More than 5,000 fellow police officers and their families turned out from all across Southern California to say goodby Tuesday to slain Fullerton Police Officer Tommy De La Rosa, a veteran lawman eulogized by his partners as “a great man.”
“Tomas, I wish you to know that you’re the best there is, the best there was and the best there’s ever been,” Fullerton Police Sgt. Joe Klein, De La Rosa’s former narcotics partner, said emotionally before an overflowing crowd at First Evangelical Free Church.
After the memorial service, a squadron of 140 motorcycle officers led an hourlong procession to Memory Garden Memorial Park in Brea, where the 43-year-old officer was buried with a 21-gun salute. A bugler played taps as a fleet of six Orange County police helicopters approached in the “missing man formation,” commemorating a fallen comrade-in-arms.
De La Rosa, an undercover narcotics agent and nine-year veteran of the Fullerton Police Department, was shot to death last Thursday in Downey in an ambush while attempting to sell $4 million in cocaine to suspected drug traffickers.
The mortally wounded officer managed to kill one of his assailants before collapsing. On Monday, seven men and a woman were arraigned in Los Angeles County Municipal Court in Downey on charges of murder in connection with the case.
De La Rosa was the first officer slain in the line of duty in the 84-year history of the Fullerton department, and he was the first Orange County lawman to be fatally shot in 10 years.
Tuesday’s funeral brought together representatives from law enforcement agencies throughout California. Various fire departments were also represented, including those in Fullerton, Brea and Downey. The Downey police force dispatched about 20 squad cars.
Looking on as the legions of uniformed officers assembled outside the church before the 11 a.m. memorial service, Los Angeles Police Officer John Nichols shook his head in awe.
“The one thing you never forget is a cop’s funeral,” said Nichols, 38, a veteran motorcycle officer. “I didn’t know him personally, but through the luck of the draw it could have been me. And next time it might be.”
Officer Richard Mosley, a 21-year-old rookie patrolman from Placentia, said De La Rosa’s violent death strengthened his own resolve to pursue a career in law enforcement.
“What other job would you have this kind of turnout at a funeral?” Mosley said.
Although De La Rosa, married and the father of three daughters, was a member of a Catholic Church in his Brea neighborhood, the memorial service was held at the First Evangelical Free Church because of its 2,400-seat capacity, said Father Steve Sallot, a Catholic priest assisting in the service.
The turnout for the funeral was so great that the main sanctuary hall quickly filled, as did a 400-seat chapel. More than 2,000 others stood in hallways and outside, listening to the service on loudspeakers.
Seated in the front of the church were all 152 sworn and civilian personnel of the Fullerton Police Department, who marched double-file inside past an honor guard of fellow officers in dress black uniforms. Officers from the Anaheim, Placentia and La Habra handled all of Fullerton’s calls for the day so that the entire force could attend. The Brea Police Department took care of traffic control for the funeral.
Seated in four center rows were members of De La Rosa’s family and friends that included a contingent of Fullerton police wives. Leslie De La Rosa, the officer’s widow, sat just a few feet from the casket, which was draped with an American flag. A giant photograph of a smiling De La Rosa was displayed in a Valentine-shaped arrangement of flowers on the altar. Huge bouquets of flowers adorned both sides of the altar.
Eulogies were given by Klein and Mike Fields, a senior Fullerton police officer. Klein stood at the pulpit, reading from a prepared statement, while the uniformed officers who filled more than half the church sat ramrod straight. Although their faces remained mostly expressionless, several officers could be seen dabbing at tears.
“All of us would not carry a badge if we did not feel loyal to our call, but I doubt if anyone had more loyalty than Tommy De La Rosa,” Klein said.
Known on the streets as a tough, “bulldog” investigator, De La Rosa showed a gentler side at home, doting over his 1-year-old daughter, Ashley. He liked to put Ashley in his undercover car, don his “trademark” sunglasses and pretend for her benefit that they were going to work, Klein said.
De La Rosa’s wife, wearing sunglasses, chose not to speak at the service. But through Klein, she said that her husband had been “her best friend and her first love. He protected her and nurtured her.”
On the streets, Klein said, De La Rosa was a peerless narcotics investigator, amassing numerous awards for his relentless pursuit of traffickers. On his days off, however, Klein said, De La Rosa visited city parks where sons and daughters of drug dealers hung out.
“He’d tell them they’d better stay in school because ‘I’m De La Rosa and I’m gonna get you,’ ” Klein said. “To these children, Tommy was a saint.”
Fields said it was “a bittersweet irony” that De La Rosa’s original motivation for becoming a policeman was because an officer friend of his had been killed in the line of duty. A Vietnam combat veteran and native of Houston, De La Rosa joined the Fullerton force in September, 1980, Fields said.
“You knew his heart was in narcotics enforcement, even on street patrol,” he said. “For that reason, he often led the watch in activity.”
What happened to De La Rosa last week, Fields added, was every officer’s worst nightmare. “He got into a situation that got out of control.”
“Law enforcement has lost a valuable man,” Fields added, his voice breaking with emotion. “He paid the ultimate price to combat a drug problem that threatens to bring this country to its knees. I ask you to strengthen your resolve to fight a drug problem.”
Msgr. John Sammon, vicar for Orange County’s police and fire departments, closed the hourlong service by advising the mourners to accept the officer’s death.
“Death is like graduating from the academy and the divine commander says, ‘Come,’ ” Sammon said.
The service ended as an organist played “Amazing Grace.” The uniformed officers then stood at attention at the call of a Fullerton police commander and filed out row by row in neat, orderly formations.
The police honor guard snapped salutes as pallbearers gently maneuvered De La Rosa’s casket into a silver hearse outside. Two Brea motorcycle officers roared north on Brea Boulevard to clear the 3.5-mile route for the funeral procession. Another 140 police motorcycles from a multitude of agencies led the procession, followed by scores of marked and unmarked patrol cars with their emergency lights flashing.
Citizens lined up along the procession route and showed their support by waving banners and American flags. A Vietnam veterans’ group also turned out to salute the fallen officer.
“I have to say I’m proud of the police force and the job they’re doing,” said James Donnellan, 52, a Fullerton marketing representative who watched from the street as the procession filed by. “They don’t get half the respect they deserve.”
Melissa Beran, 27, a college student watching nearby, said: “I really wished my 6-year-old daughter could be here to see this. Not to see a funeral procession, but to see how much respect people have for the police.”
While it took a full hour for the entire procession to pass--blocking off several major streets and stalling traffic for miles--Sammon went ahead and conducted the graveside service early so that the family would not have to stand too long in the 102-degree heat.
Fullerton Police Chief Philip A. Goehring presented the American flag on De La Rosa’s coffin to his widow, as did an officer from the State Police with the state flag. The seven pallbearers left their white gloves atop the blue casket in a gesture of respect. As the mourners drifted away afterwards, another officer stood beneath a nearby tree and played the bagpipes, a tradition at police funerals.
“We realize we are soldiers at war,” Chief Goehring said, “and when one falls, it just reminds us that the cause goes on.”