He’s delivered babies, changed lives, arrested criminals, worked with students, taught law enforcement officers, worked as a narcotics detective, helped the homeless, and so much more.
But now it’s time for a new adventure for Tustin Master Police Officer Val Villarreal, Jr., who is retiring, ending a 30-year law enforcement career.
Among the highlights of his decades in uniform, Villarreal assisted with the rescue of two little girls from a car in 2016. The vehicle’s driver was a fleeing homicide suspect from the City of Anaheim. During the pursuit, the driver had run a red light and collided with another vehicle, causing the vehicle to overturn several times. The homicide suspect continued to drive, even though his vehicle was severely damaged, and rammed into multiple police cars throughout the chase.
“When I went up to the car very close… I noticed there were two little girls sitting in the backseat,” Villarreal said. “And that kind of changed the dynamics very quickly.” Villarreal and his partner, Anthony Ramirez, arrested two suspects and rescued the girls. They later received Tustin Police Department’s Distinguished Service Medal for their efforts.
“The best part (of being a police officer) is knowing that no matter how big or how small… you’re having an impact on somebody’s life positively,” he said.
The former Marine worked in Los Angeles County for 10 years prior to joining Tustin. One of his most memorable cases happened about 25 years ago while he was at the Cal State University, Dominguez Hills police department.
He had stopped at Winchell’s Donut House for coffee and donuts when a car came screeching into the parking lot. A woman jumped out and yelled, “My daughter’s having a baby!” “We get to the car and in the back seat was a young female, and all of a sudden she starts delivering,” Villarreal recalled. “By sheer luck, there was an ambulance driving by and (my partner) flags it down.” The baby was delivered right into Villarreal’s arms. He cut the umbilical cord and helped paramedics stabilize the mother so they could get her to the hospital. “That was probably one of the coolest things I’ve done in my 30 years,” he said.
On another case, about 15 years ago, he and now-Deputy Chief Jeff Blair approached a room at the Key Lodge Motel after finding a stolen car in the parking lot. When they knocked on the door, they heard gunshots. “We initially thought we were being shot at,” Villarreal said. The duo called in the SWAT team and entered the room to find that the man had committed suicide.
“That was very traumatic not only for, at that time, Sgt. Blair and I, but for the entire city to have that type of a critical incident,” he said.
Later they discovered the man had financial problems and was running from the IRS in addition to having stolen a car. Over the years, Villarreal says, Tustin has evolved along with the rest of the nation.
“We’re not that much of a bedroom community, especially nowadays,” Villarreal said.
In addition, the city’s demographics are changing. The rising homeless population also plays a role. Villarreal, a homeless liaison/community impact officer, credits Tustin’s Homeless Coalition Task Force with helping many get off the streets and connecting them with available resources.
“We usually house, on average, at least one to two people every time we go out,” Villarreal said. “We’re very proactive about it with this task force.”
Being a police officer has been Villarreal’s dream since his sophomore year of high school, when he joined the Hawthorne Police Department’s Explorer program and attended an 18-week academy through the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
“It was at that time I go, ‘Yup, this is what I want to do,’” he said. “And I’ve been in this career field since I was 15 years old.”
“Sometimes I joke and say that we’re all a bunch of overgrown kids that just haven’t grown up yet because we like to turn on the red lights and siren, roll down the street, have the wind in your hair, and when you get there you’re doing something epic,” he said. “A lot of times you get there and sometimes being epic is just talking to somebody and making a difference in their lives.”
After graduating high school in 3.5 years (a semester early), he joined the Marine Corps, where he learned surveying and then became a military police officer. Later in his career, his Marine Corps Reserve unit was activated during the first Gulf War, and then twice more after the September 11 attacks. He worked with the Iraqi security forces and Iraqi police service, and helped recruit, train, and equip them with vital police equipment, weapons, and police vehicles. He ended his 30-year Marine Corps career in 2007.
As Villarreal puts it, he’s been chasing a tennis ball for the past 30 years, and now it’s time to find a different ball to chase.
“I still have that play drive,” he said. “I still want to be out there. I just love this job. I still think it’s exciting. This job is a lifestyle and you live it, you breathe it, it’s in your veins.”
“To now completely take that light switch and turn it off, it’s going to be difficult.”