer Michael Ojeda is shown in this screen grab from video. Courtesy of RSA

The hard-working explorer, who came from a challenging upbringing, died May 4, 2019, after he apparently fell asleep and crashed head on into another car.

Ojeda was 20, his whole life ahead of him.

He had been an explorer for a little more than a year with the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department. Duke, who works with investigators in the agency’s Hemet station, was a mother figure to him.

Wracked with grief in the hours after Ojeda’s death, Duke had the presence of mind to remember that Runner was in critical need of a kidney donor.

Runner, who works out of the RCSD’s Perris station, was born with a genetic kidney disease and received her first kidney from her sister when she was 15.

CSO Connie Duke (center) received the Outstanding Community Services Award at the Jan. 11 awards ceremony. 
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge

The average transplanted kidney lasts about 15 to 18 years.

“Luckily,” Runner said, “the kidney that I received for my sister lasted 18 years, but in the beginning of 2018, the doctor told me that I was going into kidney failure again.”

In August 2018, things went downhill quickly for Runner. She began receiving blood transfusions in November 2018 and started dialysis in December 2018, going three times a week for four-hour sessions.

If Runner didn’t find a match on her own, doctors told her, she was going to have to be on dialysis for about 12 years.

As Valerie Ojeda’s, Michael’s oldest sister, recounted on the video, Michael’s goal in life was to be great in everything he did. One clue to that passion was his upbringing: he wanted to taste success.

“Michael had a really rough childhood,” Valerie Ojeda said, explaining how Michael was abandoned at age 4 by his mother and temporarily placed in the custody of his grandmother.

At age 9, Michael was placed in the custody of his mother again.

Outstanding Community Services Award winner CSO Connie Duke with RSA colleagues as well as Vanessa Runner (to Duke’s left) and relatives of Michael Ojeda as well as a man who got Michael Ojeda’s heart.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge

“(But) being that she was a crack and cocaine addict,” Valerie Ojeda said, “she was not the best person to raise him. Michael witnessed and experienced a lot that a lot of children should not have to or no children should have to. He experienced a lot of lonely nights.”

At the RCSD, Ojeda wasn’t shy about his ambition. He wrote to Duke, telling her he hoped to be promoted to lieutenant in his explorers post.

When Ojeda first became an explorer, he told his advisors his goal was to obtain the best physical fitness award.

He met that goal.

While an explorer, Ojeda went to college and worked two jobs.

Valerie Ojeda is shown in this screen grab from video. Courtesy of RSA

And then, tragically, he died.

Duke broke the news of Ojeda’s death to his sister, of Las Vegas.

He actually was brain dead but on life support, and Duke was with him until family members arrived.

“I felt good knowing that Connie was with him,” Valerie Ojeda said.

Doctors found Michael’s ID and saw he was an organ donor.

Ojeda’s family had no idea.

Duke called Runner.

“I had never heard of her before,” Runner recalled, “but she said she worked for the department and she told me what had happened.”

Ojeda’s family wanted Runner to have one of Michael’s kidneys. The other kidney went to an uncle.

Connie Duke is shown in this screen grab from video. Courtesy of RSA

“I don’t know how Connie and Michael’s family could have thought of someone else during this time,” Runner said. “I can’t imagine having such a big loss and still thinking of someone else.”

That same night, Runner found out that Ojeda and her were a blood-type match. The next day, she found out they were a tissue match.

“I didn’t get a lot of sleep that night and I was on pins and needles the whole time,” Runner said.

Runner said that in death, Michael achieved what he wanted in life.

“He was able to serve to others,” Runner said. “I just hate that he can’t be here now. There are so many mixed emotions. It was really hard at the time because I thought, ‘I don’t want anyone to think I’m trying to benefit from something so terrible.’ It felt like this was selfish. I want Michael back.”

One of Michael’s sisters and a cousin were at the Feb. 21 awards ceremony.

Michael Ojeda xxxx (who is he with and what award is he receiving?). Photo courtesy of RSA

Also in attendance was Alvin Gittisriboongul, chief counsel for the State of California’s Personnel Bureau, with his wife.

Gittisriboongul received Michael’s heart.

Said Valerie Ojeda: “(This experience) definitely changed my mind …. I will become an organ donor — just like my brother.”

Said Duke: “I haven’t said goodbye yet.”

Runner said “thank you” doesn’t come close to how she feels.

“It’s such a small, small phrase and it doesn’t even begin to be enough,” Runner said. “Nothing would ever be enough. I could never express how deep my gratitude is. I wish so much that I had known him. Obviously, he was amazing.”

Michael Ojeda is shown in a photo provided by the RSA