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Farewell to an Officer : Colleagues Gather to Celebrate the Life of Gabriel Perez-Negron

TIMES STAFF WRITER

More than 600 officers gathered in their dress blues Thursday at St. Finbar Catholic Church to celebrate the life of Los Angeles Police Officer Gabriel Perez-Negron, who was killed last week when a speeding motorist plowed into his patrol car.

One by one, mourners recalled how Perez-Negron had come to the United States from Mexico as a teen-ager, how he joined the Marines, how he achieved his dream of becoming a U.S. citizen and how he graduated from the Police Academy just three months ago. He was the 186th LAPD officer to die in the line of duty and the first this year.

Officer Al Lopez, a close friend of Perez-Negron at the Van Nuys Division, said he had just one wish.

“I hope that Gabe is considered a hero even though he didn’t die in a gun battle,” Lopez said. “He could have been an outstanding officer.”

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Described as quiet, hard-working and always ready with a smile, Perez-Negron was also an avid hunter, scuba diver and fisherman, though friends said he never caught a fish. He spoke four languages--Japanese and French complemented his Spanish and English. “He was good at everything he did,” said Steve Huntsman, a former roommate.

Perez-Negron and his partner, Officer Martin Guerrero, were patrolling a Reseda neighborhood early last Saturday when a speeding Acura Integra ran two red lights and then slammed into their patrol car at Sherman Way and White Oak Avenue.

Perez-Negron died at the scene, as did the driver of the Acura, Tammy Danford. Guerrero was seriously injured. He was released from the hospital Wednesday and attended the service in a wheelchair.

Steve Hillman, the Police Department chaplain, spoke of Perez--Negron’s strength, perseverance and deep desire to serve his community.

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“This is only a steppingstone,” Hillman said. “We have come not to say goodby, but to say, ‘Gabe, we’ll see you later.’ ”

Throughout the funeral Mass, Hillman took turns speaking with Father Rafael Marin, a reserve LAPD officer, who translated much of the service in Spanish for the slain officer’s family.

Later, Eli Bomar, a close friend of the officer, recounted how Perez-Negron moved to the United States at the age of 14 and how he hired him seven years later at his general contracting business. After Bomar had to lay off Perez-Negron and several workers to make ends meet, Perez-Negron showed up at work anyway, saying, “I’m getting your trucks ready. They need to be serviced.” Bomar decided to rehire him.

“Gabriel Perez-Negron was the best friend I ever had . . . he will always be in my heart,” said Bomar, breaking into tears.

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“His honesty and integrity was above reproach,” he said. “And he set his goals on becoming a police officer.”

But before entering the Police Department, Perez-Negron joined the Marine Corps and served in the Persian Gulf War.

In an eerie twist of fate, Perez-Negron died as his father did nearly 30 years ago in Mexico. The elder Perez-Negron was a rookie with the Mexican highway patrol, which often helps stranded motorists, when a drunk driver plowed into his patrol car.

“We know that you are now cradled in the loving arms of your father and that your head rests gently on God’s lap,” said Capt. Richard C. Wemmer, commanding officer of the Van Nuys Division, during the eulogy. “I can feel the presence of the thousands of police officers, including your father, who made the ultimate sacrifice before you.

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“If you listen closely in the distance, you can hear them say: ‘Come into our house, officer, you have fought the good fight, you have won the race. Well done, my son, welcome home.’ ”

Minutes later, with organ music swelling throughout the church, Perez-Negron’s mahogany coffin was placed in a hearse and taken away in a motorcade of hundreds of patrol cars and motorcycle officers for a Police Department service at Forest Lawn Hollywood Hills. By the time the motorcade reached the cemetery, the number of officers swelled to more than 1,200.

The officers stood in orderly rows along with Police Chief Willie L. Williams, who cut short a European vacation to attend the funeral. Williams later presented a folded U.S. flag to the officer’s mother, Mercedes Delgado.

Family members said Delgado, who was also given a California state flag and a copy of the Bible, was fearful but accepting of her son’s desire to become an officer.

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“He happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time,” Williams later said. “But maybe he saved the life of someone else.”

The skirl of bagpipes playing “Amazing Grace” was followed by a trumpeter sounding the lonely notes of taps. Delgado, who was surrounded by family, wept throughout the ceremony.

The mourners seemed to shudder with sorrow as four LAPD helicopters roared over the cemetery, with one veering away from the pack in the “missing man” formation. After a 21-gun salute from a Marine Corps honor guard, the ceremony concluded. Perez-Negron’s family plans to send his ashes back to Mexico where he will be buried near his father.

Officer Dora Gabriella Osorio, Perez-Negron’s girlfriend, embraced family members and colleagues near his casket. The two had met at the Police Academy, and today, she said, would have been their five-month anniversary.

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