CERES — Five years ago, Ceres police Sgt. Howard Stevenson was nearing the end of his shift when he stopped home to kiss his wife and grab a snack. He would be back in an hour, he said, to help pluck the ducks he had bagged with his father before returning from vacation earlier that day.
Kathy Stevenson waved goodbye to the man wearing badge No. 143 — shorthand for "I love you" in today's texting — then poured a glass of red wine for him to enjoy upon his return.
Twenty minutes later, he was dead.
A brazen ambush by an AWOL Marine with alleged gang ties and superior firepower provoked shock and horror in Ceres, throughout California and beyond.
High-powered bullets also felled Stevenson's friend and fellow officer, Sam Ryno, with career-ending injuries.
The tragic violence fueled headlines and television coverage for months. People speculated that the 19-year-old combat-weary Iraq war veteran, high on cocaine, had snapped and committed suicide-by-cop in a crazy gunbattle caught on a liquor store's surveillance camera.
Further investigation has suggested the shooter, Andres Raya, was hoping for upward gang mobility.
Fallout from the shootout includes equipment upgrades for officers, strategy changes, a citywide tax increase for public safety, a park named for Ryno, now 54, and a rural riverfront grove named for Stevenson.
The shootout also steeled another young man's determination to someday pick up where his father left off. Bryce Stevenson is scheduled to begin police academy training next week.
Five years ago, public safety units came from all over to pay respect at the city's first and only memorial service for a policeman killed in the line of duty. Colleagues said Howard Stevenson, 39, was quiet, an avid outdoorsman of solid moral character. He had spent half his life on the force.
Stevenson's stunned survivors kept mostly silent.
"I couldn't think, let alone talk," Kathy Stevenson, now 45, told The Bee in the family's first substantial interview coinciding with the shooting's five-year anniversary. She was joined by her children, Bryce, 23, and Mikaela, 18.
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The family asked that their faces not be shown because the threat of gang violence remains a reality, even five years later. Graffiti occasionally memorializes the killer of Howard Stevenson, police say. Taggers have defiled the officer's headstone and the grove established in his memory.
"We clean it up real quick and don't let it bother us," Kathy Stevenson said.
"He was just a part of what law enforcement is," Bryce Stevenson said. "It was not anything personal."
Son heard of shots, 'had a feeling'
Bryce Stevenson was 18 and expected to begin Modesto Junior College the next day when his father stopped for his snack. The young man had graduated from Ceres High School a few months before, which was a year behind the killer, whom he never met.
That night five years ago, Bryce Stevenson went to a friend's house and a police scanner chirped about officers and shots in a liquor store parking lot, only a couple of blocks from the friend's house.
Bryce heard a helicopter and returned home before his father's long-faced buddies drove up.
"I already knew," he said. "I had a feeling."
Many officers never discharge their weapons outside the firing range. But Howard Stevenson knew what it felt like to draw and fire.
Seven years before, Stevenson and a rookie he trained confronted a burglary suspect who tripped while trying to flee. Stevenson ordered him to show his hands. When the man turned with a pistol, the officers opened fire.
Stevenson showed his son a newspaper article, which omitted the officers' names, and explained what had happened. Reporters never made the connection, even after Stevenson was gunned down by Raya's SKS assault rifle. But the family had sometimes reflected on the danger inherent in police work.
"I never assumed he would ever be killed," his widow said, "because he won the first time. The next time, he was just outgunned."
Family stays close to department
The Stevensons haven't considered moving from their home, which sits near the liquor store where Howard was killed. Escape never was their gameplan.
"The incident itself brought trauma, not the location," said Bryce Stevenson. "It isn't hard to drive by there. Driving by might remind us from time to time, but realistically, he's always on our minds anyway."
Nor have the Stevensons ever distanced themselves. In fact, they're just as close to officers and hang around the station more than Ryno, Police Chief Art de Werk said. He takes Mikaela on ride-alongs while Bryce continues camping and other outdoor adventures with officers and their families.
"This is home," Bryce Stevenson said. "This is the best place to heal. These are the people we know and love."
The Stevensons mark each anniversary by throwing a barbecue for all Ceres employees. Eating and chatting helps, the family says. Bryce Stevenson said his father would be bothered at extended grieving.
"It's such a hard day for everyone, you might as well get together," Kathy Stevenson said. "You can't really sit and wallow, you can't change anything, so it's better to hang out with people who get it."
The feast was held Friday, a day early this year to allow maximum attendance by city employees, most of whom don't work weekends.
The shooting "represented a turning point in local law enforcement," de Werk said.
Ceres police acquired an armored vehicle, outfitted every officer with semiautomatic rifles, refined tactical response plans and conducted gang sweeps. De Werk has no doubt that Ceres voters "had (the shooting) on their mind" when they approved Measure H, a public safety tax, in 2007.
Remembering is a personal pursuit as well.
Mikaela used a computer to produce black rubber bracelets with her father's name, police unit and badge number, with its symbolic message of love, in white lettering.
Others put commemorative window stickers on their cars. Most city vehicles, including patrol cars, continue to bear them.
A local service club sold commemorative badges with proceeds helping maintain the memorial grove. A Modesto artist, who has since died, crafted miniature replicas of Howard Stevenson's badge, made into necklaces and money clips for family.
Kathy Stevenson, a respiratory therapist, wears a locket every day dedicated to her husband, as well as her wedding ring. She lost its small diamond not long before her husband's death and has not replaced it.
Sgt. Stevenson's photographs still adorn walls at home and at the police station. The shooting "is part of our collective consciousness," de Werk said. "It was a significant emotional event for us."
Police work a calling
Bryce Stevenson recently finished administration of justice classes at Modesto Junior College and has worked three years as a security guard. His father did not encourage him to pursue public safety, but Bryce Stevenson thinks they both knew it was in their blood.
"If anything, (his death) strengthened my resolve," Bryce Stevenson said. "I think a lot of people expected me to maybe shy away from it after that situation. But knowing him and the courage he had at that time and to see the honor that came from it is not anything that would shy me away."
"The ability to be a police officer is doing your job knowing" you could be killed, he added. "What makes you a cop is being able to do it anyway."
Kathy Stevenson lost her husband to gun violence, yet supports her son's decision to strap on a gun, to serve and protect. Seeing him in uniform could even help the family remember and honor Howard Stevenson, despite five years of public silence.
Immediately after his death was just too soon.
"It's a numbness," Kathy Stevenson said, describing her initial pain. "You're so lucky if you can just get out of bed. It's very hard to focus, hard to talk without sounding like a ridiculous, tearful lady and I didn't want that to be what people remembered Howard by -- his wife that couldn't pull it together.
"What could you say when somebody says, 'How do you feel about what happened?' What could you actually say that wouldn't come out blubbery? So we didn't.
"But now it's been five years and I think it's important for people to see that you can continue to miss a loved one and be productive," she said. "To be kind, to be productive through tragedies, gives other people hope who are living hard times too."
Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2390.
For more stories on the shooting, click here.