Of all the mourners who filled the 3,500-seat cathedral Thursday — including hundreds of police officers, a host of city officials, the governor — it was the people sitting in the front row at Officer Nicholas Lee's funeral who mattered the most.
One by one, those who eulogized the Los Angeles police officer turned their attention to his wife and two daughters. Lee was a dedicated cop, they said. But above all else, he was a family man.
"That's what I'm most proud of," said Capt. Peter Zarcone, Lee's commanding officer at the department's Hollywood station. "He had his priorities straight."
Lee, 40, was crossing through Beverly Hills en route to a call Friday when his patrol car collided with a dump truck. The 16-year department veteran died at the scene; the rookie cop he was training was hospitalized with a concussion.
As word of the crash spread, Lee's wife of nearly 13 years, Cathy, called the Hollywood station. She had seen the accident on the news, she told the officer at the front desk, and wanted to know if her husband was safe.
"Your wife's sweet voice, calm yet concerned," the officer, Scott Hallock, wrote in a booklet distributed at Thursday's service. "My heart shattered into a million pieces."
An investigation into the crash remains ongoing. Officials said they were looking at whether the truck had mechanical problems, perhaps with its brakes.
It was an emotional farewell Thursday at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. Dozens of black-and-whites and police motorcycles parked outside the downtown church, an American flag fluttering between two firetrucks. Gov. Jerry Brown and Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris attended, along with officers from various area law enforcement agencies — a couple of hundred from the LAPD's Hollywood division alone.
Lee spent the majority of his career working in Hollywood, where he developed a reputation as a straightforward cop with a sharp sense of humor. Friends described him as confident, always professional — a guy known to take fellow officers to his parents' restaurant in Koreatown.
After short stints in juvenile and vice units, Lee spent his last six years as a training officer, overseeing cops fresh out of the academy.
"He was the quintessential LAPD officer," Police Chief Charlie Beck said. "He was one of us. He was the best of us."
Beck, who said he had also lost a partner in a traffic incident, grew emotional as he addressed Lee's family. The chief said Lee once worked with his daughter, who is also on the force.
"I cannot imagine your pain," Beck told Lee's parents, his voice quivering. "I have the same nightmares you had, losing one of your children to this profession. And now you live the nightmare. And I am so sorry."
Lee's parents brought their son to Los Angeles when he was 6 years old, raising him and his siblings in Koreatown. Danny Lee recalled a tough older brother, who loved playing basketball and believed the worst words were "I can't."
"I wish I just had one more chance to talk to him, even … knowing that it would be the last time," he said. "I'll miss your talks about life, about our fears and dreams, about what it takes to be a man."
Lee said the news of his brother's death didn't fully sink in until he was with his sister-in-law and nieces, 10-year-old Jalen and 6-year-old Kendall.
"Who's going to take me to the father-daughter dance?" Jalen asked him.
"Jalen, I'm gonna take you," he promised her Thursday, as several officers wiped tears from their eyes.
At the end of his speech, Lee asked those in attendance not to mourn his brother: "Let's stand up and celebrate so loud that he can hear us all."
Hundreds of people rose to their feet, their whistles and applause echoing inside the massive cathedral.
White-gloved officers then rolled Lee's flag-draped casket outside. Bagpipers played as dozens of officers saluted their fallen colleague one last time. When it came time to load his body into the hearse, Lee's mother broke down, sobbing.
Times staff writer Ruben Vives contributed to this report.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times