Ten years ago Merced police Officer Stephan Gray left for work and never came home.
“It feels like it can’t be 10 years (ago),” Gray’s widow, Michelle, said Wednesday. “It seems like he just walked out the back door yesterday.”
Gray, 34, was shot and killed chasing a gang member on April 15, 2004. The killer was captured after a nearly three-week manhunt and is now on death row.
Gray was one of the officers remembered Wednesday at the annual Merced County Peace Officer Memorial. The police veteran left behind three young children, ages 2, 6, and 13, when he died.
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“The kids were so little then,” Michelle Gray said. “This (ceremony) helps give them a sense of belonging, I think.”
Sheriff Tom Cavallero presided over the ceremony before a crowd of about 200 people, including about a dozen relatives of those who have died in the line of duty.
“Their sacrifice and yours will never be forgotten,” Cavallero said to the families.
Speaking during Wednesday’s ceremony, the sheriff told the story of Game Warden George Rodolph, the first peace officer killed in the line of duty in Merced County on Nov. 1, 1914, nearly 100 years ago. Rodolph was shot twice in the back by a bird poacher and died on a muddy road two miles outside of Los Banos, Cavallero said.
Since then, Merced County has lost 15 more police officers, deputies, wardens and correctional officers.
“It’s poignant for every man and woman in uniform,” Cavallero said. “For a small change in circumstance, it could be you, could be any one of us and that’s what we remember today.”
Christine McFadden, a Merced resident and veterinarian, was the event’s keynote speaker. McFadden suffered a tragedy in 2002 when her ex-husband, a retired deputy sheriff from Santa Clara County, killed their four children before turning the gun on himself.
“I rarely talk about that day,” McFadden said.
Though her children died at the hands of a former peace officer, McFadden told the crowd she’s never blamed the law enforcement profession for teaching her ex-husband to handle a firearm. Instead, McFadden said, she remembers and focuses on the peace officers who rushed to her aid and who tried desperately to save her children.
“I’m grateful to you for your incredible heroism at that time,” she said. “I’m grateful to you for telling the truth when needed and for sparing details when possible.”
McFadden thanked Merced County peace officers for their service.
“I’m grateful to you for standing by me when I was scared, alone and demolished,” McFadden said. “I’m grateful to you for continuing to watch over me, my family, my friends, my town.”
In closing, McFadden thanked the families of fallen Merced County peace officers.
“Please know the sacrifices they’ve made did not go unnoticed,” she said. “They will never be forgotten.”