Fresno CHP officers' service and sacrifice recalled in daylong tribute

The Fresno BeeFebruary 24, 2014 

Hector Arredondo met Juan Jaime Gonzalez 15 years ago when the two attended Fresno State, and it did not take long for them to become friends.

And Arredondo quickly learned what motivated Gonzalez the most.

Gonzalez was determined to become a California Highway Patrol officer, Arredondo said, and was "relentless in his pursuit." That drive led to a career. "He accomplished his dream," Arredondo said, adding that others would emulate Gonzalez's perseverance: "Juan's story of success is that of many of us in the Valley."

Gonzalez's story is also one of sacrifice: On Feb. 17, he and partner Brian Mitchio Law responded to a predawn accident on Highway 99 in Kingsburg. Gonzalez, driving the patrol car, swerved as he got to the crash scene and the car went out of control, hit a guardrail and flipped over. Both officers died at the scene.

Their lives and service -- to their families, friends and the community -- were commemorated by thousands who attended a memorial service Monday at the Save Mart Center at Fresno State. Following the morning service, separate burial services were conducted. Law, 34, was buried in Clovis, where he made his home, and the 33-year-old Gonzalez was buried in his hometown of Tulare.

Law enforcement from across the country attended the memorial. So did Gov. Jerry Brown and California Attorney General Kamala Harris.

Friends and colleagues recalled the CHP partners and good friends: Law, a former Marine and loving husband and father, and Gonzalez, the officer known for his infectious "Scooby Doo" laugh who knew he wanted to be a patrolman at age 5.

John Crail, a friend of Law's and fellow Marine, said he was the type of person who would do anything for people he cared about, even if the circumstances were nearly impossible.

"He didn't have a selfish bone in his body. ... You're going to be missed more than you know, brother."

The tributes came from near and far. Jim Harbaugh, coach of the San Francisco 49ers, a team both families respect and admire, sent a letter that CHP Commissioner Joe Farrow read.

In it, Harbaugh said, "true heroes are those who every day put on a uniform and a badge" to protect others.

Farrow also shared stories of the outpouring of community support that touched his heart: an elderly veteran saluting the flag at half-staff in front of the Fresno CHP office, and later, two Cub Scouts.

"I've never seen such an outpouring of compassion like this before," Farrow said. "This has been one of the most humbling experiences of my life. I want this community to know that your acts of kindness, your thoughtful gestures, are truly uplifting and give us strength to carry on. These are the stepping stones that guide us on the path of healing."

A poignant moment came at the end of the memorial. The Save Mart Center was darkened, save for spotlights on the two caskets on the stage draped with American flags.

A recording of a dispatcher was played. She called for a response from Gonzalez and Law. But instead of answering, there was only radio silence. "End of watch, Feb. 17, 2014," the dispatcher intoned.

Outside the service, more than 1,000 men and women in uniform lined Matoian Way leading from the Save Mart Center, standing at salute as the burial procession passed by.

A crew of CHP officers from Oakland were among them. Officer Daniel Hill recalled working with Law when he was stationed in the Oakland area. Law was "a stand-up guy" and "very genuine."

"It's always hard when one of our guys goes down," Hill said. "We treat each other like a family, we're all brothers and sisters."

That camaraderie extended to hundreds of others who never knew either man but wanted to pay their respects.

Alongside Highway 99 in Kingsburg, six men saluted the Gonzalez procession as it traveled to Tulare. The six -- two each from Caltrans and the Kingsburg fire and police departments -- stood with a wreath near the spot where the officers had crashed a week earlier.

Some traveled across the country to stop in Fresno for just a few hours. Agencies from at least 19 different states were in attendance, including places like Alaska, Michigan, New York, Texas, New Jersey and Connecticut.

Carl Hoffman, a state trooper in Minnesota, said troopers make a point to pay respects to fallen comrades -- even those from far away.

A state trooper from Alaska said he decided to make the trip after seeing the support his department received when one of its helicopter pilots died last year.

