The Villages Daily Sun

Brothers' Keepers

Font Size:
Default font size
Larger font size

Posted: Sunday, December 17, 2017 8:00 am

When an officer falls, The Brotherhood rises.

Every law enforcement death is a public trauma that ripples across America. The displays of mourning routinely attract thousands of people for emotional ceremonies that include flags, bagpipers, blocks-long processions and uniforms from hundreds of miles away.

What the public doesn’t see is the massive machinery behind the scenes that makes these pageants of honor possible.

“There’s an ocean of emotion in this whole process,” said Lt. Patrick Riordan, of the Florida Highway Patrol, an agency that buried  a  trooper hit by a car this summer while working a crash scene. “You have to transition from personal grief to a public display of the most professional process.”

Eight law enforcement officers from seven agencies gave their lives in the line of duty in Florida this year (excluding two others who died of medical causes) — the most in six years.

Over the past 12 months, the Daily Sun traveled more than 2,700 miles to attend each one of their memorials and go behind the scenes, chronicling a ritual and solemnity reserved only for those who give their lives protecting ours.

Nearly 100 officers died on duty across the country this year, excluding medical cases. Only Texas, with 14 deaths, had more of these deaths than Florida.

So far this century, about 5 percent of police deaths have occurred in Florida, compared to about 6 percent in Texas,

7 percent in California and 10 percent in New York, according to the Officer Down Memorial Page, which tracks all police deaths.

Still, fewer law enforcement officers die in the United States every year than they did almost half a century ago, despite upticks for such catastrophic events as the 9/11 attacks or last year’s ambush killings of five officers in Dallas. Florida deaths are also down since the 1980s.

Historically, gunfire is the leading cause of death for law enforcement officers. From 1900 to 2017, it accounted for 51 percent of all deaths, although that number dropped in recent years to less than a third.

Increasingly, traffic accidents make up a larger share of the total deaths.

But even as the numbers change, every loss remains a tragedy.

JANUARY 9, 7:17 a.m.

Knocked to the ground by a .40-caliber slug in her right hip, Orlando police Master Sgt. Debra Clayton lay bleeding in a Walmart parking lot as her killer fired three more shots into her thigh, stomach and neck.

Her slaying sent shockwaves through The City Beautiful, which underwent an unprecedented lockdown during the manhunt for her killer.

“We are not just grieving, we are angry,” said Butch Arenal, who, at the time, was president of the Florida Police Chiefs Association. “Angry for the brokenness Master Sgt. Clayton and the deputy’s colleagues, family and friends are experiencing. Angry that our profession is under attack.”

When officers cornered the suspect in an abandoned house nine days later, they hauled him away. Later the handcuffs he wore were switched out for Clayton’s.

It rained intermittently on Jan. 14, the day Clayton, 42, was laid to rest.

The media took refuge underneath a tent, but the mourners stood defiant, without umbrellas, lining the road to First Baptist Orlando.

The rain wasn’t the only thing sprinkled across the hood of Clayton’s patrol vehicle. Law enforcement challenge coins were there, too.

Chief John Mina recalled Clayton’s amazing smile, signature pink fingernails and ability to see the best in people. And he announced her posthumous promotion to lieutenant.

As the sun set over Woodlawn Memorial Park, chirping insects filled the moonless night air.

The lights meant to illuminate the gravesite had been causing problems all evening and barely made a dent in the darkness.

Instead, the night was lit by the red and blue lights of the patrol vehicles that escorted Clayton’s hearse.

It was so dark the police honor guard didn’t give the family the shells from the gun volley, as is often done.  Lt. Alex Caro, commander of the group, didn’t want officers getting on their knees to look for them.

The final radio call to retire Clayton came sharp, loud, almost startling in the soft silence as saluting officers cast long shadows on a mosaic of Jesus.

Her goodbye had lasted nearly six hours.

More than 4,000 people came for that goodbye, many of whom were law enforcement officers from as far away as Connecticut.

 “What most people don’t know is when an officer is killed in the line of duty, it’s a national event,” said Lt. Lovetta Quinn-Henry, deputy commander for the Orlando Police Department Critical Incident Stress Management team.

