Hundreds honor young officer
By MATTHEW WAITE
© St. Petersburg Times,
DADE CITY -- Verle M. Johnson stood at the podium Sunday morning, overlooking his son in a casket and speaking to a crowd of more than 200 law enforcement officers there to pay their respects in the gym at Pasco High School.
"Goodbye, my son," he said after a long, tearful pause. "I love you."
Verle Lloyd Johnson, 22, who, his family said, had found his calling as a Pasco County sheriff's deputy, was laid to rest Sunday in Dade City Cemetery.
Johnson was killed early Tuesday when he pulled out from Trilby Road into the path of a semitrailer truck headed south on U.S. 98.
Johnson had just finished his shift and was heading home.
There were two things he loved, said law enforcement academy classmate Erica Hernandez-Fernandez: his job and going home. During the funeral service, she recalled stories of Johnson searching for a Target store to find his daughter the right Christmas gift on Christmas Eve, and how she envisioned the two of them having long law enforcement careers together in Pasco.
"Verle was definitely a one-of-a-kind friend," she told the audience of more than 270. "He went out of his way every day for perfect strangers while he worked.
"He was the kind of deputy you could count on."
During the service, the audience fell silent while the Pasco sheriff's honor guard performed the ceremonial changing of the guard four times in front of Johnson's casket.
With precise movements, the four men and one woman saluted in unison, and left two men at rigid attention to guard the casket while the service went on.
Johnson's body was taken to the cemetery in a procession of flashing lights. With eight motorcycles in the lead, 70 police and sheriff's cars and several fire rescue vehicles followed the hearse through Dade City that brought Johnson's body to the cemetery for burial.
The officers -- from nearby Zephyrhills to as far away as Orange County -- all had black bands over their badges, a symbol of mourning for a fallen comrade. At the graveside service, they stood in two formations and saluted in unison.
During the graveside service, a Pasco County dispatcher called Johnson's call number over a radio three times.
When no response was heard, the dispatcher declared Johnson "10-7" -- police lingo for out of service -- at 11:41 a.m.
Taps was then played.
With a bagpiper playing Amazing Grace behind them, the honor guard lifted the American flag from Johnson's casket, folded it into a tight triangle and gave it to his 4-year-old daughter, Kayla.
Pastor Tim Ratterree of Christian Fellowship Church told the audience that the future is in God's hands, not for man to know.
"The one certainty of life is that man was born to die," he said. "The certainty of death has the uncertainty of when. Even the righteous and the holy must recognize the uncertainty of the timing of death.
"We must live in perpetual preparation for the end."
- Staff writer Matthew Waite can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6247 or (800) 333-7505, ext. 6247.
A scholarship fund has been established for Johnson's daughter, Kayla. Anyone interested in information about donating to the fund may contact Bank of America representative Amy Paiz at (352) 567-5628 or Hodges Funeral Home at (352) 567-0000.
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