"Even though we're so far away, we still show our respect," Ryan Mau said.

As the procession headed toward the cemeteries, led by CHP officers on motorcycles, scores of people lined streets and overpasses to show their respect.

Near both cemeteries, fire department ladder trucks draped flags over streets, creating arches that the funeral procession drove under.

A couple hundred people, including many CHP officers, gathered for the graveside services, which weren't open to the public. After an honorary gun volley and salutes at each burial, five helicopters flew overhead -- three CHP, one from the Fresno County Sheriff's Office and another from the Fresno Police Department.

Jim Critchfield, 76, of Clovis watched Law's service from afar. His daughter Nancy Guthrie, also with the CHP in Fresno, was buried in the same cemetery this month after she died of heart failure in her sleep. Critchfield said he was told that officers Gonzalez and Law attended his daughter's burial.

Watching Law's service, he said, "We just need to drive careful. Be safe on the highways. They're out there to protect us."

Jesse Dunbar, 37, of Fresno watched the burial procession pass from the Shields Avenue overpass above Highway 168.

Dunbar said he hopes "appreciation, a deep amount of respect and love for the men's family" was felt by the burial procession when they saw him and a crowd of about 30 others.

"Every day they sacrifice their lives for our safety and we need to remember that and not to take it for granted," Dunbar said. "Seeing all of the law enforcement come together and having that respect, it sort of bolsters all of our respect for our society and our culture. And to watch the last moments of the officers as they are sent off, it's a sobering thing. And to know they were on their way to help people in an accident is sobering, too."

Read past stories about the crash and fond memories of the officers


Fresno Bee reporters and photographers covered Monday's memorial and graveside services with daylong updates:

3:40 p.m.

The graveside service in Tulare ended with CHP Commissioner Joe Farrow formally presenting the casket flag to the family. The CHP honor guard retreated as bagpipers played.

2:50 p.m.: After arriving in Tulare, the procession passed under a large American flag hoisted between two ladder fire trucks. The processional arrived at the North Tulare Cemetery, where Gonzalez was to be laid to rest. About 200 CHP officers plus officers from other law enforcement agencies stood at attention and saluted as pallbearers carried the casket from the hearse to graveside. The mournful sound of bagpipes filled the air.

At the graveside service, a rifle squad fired a 21-gun volley followed by a bugler playing taps. Five helicopters then flew over in formation with one of them peeling off.

2 p.m.: Two each from Caltrans, Kingsburg Fire Department and Kingsburg Police Department stood at attention alongside a wreath at the Sierra Street exit on Highway 99 to honor the officers as the procession passed on the way to Tulare.

Outside the highway boundary, citizens lined up to salute the officers, too. "I don't think I saw one overpass that didn't have someone there," CHP public information officer Axel Reyes said. "It just shows the support of the community."

1:35 p.m.: More than a 1,000 uniformed law enforcement personnel lined the path leading from Save Mart Center, standing at attention and saluting as the funeral procession passed by.

Flocks of people stood along Villa Avenue near Clovis Cemetery, where Officer Brian Law was laid to rest. Two ladder trucks from Clovis' and Fresno County's fire departments draped a large American Flag across Villa, stretched out between the tops of their ladders.

A couple hundred people, including many CHP officers, gathered for Law's graveside service, which wasn't open to the public. After an honorary gun volley and salute, five helicopters, including CHP craft, flew overhead.

Jim Critchfield, 76, of Clovis watched the service from afar. His daughter, a CHP officer from Fresno, Nancy Guthrie, was buried in the same cemetery four weeks ago after she died of heart failure in her sleep. Critchfield said he was told officers Gonzalez and Law attended his daughter's graveside service.

"We need to drive carefully" so other CHP officers aren't killed in the line of duty, he said.

12:14 p.m.: A procession of funeral and law enforcement vehicles are leaving Save Mart Center, heading east on Shaw Avenue. Hundreds of officers stand shoulder-to-shoulder and salute as the hearse passes.

