The story of the Tustin Police Department’s only officer killed in the line of duty was venturing down the path of becoming a forgotten memory.
As decades passed, the narrative of Waldron G. Karp’s ultimate sacrifice in 1972 became more truncated and the details more nebulous.
Many at the Tustin Police Department wanted to ensure Karp’s name and his story would not be forgotten so police employees more than a decade ago had a memorial built in his honor, and three years ago founded an annual ceremony to remember the 31-year-old officer.
It is important, said Police Chief Charles Celano, to know the details of Karp’s sacrifice.
“Over time, our memories fade and if you don’t keep telling the story about what happened, eventually there is no one left who remembers,” he said. “My mission is to keep telling the story over and over again so that memory continues.”
Celano remembers a small painting of Karp with an inscription hanging in the department briefing room that served as the only tribute to the officer.
He also remembers hearing colleagues struggle to recall details about Karp and how he was killed.
“Nobody really knew the story,” Celano said.
A group of Tustin PD employees in the late 90s worked for more than a year to raise $100,000 to build the fallen officers memorial that stands outside the department.
Part of that fundraising effort also went to cover ongoing maintenance of the memorial and an annual scholarship given to a local high school student in Karp’s name.
The statue of a kneeling officer mourning the loss of his partner not only honors Karp, it also serves as a reminder of the realities officers face on the job.
The bronze statue, which was unveiled in 2000, has patches and medals from various generations of Tustin PD uniforms to honor those who have served the community.
The kneeling figure is holding an American flag and also is wearing a wedding ring to symbolize the families behind the officers, who are also affected when tragedy strikes.
A plaque recognizing Karp is prominently displayed on the front of the monument.
“I just thought it was important not to forget our past,” said Sgt. Del Pickney, who was among the group to lead the charge and raise funds for the memorial. “We needed something so that future generations would remember his sacrifice.”
Every year on the anniversary of Karp’s death, a small group of police employees would gather near the memorial to pay their respects, but Celano said he always envisioned a more elaborate tribute.
So when he was named chief, Celano founded the Wally Karp Memorial Ceremony, which invites police employees, city staff and the community to remember the local hero.
The event on Thursday, May 12, started with a solemn procession of Tustin’s sworn officers followed by Celano chronicling Karp’s life and the details of the call that would be his last.
Karp, a Navy veteran from a small upstate New York town, joined the department in 1970 and was known by his colleagues as a street-savvy cop who was always willing to help those in need.
He was one of two officers patrolling the city of 20,000 residents when a woman called at 2:15 a.m. to report a man with a rifle banging on her door.
The dispatcher then heard gunshots in the background.
Although outside the city’s borders, both Tustin officers responded to aid deputies from the Orange County Sheriff’s Department because of the seriousness of the call.
As they searched for the suspect, Karp warned his colleagues the call might be an ambush, which gave the other officer and deputies enough time to seek cover.
Karp got a visual of the suspect and called out his movements to the others. He then saw the suspect crawl under a parked car and aim his rifle in the direction of the officers.
Karp dropped to his stomach, using the street curb as his only cover, and the suspect opened fire.
One of the armor-piercing shells from the suspect’s hunting rifle hit Karp in the arm and tore through to his torso.
OCSD Deputy Tim Stewart also was shot in the face.
Although severely injured, Karp fired back and managed to shoot the suspect, which stopped the gunman from continuing his attack.
By that time, backup arrived and the suspect was arrested.
Stewart rendered medical aid until Karp was taken to the hospital where he underwent surgery.
Officers and their families held a vigil outside the hospital for weeks and doctors first said it appeared he would survive.
But a month later, his condition worsened.
Karp died Jan. 7, 1973.
Following Celano’s detailed recount of Karp’s death, police honored the officer with a 21-gun salute and the laying of a wreath of flowers on the memorial.
The audience was then invited to lay a white rose on the memorial.
Karp’s daughter, Sher, and grandson, Jacob, who have attend the ceremony every year, led the procession followed by members of the police department and community.
“(Wally Karp) was an officer doing his job. He was a hero. He was a hometown hero,” said Tustin Mayor John Nielsen. This memorial “is a reminder to us about what our police department does every day, which is put their lives on the line for us.
“I think being an officer is a calling. May we never forget Wally Karp and what he meant to our community.”
Karp also will be honored on Thursday at the Orange County Law Enforcement Memorial ceremony, when his name is read aloud, along with the names of the more than 50 other officers killed in the line of duty in Orange County.
His name is also among the 20,000 etched on the National Peace Officer Memorial in Washington D.C.
Saying his name aloud and telling his story is what keeps is memory alive.
“As an agency, we will continue to gather each year to honor Officer Karp, and we will tell the story of how he lived and how he died so that no one will ever forget,” Celano said. “And we pray that we will never have to add the story of another officer to the memorial.”