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JARDINE: The Long Blue Line for Modesto Sgt. May

HUGHSON — They laid Modesto police Sgt. Steve May to rest Wednesday near a majestic deodarus cedar tree at Lakewood Memorial Park.

It's a peaceful, shady spot not far the large granite monument bearing the names of other law enforcement officers who died while on duty for agencies in Stanislaus County. His name soon will join theirs.

May died a week ago from injuries he suffered July 29, 2002, when 18-year-old Joshua Scott Corralejo plowed a stolen pickup into May's patrol car in the airport neighborhood. Corralejo died in the crash.

May held on for seven years, on a ventilator for the final 18 months, until his body no longer could fight off fevers and pneumonia.

He received a fallen hero's sendoff Wednesday, with emotional tributes by acting Modesto Police Chief Mike Harden and former chief Roy Wasden, and by longtime law enforcement psychologist Philip Trompetter. As did Ceres Police Sgt. Howie Stevenson in 2005 and California Highway Patrol officer Earl Scott in 2006 — both were shot to death while on duty — May got the full police funeral complete with motorcycle escorts, mounted patrols and helicopter flyovers.

It was, indeed, a beautiful service with many poignant moments.

Yet, beyond the sadness of the day, many folks at the MPD might quietly feel fortunate — fortunate to have known and worked with May, and fortunate that they've had to bury only two of their own who died in the line of duty since the department was formed in 1884.

The first, 24-year-old officer Leo Volk, died when his patrol car crashed during a chase in 1973.

Fortunate, because there have been numerous other incidents in between that easily could have ended with more tears, more funerals and more "long blue lines."

"There's an angel on our shoulders," Harden said, echoing a sentiment I've heard from others in the department. "We've been lucky, but luck is a part of preparation and we train well."

Between 1979 and 1989, criminals fired a total of 16 shots at officer Steve Hoek in various incidents. Only one bullet found its mark. In 1989, a Turlock man shot his estranged wife, then turned his gun on Hoek, who had responded to call along Yosemite Boulevard in Modesto. From close range, a round hit Hoek in the left arm. The suspect then committed suicide.

In April 1995, a carjacker named Jose Lucho Gomez sprayed officer Nick Chilles' patrol car with bullets, fragments of which struck Chilles in the arm, neck, shoulder and chest. Chilles survived. When Gomez was sentenced to three consecutive life terms in prison for that and other violent crimes, prosecutor Jerry Begen told the court, "Nick Chilles was just lucky. It wasn't his time."

In June that same year, officer Fred Ibarra was shot in the chest by a convicted burglar while responding to a prowler call. Ibarra recovered.

In March 1999, officer Steve Silva attempted to make a routine traffic stop in north Modesto. He was shot in the abdomen by Michael "Mick" Larwick, a career criminal later convicted of the shooting and sentenced to 120 years to life in prison. Silva, seriously wounded at the time, survived and later returned to active duty.

And in January 2000, Detective Kevin Bertalotto was shot six times and officer Chuck Cahoone once as they responded to a jewelry store robbery in progress in McHenry Village. Both survived, but it was touch-and-go in the early hours.

Bertalotto required eight hours of surgery to repair the most serious of the wounds, and several follow-up operations.

Cahoone nearly died because a bullet pierced his femoral artery.

"He lost three of his body's five pints of blood (through internal bleeding)," a Modesto police spokesman said at the time. "He's lucky to be alive."

So the Modesto police easily could have had six more of line-of-duty funerals, though that's no consolation to the Volk and May families.

Even one is too many.

Ultimately, May's funeral was a moving tribute to a much-loved man. It also served as a reminder that only a split second or a fraction of an inch can mean the difference between going to work the next day or resting eternally in the shade of a majestic tree, and another name etched into a nearby granite wall.

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com or 578-2383.

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