Whether an officer’s funeral is held in a large city or a small rural town, planners know to be ready for crowds of hundreds to thousands.

All agencies have protocols. Some, such as the Orange County Sheriff’s Office, have exhaustive checklists that have been adapted by other agencies (See Page A13).

Dozens, even hundreds, of officers take responsibility for tasks ranging from standing vigil over the body to directing traffic to making sure there are enough tissues in the pews.

Someone needs to get right over to the family. A chaplain, victim advocate and at least one other escort will join them.

Soon, someone will walk them through the world of death benefits.

An officer is assigned to stand watch at the family’s home while they’re away at public vigils and the memorial service.

Viewing teams, church teams and gravesite teams are activated. So is a team to help with the reception after the memorial service.

Another team arranges helicopters, horses and motorcycles to escort the cortege.

At least one honor guard group is pressed into service.

And in Clayton’s case, honor guard leader Caro was sent to the hospital on a sacred mission: drape her corpse in the American flag.

First, he had to pull back the white blanket covering her dead body.

“You don’t want to remove it, but you have to,” he said. “You want to remember them how they were.”

JANUARY 9, 9:40 a.m.

Clayton wasn’t the only officer lost that winter morning.

Her death sparked a massive manhunt for her killer, and Orange County Sheriff’s Deputy First Class “Big Norm” Lewis, 35, joined the chase.

His motorcycle collided with a van and he suffered fatal head injuries.

A second “officer down” now stunned the city that was just waking up to the news of Clayton’s death.

On Jan. 15, officers and deputies reassembled for a new memorial service the day after Clayton was laid to rest.

Although it was nearly noon, condensation clung to some of the plastic around flowers at Lewis’ memorial on Pine Hills Road, 5 miles from the church.

The honor guard rehearsed near a motorcycle at the church entrace with Lewis’ number, Motors 24.

It wasn’t his motorcycle; that was destroyed in the crash.

The Orange County Sheriff’s Office Honor Guard parked a car in the same place as Clayton’s vehicle the day before. Displayed on the car were the names of all fallen officers in Orange County, from Sheriff David Mizell in 1870 to Lewis.

At 1:45 p.m., personnel were called to attention, and those holding flags tipped them forward as a long chain of motorcycles crept toward

the church.

Colleagues remembered Lewis’s passion for motorcycles and good nature, how the only time his smile turned to a frown was when someone touched his food.

His burial would take place later in Port Charlotte, a four-hour drive, so the honors were given outside the church.

Officers stood together in a solid block, their shoulders brushing against civilians on the right side of the formation.

Behind them, an enormous flag waved from the extended ladder of a fire truck.

Sheriff Jerry Demings helped Lewis’ mother to her seat. Shots were fired in Lewis’ honor, filling the air with smoke and jolting a car alarm.

A trumpet played “Taps,” then bagpipes wailed “Going Home” as a flag was gently lowered over Lewis’ coffin.

A little girl in the front started crying as a woman stroked her hair, handed her a tissue and knelt to hug her. 

A casual observer could be forgiven for mistaking First Baptist Orlando for a community college campus.

Its multiple buff-colored buildings, sprawling grounds and spacious parking lots just off Interstate 4 make it hard to miss.

For years, it’s been the church of choice for large law enforcement funerals in Central Florida.

It hosted three services in 2017: for Clayton, Lewis and a joint memorial for two Kissimmee police officers.

The worship center seats 4,200 and an overflow can hold 1,000 more.

“There are many churches that may have seats for 1,000 and have the heart to do this, but just the makeup of the facility doesn’t allow it,” said Pastor Jeff Thompson.

Church leaders have gotten to know many in law enforcement, even know their

phone numbers.

Working on these services is like seeing people who are old friends, although you loathe the circumstances that bring you together, said Stewart Matthews, director of facilities.

Outside, the church’s modern media capabilities make it easy for TV crews to plug in to the video feed.

Inside, side rooms in the back hallway host food for VIPs, honor guard and

family members.

“It’s all being taken care of behind the scenes,” said Kathy Emery, Thompson’s administrative assistant.

Lewis’s Sunday afternoon funeral was particularly challenging, since the regular morning services run until 12:40 p.m.

