The sound of a bagpiper playing a stirring rendition of "Amazing Grace" set a somber tone at 22nd and M streets Wednesday morning, as members of law enforcement gathered to honor fallen officers at the 2013 Merced County Peace Officer Memorial ceremony.
The event, held annually in May, recognizes local law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty. A total of 16 names are listed on the 8-foot-tall stone memorial wall outside the Merced County administration building.
The most recent names on the wall include USP Atwater Correctional Officer Jose Rivera and Merced Police Officer Stephan Gray. Rivera was killed by two inmates at the federal prison on June 20, 2008. Gray was murdered by a gang member on April 15, 2004.
Gray's widow, Michelle Gray, said she remains thankful for the continuous level of support her family has received, even nine years after her husband’s death. Gray was accompanied by two of her three children, Isaiah and Cameron.
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"When I am out at the grocery store, or we're out somewhere, people will recognize us and they still continue to this day to thank us, not only for Stephan's sacrifice, but what our family's had to go through," Gray said. “And that means so much to us."
Nannette Ontis, sister of Walter C. Frago, said she's also thankful her brother hasn’t been forgotten. Frago, an officer with the California Highway Patrol, was shot to death on April 6, 1970. "(The ceremony) is a wonderful honor for these good men that lived by their oath and died for a purpose," Ontis said.
Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, the guest speaker for the event, gave encouraging words to the families gathered during the ceremony, saying their loved ones made the ultimate sacrifice to keep citizens safe.
"The men and women who wear the uniform and protect our great nation have a little extra gear when it comes to the word 'courage,'" Baca said. "But that courage could not have emerged, had they not been a part of a family...Thank you so much for raising your child to take on a life dedicated to the safety of others.'"
Merced County Mark Pazin said the ceremony is a tragic reminder of the dangers law enforcement officers face every day in the field. "There are people that not only want to do the civilian population harm, but law enforcement. So we need to collectively get together, even if it's once a year, to remember those that have gone before us — and commit we’ll never forget and never forsake them," Pazin said.
Highlights of the program included a rendition of “Go Rest High on that Mountain" by Merced County Sheriff's Deputy Aaron Avila. Michelle Allison also sang "Wind Beneath My Wings" and "Still." The song "Taps" was performed on horn by Bill Dacus, while retired Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Deputy Randy Francis played “Amazing Grace” on bagpipes. City Editor Victor A. Patton can be reached at (209) 385-2431 or email@example.com.