11:38 a.m.: The caskets will be taken to cemeteries in Clovis and Tulare. Law will be buried at Clovis Cemetery on North Villa Avenue and Gonzalez at North Tulare Public Cemetery.

11:33 a.m.: A color guard, led by two bagpipers and a drummer, exiting, followed by a CHP color guard and CHP officers carrying the flag-draped caskets. Pictures of Gonzalez and Law are on the big screen with the words, "End of watch, Feb. 17."

11:28 a.m.: The memorial service has concluded.

11:27 a.m.: An ethereal recording of the end of their CHP watch played over the speakers, to tears from many.

11:25 a.m.: The bagpipers return, and play "Amazing Grace."

11:20 a.m.: John Savage, a friend of Brian Law, said the officer "inspired me to be a better husband and, someday, a great dad."

Another friend, John Crail, who served with him in the Marine Corps, said Law was the type of person who would do anything for people he cared about, even if the circumstances were nearly impossible.

"He didn't have a selfish bone in his body," Crail said.

And, Crail added: "I know he'd be pissed at me if I didn't say, 'Go, Niners!' Excuse my language."

"You're going to be missed more than you can know, brother," Crail said.

The friends remembered Law as someone who loved life. They remembered him dancing spontaneously with his wife and playing "Call of Duty."

11:01 a.m.: Juan Gonzalez's best friend, Hector Arredondo, shared his best memories with Gonzalez. He said they met at Fresno State and were close for the last 15 years.

Holding back tears, he said Gonzalez a source of strength for his family. He loved his fiancé, he said, and enjoyed traveling with her.

Arredondo said Gonzalez was a "diehard Oakland A's fan" and liked car racing. He said they both came from impoverished families, but loved to give back to their communities through their work in a Fresno State fraternity. "Juan not only was my friend, he was my brother," he said.

More than anything, Arredondo said, Gonzalez "was there when I needed someone to help me navigate in life."

He said Gonzalez was determined to become a CHP officer and was "relentless in his pursuit." He said Gonzalez would call him to vent several times each week, telling him about his progress during the CHP academy. Gonzalez was so proud when he was finally sworn in, Arredondo said.

"He accomplished his dream," he said, adding that people would emulate Gonzalez's perseverance: "Juan's story of success is that of many of us in the Valley."

Arredondo said Gonzalez "was a man if integrity" and always wanted to protect the streets of his community from criminals. "Juan was always doing the right thing."

He said Gonzalez said nothing but "great things" about his fellow officer and friend Brian Law. "They are both heroes."

10:48 a.m.: CHP Commander Capt. Dave Paris says Officer Juan Gonzalez will be remembered for his infectious laugh and for his dream to be a highway patrolman at age 5.

"Thank you all for being here to support the families," Paris said, "and to honor and pay tribute to these fine heroes."

10:37 a.m.: CHP Commissioner Joe Farrow reads a letter expressing sympathies from 49er football head coach Jim Harbaugh, since Law and Gonzalez were fans. Harbaugh says in the letter the "true heroes are those who every day put on a uniform and a badge" to protect others.

Farrow shared stories of the outpouring of community support that touched his heart: a veteran who showed up in front of his office, which has had a flag at half-staff, then saluting him. Two Cub Scouts who also arrived at his office to salute the flag.

"I've never seen such an outpouring of compassion before," Farrow said, adding it's one of the "most humbling experiences of my life."

10:25 a.m.: CHP Commisioner Joe Farrow is speaking. Gov. Jerry Brown is among those in attendance.

10:19 a.m.: Two bagpipers, with drums this time leading the way, entered again for the posting of colors by a four-person CHP color guard of four. It's a sea of CHP hats on the floor seating. All stand out of respect, with many saluting. Service begins.

10:13 a.m.: The families are being seated.

10:12 a.m.: About 3,000 people have gathered inside a darkly lighted Save Mart Center. In front of a brightly lighted stage are two caskets draped with American flags. Bag pipers are entering with a procession of people behind, bringing family members to the front of the room.