More than 100 people, including volunteers, streamed into the worship center to staff the quick turnover.

Smaller churches that don’t have that experience struggle more, as Heritage United Methodist Church in Clearwater learned when it honored state agriculture Investigator Joshua Albert Sanchez Montaad.

JUNE 6, 11:18 a.m.

After a previous attempt to land an investigator position with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ Office of Agricultural Law Enforcement, Officer Joshua Albert Sanchez Montaad was thrilled to interview.

Montaad, 25, was heading to that appointment on U.S. Highway 19 in Taylor County when he lost control of his 2007 Ford Expedition in heavy rain, which hit a tree and engulfed

in flames.

His mother, Leila Sanchez Montaad, was home alone  when the knock at the door came.

She saw the five uniformed officers there to meet her and collapsed when she realized the reason for their visit.

Officials dissauded his family from viewing his body, which was burned beyond recognition.

Instead, they said goodbye to his ashes at his June 17 service.

It was a humid, oppressively hot afternoon, the kind of day that fogs up glasses.

Officers flooded Heritage United Methodist. Some sat in the choir loft, extended to hold more capacity.

A photomontage played, showing images of Montaad’s life in the church, pictures of his time in Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corp.

During the service, his family learned that their youngest son would be posthumously promoted to the investigator role he’d dreamed of for so long.

The honor guard fired shots outside the church. As “Taps” played, two officers walked to the altar and presented the folded flag to his family.

The final call was sent out over agency radios followed by the “Amazing Grace” on bagpipes.

A lone bagpiper walked into the sanctuary past Montaad’s ashes.

Officers followed and gave a silent salute.

Montaad’s family wanted a simple funeral at their son’s childhood church.

Simple, however, is a relative term when it comes to law enforcement funerals.

Law enforcement planners soon arrived for a tour of the sanctuary, located near a residential area.

“I’m sure their mind was thinking, ‘We usually go to these really large places, and how are we going to make this work?’” said Triss Masters, director of adult ministry and caregiving at Heritage.

During the tour, Masters explained that the church coul

Each officer would need six more inches than a typical mourner.

Heritage not only had less room than it thought, but it was asked to plan for more than double its maximum original capacity.

No one gave up.

Organizers found additional space in surrounding areas  and set up a video stream for the overflow crowd.

Some people elected to stay in the long hall leading to the sanctuary.

The energy was intimate, and Montaad’s colleagues openly wept.

That day,  the overflow space wasn’t needed.

JUNE 17, 6:36 p.m.

Florida Highway Patrol Master Sgt. William Trampas Bishop was outside his vehicle on Interstate 75 in Alachua County, investigating a wreck, when tragedy struck.

A second accident in the center lane sent a vehicle hurling his way, pinning him beneath it.

Troopers from all over the United States would come to pay their respects to Bishop, 52.

“The bond between law enforcement is pretty strong, but when it comes to the bond between state troopers, it goes beyond that,” said Trooper Steven Montiero, a public affairs officer at the time.

At the June 23 funeral in Lake City, recruits from the Highway Patrol Academy helped hundreds of vehicles find their way to parking in

the grass.

It had been raining for the past week, but on that day the sun was blazing and scorch-your-skin hot.

The service, in a church secluded by old trees, began mid-morning and ran until 3 p.m.

At Forest Lawn Memorial Gardens Cemetery, Kerri McCarthy brought her 11-year- old son to watch the 9.6-mile procession to the gravesite.

He wants to be a state trooper.

“We’re just coming out to pay our respect, because it’s a real tragedy how he passed away, just doing his job,” McCarthy said. “So we came out to honor him on his last call.”

At the cemetery, the Lake City Fire Department, assisted by firefighters from Macclenny, were unpacking a 30-by-60-foot flag.

It was originally outside the church. And after a last-minute request, firefighters moved the flag from Christ Central Ministries and set it up ahead of the motorcade.

They fought the wind to secure it to the fire truck ladders, forming a grand arch over a side road above the procession.

“We want the family to drive under the flag,” said Lake City Fire Chief Frank Armijo. “That makes a lasting impression.”

