In the end, it was not the bombs he disarmed, the suspicious packages he retrieved or the meth labs he raided that killed David Werksman, a 22-year deputy with the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department.
It was the coronavirus.
Werksman, 51, died Thursday night, the second Riverside sheriff’s deputy killed by the virus in a day. Terrell Young, 52, a deputy who worked in the county jails, died Thursday morning.
“We are reeling from the reality that this virus has taken the lives of two of our family members within the past 24 hours,” Sheriff Chad Bianco said Friday.
Law enforcement officers serve on the front lines of the pandemic, and most have little or no ability to do their jobs in isolation or without coming into contact with the public or their colleagues. As of Friday afternoon, 35 sworn officers and eight civilian employees with the Los Angeles Police Department have tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. Within the New York Police Department, 1 in 6 officers are out sick, and about 1,400 have tested positive for COVID-19.
Bianco, the Riverside County sheriff, appeared frustrated with the public for flouting stay-at-home orders intended to slow the virus’ spread. “Take it from me, losing two family members right here,” he said. “You don’t want to be the next.”
Bill Young, president of the union that represents Riverside County sheriff’s deputies, said he knew both Werksman and Young and called them “the nicest guys that you could meet.”
“It’s too much of a coincidence for me, personally,” he said.
Young and Werksman did not work together and did not encounter each other while infected with the coronavirus, Bianco said. No Sheriff’s Department employees who worked with Werksman have shown symptoms of the virus as of Friday. Twenty-six Sheriff’s Department employees and 13 inmates in the county’s jails have tested positive. Two employees and no inmates have been hospitalized.
Young, a deputy of 15 years, was working March 22 at the Cois M. Byrd Detention Center near Murrieta when he fell ill and went home early, Bianco said. A week earlier, Young had escorted an inmate from the detention center to the Riverside University Health System Medical Center. The inmate has tested positive for COVID-19.
Young was a family man, a caring husband to his wife of nearly 31 years, Marie, and an attentive father to their four children, said Tania Gergel, a longtime friend of Young and his family. Since launching a fundraiser for his family, Gergel has heard that Young was a smiling face to strangers at his local church in Murrieta, where he worked security and ushered cars into the parking lot every Sunday.
Werksman joined the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department in 1998, working in the jails, on patrol and then on the bomb squad, an assignment he held for 11 years, Bianco said. His first day on the bomb squad, Werksman was sent to a vineyard in Temecula, where a man digging with a backhoe had unearthed an unexploded World War II-era artillery shell, Werksman’s older brother, Harry, said in an interview.
“David said, ‘What are we going to do?’ And the guys said, ‘Pick it up.’ He said, ‘What if it goes off?’ And they said, ‘We won’t know. We’ll be pink mist.’”
Despite its stress and the toll it took on his body, Werksman loved the work. One day, he called his brother and told him to turn on the news. A TV crew showed a day care, its basement converted into a meth lab, and a solitary figure approaching. “There he was in his bomb suit,” Harry Werksman recalled, “trudging toward it.”
“He really felt like he was saving not just one person, but as many people that might be affected by a meth lab blowing up or by a suspicious package in a courthouse,” he said. “For him, it was about helping as many people as possible. And when he told me those stories, I’d look at him and think, ‘I am the most selfish person in the world.’”
After 11 years, though, David Werksman’s shoulders, knees and back were aching. He moved into the Sheriff’s Department’s administration unit, handling public records requests, Bianco said Friday. He was in the process of being declared medically retired, his brother said, and was looking forward to purchasing a catamaran, moving with his wife to the Caribbean and opening a charter boat company.
On March 17, Werksman’s mother, Mary, died at her home in Rancho Mirage. She was 88 and suffering from leukemia, Harry Werksman said. Though Bianco said Friday that Werksman may have contracted the coronavirus at the funeral or while making arrangements for his mother’s burial, Harry Werksman said there was no funeral service out of concerns about spreading the virus.
“I was told don’t come — sorry,” Harry Werskman said. His brothers told him they stood several feet from one another and the cemetery workers, in line with social distancing requirements, as a mechanical lift hoisted their mother’s coffin into a vault beside her husband. “They said it didn’t take longer than five minutes.”
After the funeral, David Werksman told his brother he felt run down, but they both figured it stemmed from the stress of losing a loved one. When he spoke to his brother last Saturday, the deputy was coughing and his voice was all but gone. He checked into a hospital the next day and went on a ventilator.
The last thing he said before he was hooked up to the machine, hospital workers later told Harry Werksman, was “take care of my kids.” He leaves behind a wife, son and two daughters.
“At the end,” his brother said, “they were his concern.”