California Highway Patrol Fresno shows on three large digital screens also in the front. As family takes there seats, the stadium is totally silent.

10:12 a.m.: The service has begun. Bag pipers are entering Save Mart Center, marching slowly to the stage.

9:55 a.m.: Officer Ethell Wilson, a member of the Berkeley Police Department, said law enforcement agencies are known to "always come out" when an officer dies in the line of duty.

"No one wants this to happen, but sometimes these things happen," he said. "It's important to show even if we are in different jurisdictions, we are all in the law enforcement family."

10 a.m.: The list of speakers:

-- A welcome by CHP Officer Alex Reyes

-- A scripture reading by Pastor David Rutherford

-- CHP Commissioner Joe Farrow

-- Hector Arredondo

-- Chaplain Alex Gonzalez

-- John Savage

-- John Crail

-- Closing by CHP Officer Axel Reyes

9:50 a.m.: A Cal Fire officer who is a family member of one of the deceased said he stopped at the crash site while he was off duty, unaware of who the crash victims were. The officer, who declined to give his name, said he had just gone off his shift when he saw the crash.

"It doesn't matter if you're Cal Fire, it doesn't matter if you're law enforcement, if you see someone in need, you stop," he said. "He's a brother of mine, not blood-related, but we lost two of our best officers, brothers, sons."

"You have to go on, you just go on," he added.

9:18 a.m.: A crew of Oakland CHP officers made a three-hour trip from the Bay Area to attend the service. Officer Daniel Hill said he remembers working with Officer Brian Law when he was stationed in the Oakland area. Hill called Law "a stand-up guy" and "very genuine."

"It's always hard when one of our guys goes down," he said. "We treat each other like a family, we're all brothers and sisters. Life is valuable to us, no matter how we know somebody, it's a shock when we lose somebody."

9:01 a.m.: Just before 9 a.m., hundreds of memorial attendees made their way from Shaw Avenue to Save Mart Center. A group of motorcyclists with American flags attached to the back came as a flock to pay their respects.

Highway Patrol cars, county sheriff's officers, Cal Fire vans and local police vehicles filled the lanes leading to the nearby parking lots.

8:50 a.m.: Hundreds are pouring into Save Mart Center for a memorial to pay respects to fallen California Highway Patrol officers Juan Jaime Gonzalez and Brian Mitchio Law.

"I cannot believe the tremendous outpouring of support from the community I've witnessed the last few days. It's just phenomenal," CHP Cpt. Dave Paris, Fresno area commander, said at a news conference before the service. "I can't thank the community enough. ... Today we'll honor and respect and pay tribute to these fallen heroes."

Law enforcement from around the nation will be attending the 10 a.m. service, with some traveling as far as Michigan, New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, Paris said.

Paris said he realizes the memorial service, along with a funeral procession that leaves afterward to cemeteries in Clovis and Tulare, will affect motorists in some areas, with temporary road closures and delays. But, he added, "Take the time and pay your respects."

Officers Juan Jaime Gonzalez, 33, and Brian Mitchio Law, 34, were in a patrol car when they were killed responding to a traffic accident before dawn on Feb. 17.

The memorial is expected to draw thousands, including Gov. Jerry Brown, state Attorney General Kamala D. Harris and CHP Commissioner Joe Farrow, who will serve as one of the memorial speakers, CHP spokesman Axel Reyes said.

Expect several road closures and delays around the campus and near the cemeteries where the officers will be buried later Monday.

Representatives from 21 law enforcement agencies -- including 11 from out of state -- have also confirmed their attendance, Reyes said.

Staff writer Lewis Griswold contributed to this story. The reporters can be reached at (559) 441-6386, cgeorge@fresnobee.com or @CarmenGeorge on Twitter, and (559) 441-6412, hfurfaro@fresnobee.com or @hannahfurfaro on Twitter.

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