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Honoring the fallen


© St. Petersburg Times, published May 24, 1998
Tampa police officers fire the 21-gun salute for their fallen comrades.
[Times photo: V. Jane Windsor]

TAMPA -- There were eulogies, a mass choir singing and three ministers offering the comfort of scriptures, but the funeral of two Tampa police officers killed in the line of duty was moving in its silence.

It echoed through the halls of the Tampa Convention Center Saturday, where almost 7,000 mourners spoke in hushed tones, or didn't speak at all.

It followed the procession to the cemetery, where silence hung in the oak trees and settled between rows of police officers in pressed shirts and sunglasses.

A 21-gun salute finally punctured the quiet, followed by the aching, breathy wail of bagpipes.

Then two flags were folded and handed to the widows of Detectives Ricky Childers and Randy Bell. And it was done.

It has been five days since the two detectives and Highway Patrol Trooper James B. Crooks were killed by Hank Earl Carr, who was trying to escape arrest for the shooting death of his son. Carr would end the killing by taking his own life.

Since that bloody day, a community has been in pain and in shock. That pain reached a crescendo on Saturday.

From the morning sun on the Police Memorial statue downtown, to the wind whistling past two caskets in Myrtle Hill Cemetery in the late afternoon, it was a day where the images of mourning spoke for themselves.

A paramedic's gurney on the landing of the convention center, empty save for two police caps. Two widows leading a parade of family members, the widows' navy dresses the same color as the uniforms on the officers around them.

Two Tampa police honor guards, fists clenched inside white gloves, moving to the caskets, where their heads bow and arms rise in a silent salute.

But the most compelling image was the police officers themselves, who came by the thousands to honor two fallen comrades many of them had never met.

Shoulder to shoulder, in uniforms marked with gold braids and badges wrapped in black tape, men and women moved without speaking. They tucked their hats under their arms.

From Leesburg, Clewiston, Coral Springs, Lawtey, Lakeland, Cocoa, Dade City, Winter Springs, Ocala, Lantana, Homestead, Hardee County, Cape Coral, Mulberry, Groveland, Fort Meade, Port Richey, Fort Pierce, High Springs, Boynton Beach, Pompano Beach, Clearwater, South Daytona, Pinellas Park, St. Petersburg. Highway Patrol. Border Patrol. Marine Patrol. Paramedics and prison guards. Some came from as far as Ohio, New York, Indiana, Illinois and Minnesota. A Royal Canadian Mountie, in a red uniform and carrying a brown hat, bowed at a casket draped in the American flag.

The two Minneapolis Police officers left Minnesota at 8:30 p.m. Wednesday and drove to Tampa for the funeral.

They made the trip to return the respect shown by Florida law enforcement officers who came to Minnesota in 1993, after Jerry Haaf, a 30-year Minneapolis police veteran, was killed in a restaurant shooting.

"We try to get to all the line of duty deaths around the Minnesota area," said Sgt. Ed Nelson. "It's for everybody else and for the family."

At the door leading into the main hall, high school police volunteers, in dark pants and starched shirts, held out boxes of tissue.

Muscled men, with closely cropped hair and chiseled faces, pulled three and four tissues from the boxes, dabbed at their eyes, and kept walking.

As they filled the seats, entire sections of chairs blossomed into quilts of green, brown, white, khaki, and blue.

"It was overwhelming," said Hillsborough County Sheriff Cal Henderson, of all the officers. "You see the brotherhood of law enforcement because it could have been any two anywhere and they know that."

Dan R. Dempsey, minister at Riverhills Church of God, led the almost two-hour service.

"It may be the darkest day of our city, period," he said.

The gunshots left two homicide detectives and a Highway Patrol trooper dead in their cars, and a community shaken to its core.

Since Tuesday night, bouquets of flowers, cards and candles have been left up at the Police Memorial sculpture in downtown Tampa. By Saturday morning, the pile of roses, mums, begonias, daisies, lilies, baby's breath, and greenery was almost knee high.

Because of the outpouring of emotion, city officials decided to hold a mass funeral at the Tampa Convention Center, a site large enough to handle some 7,000 mourners. Thousands of others watched and listened as the service was broadcast on television and radio.

The service started at 11:15 a.m., as dozens of family members were escorted to their seats by uniformed officers. Pianist John Morgan played Wind Beneath My Wings and How Great Thou Art, selections chosen by the detectives' widows, Donna Bell and Vickie Childers.

After his invocation, Dempsey asked the speakers and the assembly to remain quiet when the four-man police honor guard, standing watch at each casket, changed every 30 minutes. The guard would change five times before the service was complete.

In unison, the choir lifted their hands high and the convention center seemed to shake as they sang "You are my source of strength. You are the strength of my life, I lift my hands in total praise to you."

Detectives from the police homicide division sat in the front row, their arms around each other in comfort.

Police Chief Bennie Holder spoke to the families and told them the crowd had gathered to pay their respects to them.

"We share your heavy burden, your sorrow and your grief," Holder said. "We have shared these fears along with you and for you during these painful times."

The Rev. Ken Whitten of Idlewild Baptist Church told Bell's and Childers' seven children that he understood they would miss their fathers.

