Before the gunshots shouted into the night, before he pushed through that barroom door, before the bullets struck and his body crumpled, Sgt. Ron Helus was on the phone with his wife.
“I gotta go handle a call. I love you. I’ll talk to you later.”
The words had been uttered countless times by the Ventura County sheriff’s veteran who was on the brink of retirement. He had worn a badge for 29 years — the span of his marriage, and one year longer than the life of the gunman who would take it all away.
Helus, 54, had a reputation as an easygoing, lighthearted officer, always up for small talk. Patrons at the Starbucks where he grabbed his morning coffee knew his smile. Regulars at his gym in Camarillo recalled how he struck up conversations about current events. On Thursday, his usual elliptical machine was kept off-limits and displayed his photo.
In his Moorpark neighborhood where he gave out his phone number and urged people to call if there was trouble — even if it was the middle of the night — Helus was remembered for his generosity and welcoming personality.
“The neighborhood is pretty quiet because of him,” said Zac Hernandez, 56, who has lived across from the Heluses for more than two decades. “I’m going to miss him terribly. I really can’t believe he’s gone.”
When he joined the Sheriff’s Department, Helus quickly established himself as a leader. With a knack for investigations, he worked narcotics, was on the SWAT team for many years, and was a firearms instructor.
“He was an unbelievable man,” Sheriff’s Capt. Garo Kuredjian said. “He was a lifetime learner, a trainer, a mentor, a leader. He was a cop’s cop.”
But there were two things he placed before his job: his wife Karen, and his son, Jordan, 24.
“Even though he was a police officer he still made sure he was at every step of Jordan’s life,” said friend Sheila Karn, 47.
On Facebook, Helus mentioned his son often, calling him “the best son in the world, and a fine young man with incredible character.”
He made every effort to attend school events, even field trips across the country.
Friend Tamara Rossie-Molina asked Helus if he would be willing to serve as a mentor for her son, who wasn’t speaking with his father much after his parents divorced.
“I talked to Ron, seeing if he could kind of be there in my son’s life. And he absolutely did,” said Rossie-Molina, 55. “He would talk to him at all the football games and ask him what he was doing, checking in.”
“He was a stand-up guy who you could count on,” she said. “When he said something it meant something.”
Helus was a Notre Dame football fan and a workout fanatic, often at the gym or learning karate. He once showed up to work with a black eye that he said he had gotten at the dojo and laughed at the ribbing from his colleagues.
He loved laboring over barbecue ribs and tri-tip and was also an avid fisherman, specifically interested in freshwater trout. He took great pleasure in camping trips to Mammoth Mountain with his son.
“He liked the solitude of remote areas, of getting away from law enforcement and work — it was his refuge from everyday life,” said Steve Capuano, a friend and retired sergeant.
Helus had his eye on life beyond the department and had recently started his own business in firearms training. Two years ago, he earned his master’s degree in administrative leadership online from the University of Oklahoma. Friends said his wife proudly talked about Helus accomplishing this while holding down a full-time job.
“He was a shining star student, one of the best and most responsible I’ve ever had,” said Martha Banz, one of his professors and the interim dean of the school’s extended campus.
Banz recalled one of Helus’ favorite quotes: “Live your life so that the fear of death never enters your heart.”
Helus had responded Wednesday to Borderline Bar and Grill in Thousand Oaks immediately after the 911 call came in at 11:20 p.m. Gunshots were fired from inside the dance hall. Helus went in through the front door.
A California Highway Patrol officer eventually pulled Helus out of the line of fire. The sergeant died at Los Robles Regional Medical Center. Twelve others were killed, including the gunman.
The procession that carried Helus’ body in a black Cadillac hearse to the medical examiner’s office later that morning was held to the soundtrack of helicopters and deputies’ motorcycles. Officers saluted. Onlookers placed hands over hearts.
Sheriff Geoff Dean called Helus a dear friend known for holding meticulous briefings and trainings so that officers stayed safe. He praised Helus’ actions.
“Our officers know, when you get to a scene, and there’s two of you, or even just one of you, and there’s shooting going on, you go in,” Dean said.
Colleagues who woke to reports of Helus’ death passed the news around in shock.
“He was so absolutely proficient — if there’s anyone that could have survived the encounter last night, it would have been Ron,” Capuano said, stopping himself as he tripped on the words and cried.
The same thought struck Sheriff’s Sgt. Eric Buschow who started with the department around the same time as Helus.
Buschow called Helus an “instinctive cop.”
“He’s a tactician, so I have no doubt he employed the best tactics possible. Unfortunately in a chaotic situation like that, you’ve just got to go in. And he did.”
What else do you call that, he said, but heroic?