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Thousands pay tribute to a man who touched lives

Times Staff Writers

The police officers arrived by the thousands -- members of a family bound not by blood, but by a uniform and a badge.

They were joined by countless other mourners Friday, inside a cavernous South Los Angeles church and throughout the region, to honor slain Los Angeles Police Officer Randal Simmons. The 51-year-old officer was remembered as a deeply religious man, devoted husband, caring father and model cop in a tearful three-hour funeral service.

Simmons was shot and killed last week during a tense standoff with a San Fernando Valley gunman who already had killed three members of his family. He is the first member of the city’s elite Special Weapons and Tactics unit to be killed in the line of fire since its start nearly 40 years ago.

Ten thousand people -- most of them police and other law enforcement officers -- filled the Crenshaw Christian Center’s Faith Dome on Vermont Avenue. The funeral, attended by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and other elected and civic officials, was the largest in the history of the Los Angeles Police Department.

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Simmons’ death reverberated throughout Southern California. Television stations carried the funeral live and uninterrupted for hours. Thousands of people lined closed city streets to watch as the hearse traveled to the Culver City cemetery where Simmons would be buried. At Slauson Avenue near Angeles Vista Boulevard, several hundred people, including the elderly and preschool students holding their parents’ hands, remained long after the hearse had passed. Some applauded. Others held “Thank You” signs.

Villaraigosa, whose children Simmons had once guarded, acknowledged to mourners that the death had hit the community hard.

“It touches a particular nerve way deep in our souls, and it hurts,” Villaraigosa said. “I’ve thought a lot over the last few days about why that is, and I think it has something to do with the fact that the entire city community loses when we lose a police officer.”

A video montage played at the service highlighted the many aspects of Simmons’ life, from childhood through fatherhood, including his work on the streets of inner-city neighborhoods where he ministered to children on weekends. Images of an intimidating, chiseled officer carrying heavy weapons in the midst of missions were set off by others that hinted of a man at ease and with a sense of humor. In one, he was seen hamming for the camera as he and his longtime partner, Officer James Veenstra, playfully put handcuffs on Santa Claus.

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Speaker after speaker recounted memories of the man known at the LAPD as “The Rock.”

“ ‘I’ll take care of it, I’ll take care of it,’ ” his sister Gina Davis recalled her brother saying time after time.

“I’m going to miss those words,” she said. “He walked with the confidence of knowing he was capable of protecting you.”

Sharon “Cookie” Sumlin , one of Simmons’ sisters-in-law, said she took comfort in knowing “he is now patrolling the streets of heaven.”

In one of the many wrenching moments, Basil Kimbrew -- Simmons’ roommate at Washington State University, where both men played football -- walked off the stage at the center of the sanctuary-in-the-round to give an old framed photograph of Simmons to Veenstra, whose face was still swollen from the bullet he took to the jaw in the attack that killed his partner.

“That’s how Randy was,” said Kimbrew, emotion overwhelming him. “Randy always gave, he would always give before he gave to himself.”

LAPD Police Chief William J. Bratton told the SWAT officers sitting in the front pews to “console yourselves knowing that he spent his last moments in the company of you, his police family.”

The chief then turned to Simmons’ family. “Thank you,” he said. “Thank you for sharing him with us all those days and nights that he was away from you.”

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Simmons’ son, Matthew, bearing a striking resemblance to his father, recalled praying as a family for his father’s safety moments before Simmons left on the night he was killed.

“He’s the best father any child could possibly have,” Matthew said in brief remarks that drew a standing ovation from the mourners.

A 27-year veteran of the LAPD and a 20-year veteran of SWAT, which specializes in hostage situations and other high-risk confrontations, Simmons was shot in the early morning of Feb. 7. He was among the SWAT unit members who broke through the front door of a mentally troubled man’s San Fernando Valley home, believing that hostages might still be alive inside. He was struck in the neck by a round of bullets that lodged in his brain stem.

The shooter, Edwin Rivera, 20, was killed by a police sniper as he shot at officers and tried to flee his home -- which had caught fire, presumably after tear-gas canisters were launched to force him out -- more than 10 hours after the standoff began.

Simmons’ death shattered an aura of invincibility that had grown around SWAT.

“They all hit you in the stomach,” said Assistant Police Chief Jim McDonnell, referring to the death of a police officer. “But this one . . . it’s the first SWAT officer we’ve had. When officers get in trouble, they call SWAT.”

The solemn day of remembrance started about 8:30 a.m, hours before the ceremony, as a white hearse carrying Simmons’ body pulled up to the church entrance. SWAT officers took turns standing guard at each corner of the vehicle.

By 9 a.m., the front of the church was a sea of blue as hundreds of officers arrived. Three officers from Jackson, N.J., in their light-blue jackets and hats, stood out from the dark shade of the LAPD uniforms. Many embraced and clasped hands, others dipped into a large envelope being passed around to grab small, laminated photos of Simmons that they clipped onto their uniforms.

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In a show of solidarity that was extraordinary even in the tightly knit police community, members of SWAT teams and regular police officers from Alaska, New York, Massachusetts and other states, as well as Canada, melded in with the thousands of LAPD officers. Many said Simmons, a renowned tactician, had trained them. Others had never met him, but came nonetheless.

“Its just important for us to be here -- to show support,” said Sgt. A.J. DeAndrea, a SWAT member from Arvada, Colo. “You lose one, you feel it all across the country. I need to show my respect. He would have done the same if it were me.”

Moments before they were summoned, SWAT members serving as pallbearers, their hands cloaked in white gloves, received quiet instruction on something they had never had to do before: carry the coffin of a comrade. As their commander spoke, one stared sadly off into the crisp, cool morning air, his hand clenching and unclenching.

A bagpiper played. Simmons’ wife, Lisa, his two teenage children and other family members fell in behind the deep red, wooden coffin draped with an American flag. Children who had been counseled by Simmons through his youth ministry followed.

As dusk fell at Holy Cross cemetery, the goodbye to Simmons came to an end. Overhead, a helicopter peeled away from three others in the formation that signals a man is missing. On the ground, a trumpeter played taps after a gun salute. Bratton dropped to one knee in front of Simmons’ son and handed him the tightly folded flag from his father’s coffin.

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joel.rubin@latimes.com

paloma.esquivel@ latimes.com

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Times staff writers Francisco Vara-Orta, Hector Becerra , Gary Friedman and David Pierson contributed to this report.


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