"I know you were proud of your Dad and that you thought he was a great cop," he told Rick Jr. and Corky, Childers' son and stepson.

Whitten looked past the dignitaries, family members and police officers seated in the front of the hall, and focused on those without uniforms who had come. It was evidence, he said, that Bell and Childers had touched young and old, white and black, rich and poor.

Before giving the eulogies for their fallen comrades, both Sandy Noblitt and George McNamara moved across the front row of grieving relatives, leaning over to gently kiss Donna Bell and Vickie Childers on the cheek. McNamara also stopped to place a kiss on one of the caskets.

McNamara, who used to lead the homicide squad, spoke in a voice thick with emotion.

He called the past days "a nightmare that won't go away," and described his two colleaguesand close friends as "fallen heroes."

"These two worked together at a job they truly loved," McNamara said. "They died together at a job they truly loved."

He talked of Randy Bell, the type-A workaholic, who was first at work each morning. The guy who made the office coffee and watered the office plants.

And Childers, the quipster, who specialized in the gallows humor that makes the worst police work bearable.

"Ricky could always find the right time, the right little word to say that could bring a smile to your face in the darkest hour of our job."

Noblitt remembered how the two detectives raised money for a family in Riverview Terrace who didn't have a Christmas tree and for a girl who didn't have money for a dress go to her school dance. And he reminded the crowd that the detectives died trying to help a child, Joey Bennett, 4, who had been shot by his mother's boyfriend.

"They just cared about children because they had their own children," Noblitt said. "That's the kind of men they were."

He said he could feel the presence of the two men in the hall.

"They're here. I know they're here and I love them both," he said.

After his eulogy, McNamara waited behind a screen of 24 memorial wreaths. Noblitt joined him, and the two men hugged.

After the choir sang Amazing Grace, the crowd filed out of the auditorium, led by row after row of uniformed officers. They moved to the driveway and the stairs in front of the convention center and again stood silently, this time for almost 30 minutes, until the flag-covered caskets were brought outside. As they rolled out, thousands of hands were raised in salute. Civilians put their hands over their hearts.

* * *

After the service, a procession moved two-by-two toward a place called Garden of Memories. The train of cars, led by two black hearses and 11 white motorcycles, took 30 minutes to pass. Lights flashed on the hundreds of patrol cars, but every time a siren wailed, a police officer directing traffic waved to silence it.

As the parade approached, spectators along the route stepped from their cars and stood silently. Tears fell from the faces of old men. Some waved American flags. Others put hands on their hearts.

"It's beautiful, it's so beautiful," said Angela Murillo, 38, as she stood at Adamo Drive and 39th Street. "Tampa put them to rest nice."

Two-year-old Allen Lewis held his right hand in a salute. His mother stood nearby.

"Some things in life, you wake up and you say, "I've just got to do that,' " Sharon Lewis said.

Paula Bavilacqua, 45, brought her children Michael, 3, and Gina, 9, from Brandon.

"I think it's never too young to teach your children about dedication to duty and serving your community," said the retired Air Force officer.

Away from the procession, drivers marked the day by turning on their headlights. And the clerk at Rita's Florist of Tampa, opened her doors when Marieux Teeling, 30, and her daughter Samantha, 6, knocked. When she heard they had come for flowers for the Police Memorial, the flowers were free.

The procession rolled into Myrtle Hill Cemetery in East Tampa about 3 p.m. for a special service. The actual burials will come in the days ahead. Thousands of officers rocked back on their heels, their hands folded behind them. Not far away, the blades of news choppers beat overhead.

Before the caskets were pulled from the hearse, officers marched into neat lines along each side of the entrance of the mausoleum. They froze their arms in a salute as the families of the two detectives walked into the mausoleum and settled into seats at the front. The caskets were then rested silentlyon their stands. A spray of roses covered each.

Behind the family 500 mourners gathered in two tents. Some reached out for a hand to squeeze. Others sipped water bottles and padded the sweat from their faces. It was a sweltering day without a cloud in the sky. One little girl pressed herself against the cool stone walls of the mausoleum and watched a bug walk across her finger.

The service moved quickly. A short prayer was said about how death cannot defeat us. Then heads bowed and children were told to cover their ears. Seven officers shouldered rifles and fired three times, the shell casings clinking on the ground between rounds and rolling into the grass. Then taps.

Mrs. Childers and Mrs. Bell dabbed their eyes as men in white gloves folded the flags that covered their husbands' caskets and handed them to the widows. High above the sun-soaked graveyard, 10 police helicopters passed in formation. Then the ritual of the dispatch signals, where a voice called over a radio for the two officers to respond. It's part of the funeral for every officer killed in the line of duty. When they didn't respond, a bagpipe band blasted Amazing Grace, sending shivers through the crowd. The officers cut one last salute through the air and the service ended.

"This is more than just a respectful goodbye for two police officers," said Mayor Dick Greco, as he left the cemetery. "Today has become a way to say thank you to the people who do this job, the officers who risk their lives every day."

And then the moment had come for Mrs. Bell and Mrs. Childers to leave their husbands.

They will be buried side-by-side, which is how they lived and died. Their wives walked across the graveyard, holding each other up, the wind tugging at the folded flags in their arms.
-- Times staff writer Kathryn Wexler contributed to this report.

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