February 24, 2014

Fresno CHP officers' service, sacrifice recalled in tribute

Hector Arredondo met Juan Jaime Gonzalez 15 years ago when the two attended Fresno State, and it did not take long for them to become friends.

Hector Arredondo met Juan Jaime Gonzalez 15 years ago when the two attended Fresno State, and it did not take long for them to become friends.

And Arredondo quickly learned what motivated Gonzalez the most.

Gonzalez was determined to become a CHP officer, Arredondo said, and was “relentless in his pursuit.” That drive led to a career.

“He accomplished his dream,” Arredondo said, adding that others would emulate Gonzalez’s perseverance: “Juan’s story of success is that of many of us in the Valley.”

Gonzalez’s story is also one of sacrifice: On Feb. 17, he and partner Brian Mitchio Law responded to a predawn accident on Highway 99 in Kingsburg. Gonzalez, driving the patrol car, swerved to miss vehicles at the crash scene, and the car went out of control, flipping over and hitting a roadside barrier. Both officers died at the scene.

Their lives and service – to their families, friends and the community – were commemorated by thousands who attended a memorial service Monday at the Save Mart Center at Fresno State. Following the morning service, separate burial services were conducted. Law, 34, was buried in Clovis, where he made his home, and the 33-year-old Gonzalez was buried in his hometown of Tulare.

That the men had left a lasting impression was undeniable: Thousands of uniformed officers came from throughout California and even from Michigan, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Alaska to pay their final respects. All told, representatives from at least 21 law enforcement agencies – including 11 from out of state – were in attendance.

A crew of CHP officers from Oakland attended; they had worked with Law when he was stationed there. Officer Daniel Hill called Law “a stand-up guy” and “very genuine.”

“It’s always hard when one of our guys goes down,” Hill said. “We treat each other like a family, we’re all brothers and sisters. Life is valuable to us, no matter how we know somebody; it’s a shock when we lose somebody.”

John Crail, who served with Law in the Marine Corps, said Law was the type of person who would do anything for people he cared about, even if the circumstances were nearly impossible.

“He didn’t have a selfish bone in his body,” Crail said.

Among those offering sympathies was Jim Harbaugh, coach of the San Francisco 49ers, Law’s favorite pro football team.

CHP Commissioner Joe Farrow read a letter Harbaugh sent to the CHP. In it, Harbaugh said “true heroes are those who every day put on a uniform and a badge” to protect others.

Farrow also shared stories of the outpouring of community support that touched his heart: a veteran who showed up in front of the Fresno CHP office, which has had a flag at half-staff, and then saluted. Two Cub Scouts also arrived at the office to salute the flag.

“I’ve never seen such an outpouring of compassion before,” Farrow said, adding it had been one of the “most humbling experiences of my life.”

Attendees to the memorial began entering Save Mart Center at 9 a.m., an hour before the ceremony began. Parking lots around the arena were filled with CHP patrol cars, as well as vehicles from the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office, Cal Fire, Fresno Police and other agencies.

It was nearly spring-like on the winter morning, but Save Mart Center was darkened at 10 a.m. when the memorial began. Bright lights shone on the stage where two caskets were draped in American flags.

Men playing bagpipes led the procession of family members to their seats, then came a posting of the colors by a CHP honor guard. All inside the big arena stood, with many of the uniformed personnel saluting.

Among those in attendance were Gov. Jerry Brown and state Attorney General Kamala Harris.

By 11:30 a.m., the service concluded and the bagpipes led a procession out of the arena.

Outside, all officers in uniform who were not part of the funeral procession formed a channel along Matoian Way immediately following the ceremony.

Colorado State Patrol officers lined up among members of the Kingsburg Fire Department and the Burbank Police Department. Idahoans joined the ranks near police officers from Tulare.

Some traveled across the country to stop in Fresno for just a few hours to honor Gonzalez and Law. Among them: Carl Hoffman, a state trooper in Minnesota, who said law officers are known for paying tribute to their deceased comrades, even if they’re hours -- and several hundred miles -- away.

“The troopers are pretty tight across the United States,” Hoffman said.

A state trooper from Alaska said he decided to make the trip after seeing the national support his department received when one of its helicopter pilots died last year.

“Even though we’re so far away, we still show our respect,” said Ryan Mau.

More than a 1,000 uniformed members of law enforcement lined the path leading from the Save Mart Center, standing at salute as the burial procession passed by.

Hordes of people stood along Villa Avenue near the Clovis Cemetery, where Law was laid to rest. Two ladder trucks from the Clovis and Fresno County fire departments draped a large American flag over Villa -- a scene repeated several times Monday.

A couple hundred people, including many CHP officers, gathered for Law’s graveside service. After an honorary gun volley and salute, five helicopters, including CHP, flew overhead.

Jim Critchfield, 76, of Clovis watched the service from afar. His daughter Nancy Guthrie, also a CHP officer from Fresno, was buried in the same cemetery four weeks ago after she died of heart failure in her sleep.

Critchfield said he was told that officers Gonzalez and Law attended his daughter’s graveside service.

“We need to drive carefully” so other CHP officers aren’t killed in the line of duty, Critchfield said.

Following Law’s burial, a hearse bearing Gonzalez’s body made the trip to Tulare for his interment. Leading the way were 20 motorcycle officers.

People lined most of the overpasses on the route to Tulare, and some stepped up along the highway. In a particularly poignant moment, two each from Caltrans, Kingsburg Fire Department and Kingsburg Police Department stood at attention alongside a wreath at the Sierra Street exit on Highway 99, where a week earlier the officers had crashed.

At North Tulare Cemetery, about 200 CHP officers plus officers from other law enforcement agencies stood at attention and saluted as pallbearers carried the casket from the hearse to graveside.

The mournful sound of bagpipes again filled the air. Once more, a rifle squad fired a 21-gun volley. A bugler played Taps. And one more time, the five helicopters flew over in formation with one of them peeling off.

The day ended with Farrow, the CHP commissioner, formally presenting the casket flag to Gonzalez’s family. The CHP honor guard retreated as the bagpipers played.

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