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Costa Mesa Officers ‘Died Doing What They Loved . . . Most’

Times Staff Writer

John William Libolt and James David Ketchum “died doing what they loved to do most,” a Costa Mesa police lieutenant who had known both officers since their earliest days on the force said Wednesday.

The two Costa Mesa police helicopter pilots died Tuesday night in Irvine when their aircraft collided with a Newport Beach helicopter while both were pursuing a suspected teen-age car thief from Anaheim.

Friends and family of the two men described them as hard-working, experienced police officers who were popular among their colleagues and dedicated to their dangerous specialty.

“If he had it to do all over again, I know he wouldn’t change a thing,” Meg Ketchum said of her husband. “He loved flying, he just loved it.”

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Wednesday night, surrounded by friends and relatives in her living room, Meg Ketchum told again and again how she found out about her husband’s death--by watching the news on television during a break from her job as an AirCal reservations clerk.

“Geez, you picture that the phone’s going to ring or someone’s going to walk up to your door,” she said. “I just couldn’t believe it.”

Her husband liked to fish, hike and backpack, and the two of them often went on scuba-diving trips together and had plans to go to Hawaii soon, she said.

A 15-year-veteran of the Police Department, Ketchum worked as a patrol officer and a detective before becoming a pilot about six years ago, his mother-in-law, Betty Redd, said.

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Libolt--whose nickname was “The Silver Fox” because of his modeling good looks and graying hair, according to Redd--was one of the first motor officers to become a Costa Mesa helicopter pilot, said Lt. George Lorton, a 26-year police veteran who fished with Ketchum and played softball with Libolt.

“The opportunity was there, and they decided that was what they wanted to do in their careers,” Lorton said. “I think if you love to fly, like they did, it’s considered an outstanding job.”

Detective Paul Cappuccilli had to choke back tears to talk about his fallen colleagues. “They were just real nice guys, and both of them enjoyed the hell out of flying,” he said. “It’s real difficult to do work now. There’s a real sense of shock and sadness here.”

Capt. Robert E. Moody, who read a brief press release on the tragedy to reporters Wednesday morning, said Libolt and Ketchum were “very good officers, and very well-liked by their peers.”

Like Ketchum, Libolt joined the police force 15 years ago, Moody said. Libolt had about 3,000 hours of flight time, and Ketchum had about 3,500 hours.

Applicants for the pilot jobs, who must have four years of experience on the force, are sent to local flight schools for ground training, and, until last year, received in-house training from a Federal Aviation Administration instructor. The instructor, Carl Jackson, died last year, and the department has not trained any new pilots since then.

Ketchum and Libolt were among Costa Mesa’s six sworn officer-pilots working full time manning the department’s two helicopters.

Ketchum is survived by two daughters, Hilary, 13, and Penny, 12, in addition to his wife.

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Libolt, who was divorced, is survived by a 13-year-old daughter, Katie, and an 18-year-old son, David, and by his parents and four sisters. Family members in Costa Mesa were unavailable for comment.

“I would say that he was considered a legend in the (police) department. He was a very, very strong influence . . . because of his sense of humor,” Libolt’s fiancee, Lani Wilson, said Wednesday. “He could tease people out of anything.”

Libolt’s best friend, Gary Walsh, a former Costa Mesa police officer who now is a firefighter with Los Angeles County, said Libolt was “definitely the quickest-witted person I’ve every met in my life.”

The tall, athletic Libolt also had a self-mocking side, Walsh and Wilson said.

“He was fond of saying he was a legend in his own mind,” said Wilson, 38, a sales representative who lives in Newport Beach.

Wilson said they met 26 years ago, when both were in the same seventh-grade class. “He had the same characteristics that he showed later in life--he was always the leader, always very popular,” she said.

Wilson said they saw each other only at school reunions when both were married to others. When she moved to Southern California three years ago, Wilson said they kept in casual contact, but that grew into a more serious relationship.

She said they were to be married June 13, and a large reception was planned in Costa Mesa.

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Flags at Costa Mesa City Hall flew at half-mast Wednesday in tribute to the city’s first police officers to die in the line of duty since Costa Mesa incorporated 34 years ago.

“There couldn’t be a more tragic time and more tragic circumstances than this thing,” said City Councilman Peter Buffa. “It hits you particularly hard when it’s been as good a program as it has been, with top-notch personnel. . . . You get to the point where you think that maybe you’ll be spared that kind of tragedy. Obviously not. It hurts a lot.”

Costa Mesa Mayor Donn Hall said, “It’s a tragedy that we’re all very concerned about.”

Councilman Orville Amburgey, a retired police officer, said the crash was “a fluke, a true accident. It might not happen again in a hundred years. Some things you just can’t policy out.”

Flags also flew at half-mast at the Marion Parson Special Education Center in Costa Mesa, a school for the trainable mentally retarded that was adopted by the Costa Mesa Police Department earlier this year, school officials said.

The Police Department has established a memorial fund for the families of Libolt, Ketchum and a civilian flight instructor who was killed in the crash, said Lt. Lorton, who is coordinating the fund-raising effort for his friends.

“Some of the last fishing Dave and I did was in Lake Hemet, and we were caught by a game warden,” Lorton said. “Dave was just an outstanding fisherman, and we were catching so many fish the warden figured we were going over the limit and filling up our boat. But we were just catching them and throwing them back. We released them all.”

Libolt, Lorton said, was an “athletic fellow” who helped organize police softball teams and was fit enough to pose as a model for fashion and department store ads when he was off duty.

Wilson said Libolt started modeling as a lark, but eventually he began to take the work very seriously.

“He was amazed how much money people would pay him just to take his picture,” she said.

Libolt’s agent, Vivienne McIntosh, said he began modeling about four years ago and most recently appeared in a television commercial for a men’s clothing store. She had just arranged a photo session for Libolt this weekend for a fashion catalogue when she learned of his death, she said.

“I’m just devastated,” McIntosh said. “I can’t comprehend it. He was really starting to get going.”

Retired Costa Mesa Police Chief Roger Neth, who hired Libolt and Ketchum, had minor surgery Wednesday morning and was unavailable for comment.

Neth’s daughter Jan, who had known Libolt and Ketchum since she was a high school student 15 years ago, said her father was “pretty upset” about their deaths.

“The Police Department is like a big family that he’s raised,” she said.


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