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Retired Chowchilla police chief Curutchet dies

Jim Curutchet's easygoing manner and compassionate heart served him and the community of Chowchilla well during his 33 years on the police force, including seven as the chief, family and friends said.

Mr. Curutchet, who died Monday at the age of 82 from complications of heart problems, was a man of few words. Nonetheless, he had a way of steering wayward teenagers back on the right track.

"We'd have troubled kids who came by the house and he would counsel them," said his wife, Linda Curutchet.

Mr. Curutchet's health problems worsened when he had a stroke in mid-May. News of his condition brought visitors and well wishes to the Curutchet household, his wife said.

One note sent to the home with flowers was from a man who said he was "that kid on a motorcycle" Mr. Curutchet chased around town years ago, but never caught.

"I'm sorry to have caused so much grief," the note read. "I just thought I'd give you a laugh ... I've learned one must always be truthful with the police."

The note did make Mr. Curutchet laugh, his wife said.

Mr. Curutchet, the youngest of five children born to French Basque immigrant parents, was drafted into the Army in 1945 -- two months before he was set to graduate from Chowchilla High School.

He served for a year and a half before returning to the Chowchilla area to work on the family farm in the Dairyland area. He drove a school bus for Dairyland Elementary School in the early 1950s before becoming a Chowchilla police officer in 1954.

Dairyland is the school whose bus with 26 children and driver Frank Edward Ray was ambushed at gunpoint in July 1976. Three men drove the captives in the bus to a Livermore quarry and forced them into a buried van.

The men had planned to demand a $5 million ransom, but Ray and the older children dug themselves free after 16 hours underground.

The kidnappers received life sentences, which Mr. Curutchet adamantly believed they deserved, his wife said.

The Chowchilla government center become a command headquarters in the search and Mr. Curutchet, a police sergeant at the time, worked long hours while assisting in the investigation, his wife said.

Relatives and friends said Mr. Curutchet always had a smile, but he could be stern when quelling disturbances or rowdy activity in town.

"He'd say, 'You know that's not what we believe around here, so knock it off,' " said his daughter, Heidi Seale.

The offenders most often complied, she said.

Mr. Curutchet retired as chief in 1987.

City officials expect a large gathering for Mr. Curutchet's funeral, which will be at 10 a.m. Monday at the Chowchilla District Cemetery. The procession from Palm Memorial Worden Chapel will begin at 9:30 a.m. and could cause traffic delays, they said.

Chuck Bump, who worked as an officer and sergeant in the Chowchilla Police Department, said Mr. Curutchet was the best chief he worked for because he was supportive of his officers.

"He loved this community," Bump said. "He loved life and loved to laugh."

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