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Fellow Police Officers From Far and Wide Pay Tribute : 3,000 Attend Pilots’ Funeral

Times Staff Writer

About 3,000 people, including 1,200 police officers from as far away as Calexico and Seattle, paid their last respects Friday to John William (Mike) Libolt and James David Ketchum, the Costa Mesa police officers who died in a helicopter crash Tuesday night.

Many in the standing-room-only crowd packed into Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa cried or fought back tears. Fellow officers and the department chaplain eulogized the two men as talented, “truly happy” men who died doing what they loved best--flying.

After the memorial service, the crowd gathered around the flag-draped coffins in the church courtyard, and a Marine Corps bugler played taps. One Costa Mesa officer acting as a pallbearer and helping to wrap the flags bit his lower lip while tears streamed down his cheeks.

While the assembled officers stood at attention shortly after 4 p.m., 10 police helicopters flew over from the west in a missing-man formation. As they passed overhead, one chopper cut away and flew south. Seated next to her husband’s coffin, Meg Ketchum burst into tears.

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Los Angeles fireman Gary Walsh remembered Libolt as a close friend who had a second career as a model and had recently earned a bachelor’s degree in management from the University of Redlands. The pilot was engaged to be married for the second time and was eager to begin working toward a master’s degree in marriage and family guidance counseling.

Walsh spoke of Libolt’s quick wit and said his friend once told him he “never felt the meek should inherit the earth, and if they were going to live there, they were fair game.” Once, when an officer was boasting about taking a struggling suspect down with two hits, Libolt replied “Yeah, he hit you, and you hit the ground.”

When he died, Walsh said, Libolt felt he was on top of the world. He would go to bed at night saying “ ‘Take me now, God, it can’t get any better,’ ” Walsh said. “On Tuesday, March 10, at 10:20 p.m., He did. Go with God, Mike.”

Lt. David Brooks, commander of Costa Mesa’s six-man helicopter squad, eulogized the dead officers Friday as two “special friends” who loved life and their jobs.

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Ketchum, who had logged about 3,500 flight hours, would have asked for nothing more than to finish his career on the squad, Brooks said.

When they had talked recently about an upcoming sergeant’s exam, Ketchum nixed the idea. “ ‘They might make me leave flying if I did that,’ ” he told his boss.

The pilot’s passion was pursuits like the one in which he was involved Tuesday night, said Brooks. Libolt and Ketchum, both 39 and both residents of Costa Mesa, died when their helicopter collided with a Newport Beach police helicopter while pursuing a suspect in a car reported stolen.

‘Loved to Fly Pursuits’

“Dave loved to fly pursuits,” Brooks said of Ketchum at the service Friday. “That was something he really enjoyed. It was the type of thing that afterwards he’d like to talk about . . . . And he could remember everything. He remembered street names and turns; he remembered every detail.”

Ketchum was an avid outdoorsman and loved to spend time fishing, camping, scuba diving and traveling, Brooks said. One story had it that the pilot proposed to his wife by telling her: “ ‘If I marry you, you’ll never stop me from going fishing.’ He may not have been real romantic but he knew what he wanted,” Brooks joked.

Brooks added that both men were especially proud of their families. Ketchum is survived by two daughters and his wife; Libolt, by a daughter and a son.

“They would want you, the children and the families, to be challenged today. . . . They’d want you to go through and carry on and develop the character and integrity of these two men,” Brooks said.

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Costa Mesa Police Chief David L. Snowden, his voice trembling as he fought back tears, said the Eagle Two designation of the Costa Mesa helicopter that crashed will be retired, and he pledged to obtain a new craft and name it Eagle Three. “We’ll continue to patrol the skies of our city with the same pride and professionalism” displayed by the two pilots, he said.

‘E Ticket Ride’

Costa Mesa Detective Darell Freeman, who said he had flown with both Ketchum and Libolt during the 13 years that he knew them, described the life of a helicopter pilot as “an E ticket ride. . . . It’s the most exciting police work and is considered the pride of the department. It’s very elite. Guys are waiting in line for 10 years for a shot at it. It’s a real thrill to go up, especially at nighttime.”

Snowden said the presence of about 1,200 officers from 31 departments showed that police officers are “a family.” The church parking lot at Sunflower Avenue and Fairview Street was jammed with 152 police motorcycles and 284 cars. Almost every police agency in the county sent representatives, and some officers came from as far as the state of Washington and Colorado.

Former Costa Mesa police pilot Larry Bersch referred to the close-knit fraternity of police officers. “There are two reasons for (the officers) to be here today,” he said. “One is friendship and the other is brotherhood. Unfortunately, before me are two brothers of the largest family in the world.”

Sgt. David Strange of the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Department in the Lake Tahoe area said he read the news in a local paper Wednesday. Strange served on the Costa Mesa force from 1975 to 1978, when Libolt was a motorcycle officer. Strange also recalled Libolt’s sense of humor and characterized Ketchum as the most reliable man on the force.

The fact that both men died in an accident is a familiar story in police work, Strange said. “Statistically, most police officers are killed in traffic accidents. So it’s not like you see on TV,” he said.

In the chapel, where the two coffins lay under high arched wooden ceilings and bouquets of red, white, orange and yellow flowers, chaplain Wayne Kraiss told the audience that “God has simply reached out and taken Dave and Mike and delivered them into his kingdom.”

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Also killed in the crash of the helicopter piloted by Libolt was a civilian observer, Jeffrey A. Pollard, a 27-year-old flight instructor from Tustin. Funeral services for Pollard will be conducted at 10 a.m. Monday at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Tustin, and burial will be at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale.

Vincent William Acosta, 19, of Anaheim, the stolen-car suspect who was being pursued, later was arrested and has been charged with three counts of second-degree murder.

Times staff writer Heidi Evans contributed to this story.


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