The police chief had a message for the soon-to-be cops.
Tragedy doesn’t always come out of the barrel of a gun, he told them.
Nor does it always happen in the dead of night.
“Tragedy,” Garden Grove Police Chief Todd Elgin told the 28 graduates in Class 214 at the Orange County Sheriff’s Training Academy last month, “can come when you least expect it.”
Among the 28 graduates listening on March 23, the day before they received their graduation certificates, was a fresh-faced John Yergler.
Elgin’s words rang especially true to Yergler, 21, one of the Garden Grove PD’s two hires (along with Manny DeAnda) in Class 214.
Yergler’s father, retired Garden Grove Police Officer John Yergler, was best friends with Michael Lloyd Rainford, who was a rookie patrol officer for the Garden Grove PD when he was killed by a drunk driver during an evening traffic stop on a 22 Freeway onramp on Nov. 7, 1980.
Now, nearly 35 years later, the younger John Yergler and his classmates were honoring Rainford at a memorial run, traditionally held by a graduating class to honor an officer recently killed in the line of duty.
Class 214 decided to reach back in history and dedicate the run to Rainford.
When the drunk driver fatally struck him, Rainford was only 23 and was married to Lori Rainford, who was six-months pregnant with their second child.
Lori attended the March 23 memorial run but had no idea it was being dedicated to her late husband until a pre-run announcement.
Emotions ran deep for her, not only because Rainford was being honored, but because the younger Yergler was about to graduate from the academy.
Yergler is her son.
When Michael Rainford was killed, it was the elder John Yergler who played a key role in helping Lori, only 19 at the time, navigate through the grief. She and Rainford had been married for three years.
The day after Rainford was killed, the older John Yergler — just one month out of the U.S. Marine Corps, and settling back in Southern California after being stationed in Japan — was scheduled to take a physical agility test to become a cop.
He, like Rainford, had dreamed of becoming a police officer.
But devastated by the loss of his close friend, John asked himself if he was sure becoming a cop still was what he wanted to do — and if he was up to taking the test after being shaken by such a horrible tragedy.
“I knew I had to do it,” he recalled on March 23. “It wasn’t an option for me.”
Years after Rainford’s death, Yergler married Lori Rainford, and together they raised four children — two of them their own, including John Yergler, who on March 24 graduated from the police academy and, the following day, joined the Garden Grove PD as an officer in training.
The elder John Yergler retired from the Garden Grove PD in July 2010 as a master officer II. He was a motor officer and was a sniper on the SWAT team for 11 years. Now 57, he works as a marshall at the Navy Golf Course in Los Alamitos.
His son, John, was a standout student at Western High School in Anaheim who once considered a career as a radiation oncologist until the tug of a career in law enforcement became too strong.
“I’m proud to be following my father and (Rainford) into law enforcement and am humbled and honored to join the Garden Grove Police Department,” said Yergler, whose girlfriend, Brooke Warken, also was present at the March 23 run and ceremony.
Brooke, 18, is the daughter of Huntington Beach PD Sgt. Eric Warken and she wants to follow in her father’s footsteps and become a police officer, too.
She just was hired as a cadet for the Huntington Beach PD.
“Most memorials have to do with a tragedy,” Elgin told the academy graduates, their relatives, and police officers prior to the 3 1/2-mile memorial run.
Turning to the Yergler family, the chief said: “You guys have meant quite a lot to the Garden Grove PD for years, and what you’ve accomplished as a family through tragedy has become a triumph.”
Just before the run, a brief memorial presentation to Rainford’s family was held. After the run, the Orange County Sheriff’s Academy class did 25 pushups in honor of Rainford.
Participants and their families then enjoyed a mid-morning barbecue.
One of the Yergler/Rainford clan in attendance was Michael Rainford Jr., who was born 23 days after his father was killed.
He, too, dreamed of becoming a cop, but a shoulder injury while serving for six years in the U.S. Air Force dashed that dream.
For now, at least.
Michael Rainford Jr., now 34, said he was proud to see his half-brother, John Yergler Jr., become a police officer.
But the day also was bittersweet for him as it honored the father he never met and reminded him of the career he also wanted to pursue but has been unable to due to injury.
He still is keeping that dream alive, however.
“This is a profession that takes commitment, leadership, integrity and humility,” Chief Elgin told the crowd.
“The most important is commitment. Always make sure you…stay committed to training, continued education and officer safety.
“And stay physically and mentally fit,” Elgin added. “You will need it.”