Among those attending  were state agriculture officials who had just said goodbye to Montaad a week earlier.

Helicopters, bagpipes and honor guard members took their positions.

The sun shone through the stars and stripes, bathing mourners in its warmth.

The procession that carries an officer to the gravesite can light up the night or fill a hot afternoon with solemn meaning.

It is a massive undertaking, each with its own logistical challenges.

The route is not always obvious. Traffic units often conduct a dry run to avoid backups and confusion that can lead to mourners getting lost.

On the day of the funeral, a command crew heads to the cemetery earlier to greet the family.

At Bishop’s funeral, that crew was joined by firefighters setting up the flag.

Donated by the Lake City VA Medical Center, the flag is kept at the station for events, such as football games,

9/11 memorials and public safety deaths.

Even for such a huge flag, proper etiquette is still required, Armijo said.

And if the wind isn’t right, the ladders can be damaged.

Meanwhile, local agencies block off the roads to allow the procession to pass. It’s a service the Florida Highway Patrol often provides.

Processions can be brief or very involved.

An estimated 300 vehicles accompanied Bishop and his family on the local procession, while about 40 motorcycles and d seat 700, but the planners were skeptical. One officer sat down and measured how much room he needed for himself and

his gunbelt.other vehicles made up Lewis’ 170-mile escort.

Along Bishop’s route, businesses hung signs thanking him for his service.

Others placed American and law enforcement flags.

Some citizens came out with their hands over their hearts.

“They waited for my brother to come by, standing at attention, and they were just so sweet and so kind,” said Bishop’s sister, Vanessa Barnes. “It was amazing. I never felt so much love from a town and so many people in my life.”

AUGUST 18, 9:32 p.m.

Neither Kissimmee Officer Matthew Baxter, 27, nor Sgt. Sam Howard, 36, had the chance to return fire.

Working an area known for drug activity, they approached three suspects in an ambush attack that erupted in gunfire.

Baxter died at the scene, his handcuffs reserved for the suspect that was soon apprehended.

Howard was taken off life support the next day.

On Aug. 24, First Baptist Orlando swung back into gear — this time, for an unprece-dented double service.

“Heroes that fell together, and we honor them together,” said Senior Pastor David Uth. “I don’t know that you’ll ever see anything that’s more moving, more impactful, more impressive.”

By 9 a.m., cars were greeted by rows of dozens of officers and flags, a sadly familiar sight at First Baptist this year.

It was another muggy summer day, and ants were biting the ankles of mourners standing in the grass.

Fruitland Park police Detective Jennifer Hutchins was waiting to fall into the procession at her first law enforcement funeral.

She grabbed the mourning band she keeps in her dresser drawer and left the house at 6:40 a.m. without help from coffee.

“It definitely opens your eyes,” she said. “It’s terrible, that it takes something like this for us all to come together.”

Community contributions are common.

In the Baxter-Howard service, Walt Disney Co.’s name was mentioned as contributing to the food. The cost of the funeral location, Howard’s cremation and urn, as well as the gravesite, were paid for by community donations.

Only Baxter’s headstone was paid for by his widow, Sadia, a fellow Kissimmee Police officer.

Holding the hand of one of her young daughters — the Baxters have four ranging from 7 months to 7 years old — she eulogized her husband.

“His No. 1 priority was his family,” she said. “Matthew was the best father. Matthew acted tough, but the girls had him wrapped around their finger.”

She read from a journal

he kept.

“I want to be remembered for good deeds, loving and helping others,” he wrote. “One who loves his beautiful wife, children and Jesus.” 

At Woodlawn Memorial Park, the same resting place as Clayton, rain pounded the ground.

Sadia Baxter had made a request of her husband’s mourners:

“I ask that we stand together and keep his legacy alive so that our children know who their father was. Please keep our families in our prayers, especially our daughters, because our family is trying to be strong for them.”

Support for families doesn’t end with the funeral.

All law enforcement agencies go to great lengths to care for surviving family members, continuing for years if necessary.

In addition to pensions and other financial death benefits, an important resource is the family liaison, who is usually an officer who already knewthe fallen officer’s family.

The Orange County Sheriff’s Office requires that these officers maintain regular contact with the family for at least a year.

They may be joined by a chaplain, victim’s advocate and mental health professional.

“They are our family now,” said Stacie Miller, Kissimme Police Department public information officer. “Whatever they need, we are there for them no matter what.”

There are annual memorials for families to attend: a national one in Washington, D.C. and others in Tallahassee and local jurisdictions.

SEPTEMBER 10, 6:35 a.m.

The edge of Hurricane Irma was starting to rip through Florida when Hardee County Sheriff’s Deputy Julie Bridges, 42, wrapped up her shift and was heading home to bring one more batch of supplies to an evacuation shelter.

Heading east on State Road 66, she collided with a car driven by Sgt. Joseph Ossman, 53, who was on his way to work at the Hardee Correctional Institution.

Both were killed.

Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd immediately offered his agency’s help.

Within 24 hours, Lt. Eric Rauch, Polk’s funeral logistics coordinator, was in Hardee.

“They had a lot of fish to fry at that point and not a whole lot of resources to cook,” Rauch said. “They were really trying to get some kind of normalcy re-established.”

Polk County took over the planning, assisted with help from Manatee County.

“Anything that we do in law enforcement should be done to the best degree,” Rauch said. “We don’t leave any stone unturned when we do an event like this.”

Six days later, with some of the city still without power after the category-five storm, Hardee County Sheriff Arnold Lanier knelt before a young boy in the front row at Bayside Community Church in Bradenton.

Bridges’ 8-year-old son, Caiden, was delicately curled up into his father. He’d been emotional earlier, but now accepted his mother’s funeral flag from Lanier with great composure.

If he screamed out, no one saw it.

Beforehand, other children from the Manatee County Sheriff’s Explorers helped   transport cookies, coolers and drink dispensers.

The church’s lobby is massive, and the media are allowed to sit at a table and watch through one of many TV screens.

A photomontage of Bridges and her son ran in the background behind her favorite songs like “Here Comes the Sun” by The Beatles.

As with other law enforcment ceremonies this year, there were helicopters in the missing-man formation, a riderless horse, bagpipes

and “Taps.”

But her service included something new: the release of white birds.

After the ceremony, mourners milled about. Caiden wasn’t alone, but, for a moment, when the crowd moved, he stood frozen, just staring ahead, holding his mother’s funeral flag.

It was too big for him, and it looked wrong because he was holding it kind of like a

stuffed toy.

He looked so incredibly alone for that split-second before people moved back in.

Outside of departments, families can find comfort in those who know their pain.

Concerns of Police Survivors, which goes by COPS,  is a national monprofit that supports those who lose officers in the line of duty. Florida has five chapters.

“We volunteer because we believe in the power of being together and supporting one another,” said Cindy Roberts, president of the West Central Florida Chapter. In 2009, her husband and father to her 3-year-old son, Tampa Police Cpl. Michael Roberts, was shot.

Every year, the organization hosts conferences and retreats in different locations. There is a retreat for parents, for spouses and co-workers and a camp for children.

Grants from the Department of Justice pay for the retreats, and local chapters often step in with airfare.

When an officer falls in their area, they try to connect with families.

One of the counties in Roberts’s chapter is Hardee, which lost Deputy Julie Bridges and Sgt. Joseph Ossman.

“We know we will never be the same as we were before, but we don’t want to remain in that position of eternal grief and helplessness,” Roberts said. “We want to find the joy of living again.”

SEPTEMBER 10, 6:35 a.m.

In the midst of Hurricane Irma, essential law enforcement personnel were still required to report for duty despite mandatory evacuations for civilians. Sgt. Joseph Ossman, 53, lost his life performing this duty when he and Bridges collided.

Their lives came together and abruptly ended simultaneously as their vehicles struck one another head-on.

Although they were wearing seat belts, both died of their injuries.

Ossman’s service was held in the morning of Sept. 22 in Wauchula.

The church is small and, before the service, honor guard members milled around in the parking lot with a sense of disorganization.

The confusion was quickly cleared up when the Sumter Correctional Institution Honor Guard arrived.

A former Marine, Ossman would be laid to rest in the Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell.

A receiving line started in the front of the church at 9:40 a.m.,

with officers’ hands clasped asthey waited in the rising sun.

A black casket was pulled from the waiting hearse as those in line saluted silently.

Ahead of the family’s arrival at the massive 500-acre cemetery — the nation’s second busiest national cemetery — honor guard members conferred.

Some measured how far apart they should be from each other with their hands, a movement called “dress right, dress” used to align several elements along the same line.

As the casket arrived about 1:30 p.m. a wreath was placed next to the flag along with a basket of flowers.

Ten honor guard members from multiple agencies participated. One of them slipped a challenge coin into the flag.

In the front row, a woman wiped her eyes as mourners turned to the volley, performed across the road.

It’s a shattering sound.

Honor guard members must ensure military-style precision while holding their personal grief in check.

“It’s the ribbon, it’s the bow on the whole package,” said Orange County Sheriff Major Jeff Stonebreaker, who oversees his agency’s support services division. “Without that, that whole thing diminishes.”

Just getting on the team is difficult, and high standards don’t allow for failure.

If someone isn’t up to snuff, they’re off the team.

Sometimes, they remove themselves.

“The biggest thing is, people initially might think it’s interesting or might want to be on it,” said Drill Commander Sgt. Jeff Eaton, of the Sumter Correctional Institution. “But then, once they do a funeral or a viewing, standing up at the casket or something, they kind of change their minds.”

Those who stay in the group must keep their uniforms, and anything else they might need, clean, pressed and ready to go.

Orlando Police Lt. Alex Caro keeps a supply of burial flags, pre-pressed for free by a local cleaners, in his office.

After placing a flag over Clayton’s body, the honor guard escorted it to the medical examiner’s office.

From that moment on, the honor guard was on

casket watch.

During the watch, officers stand by the officer’s body at

all times.

If an honor guard member has to leave, another member replaces them.

At no time is their brother or sister in blue to be alone.

The goal is for every ritual to be executed perfectly, every foot to fall in the right place at the right time.

Even a small mistake matters. Take, for instance, the gun volley that must be fired to be done together.

If it’s not done right, Eaton said, “it embarrasses us, but it also looks bad for the family.”

The Sumter Correctional Institution Honor Guard pulls the trigger when they hear the caller say “F” in “ready, aim, fire.” They tried doing it right after “fire,” but going on “F” works best, said Assistant Commander

Sgt. Denise Bedgood.

The main honor guard is joined by others from all over the country, often one or two members representing

their agency.

They often stand as part of the receiving line, but can participate in other duties.

At Ossman’s funeral, Sumter Correctional’s honor guard took the lead, working alongside members of other honor guards, some from as far away as the Oklahoma Department of Corrections.

Caro said he was never prouder of his honor guard than at the joint funeral for the Kissimmee officers “because it was very draining. These guys, they put in the hours. It doesn’t matter if they’re sick, they showed up and they gave 100 percent, as we do for

any funeral.”


Of course, the trauma of a law enforcement officer’s death doesn’t end with the

memorial service.

Wounds remain. And a painful new reality goes on.

Clayton’s handcuffs, the ones used to arrest her suspected killer, are mounted in a box in an employee area of her department.

Part of Orange County Road 431 bears Lewis’s name.

A china cabinet in the Montaads’ dining room displays their son’s uniform, his flag and his urn.

Bishop’s name was added to the FHP memorial.

The Kissimmee Police Department is painting the house of Sadia Baxter, Matthew Baxter’s widow, in January.

When Howard’s teenage daughter goes to college, the department pledges to be there for her.

Bridges’s family is trying to raise money for her son’s

trust fund.

Ossman’s is trying to raise money for his funeral expenses.

But they are not alone.

They still belong to a larger law enforcement family, bound together by shared memories and shared grief.

That family will never

leave them.

That solidarity is the larger symbolism behind every law enforcement burial rite.

As Orlando Police Chief John Mina said during Clayton’s service, the fallen don’t

die alone.

Instead, they are “surrounded by blue.”

Leah Schwarting is a senior writer with The Villages Daily Sun. She can be reached at 352-753- 1119, ext. 5375, or