Huntington Beach officer killed in helicopter crash is honored at memorial service

A line of police cars under a large U.S. flag hanging from two crossed firetruck ladders
Members of the Huntington Beach Police Department arrive as part of the procession for Officer Nicholas Vella’s memorial Tuesday morning at Honda Center in Anaheim.
(Kevin Chang / Times Community News)

It may be true that Huntington Beach Police Department Officer Nicholas Vella will be remembered by his actions.

Those who really knew Vella, who died on duty in a helicopter crash off the coast of Newport Beach on Feb. 19, will also remember him by his smile.

“Throughout his life, Nick’s smile and friendliness were almost like superpowers,” his brother, John Arthur Vella, said to memorial attendees Tuesday morning at Honda Center. “He could disarm anyone with his smile and friendships. Sometimes in our family we would joke that while on the beat as an officer, Nick could probably get any suspect to surrender simply with a smile and an offer of friendship.”


The National Transportation Safety Board continues to investigate the cause of the crash; Vella’s partner, who was piloting the helicopter, survived.

A procession Tuesday traveled through Huntington Beach to Honda Center in Anaheim, where the two-hour memorial service was held in front of thousands of members of law enforcement and Vella’s family.

A long line of men and women in uniform entered the building, representing agencies from across Orange County and the state. Authorities from Costa Mesa, Fountain Valley, Huntington Beach, Laguna Beach and Newport Beach were among those in attendance.

Vella is also survived by his parents, John and Marcella, his wife, Kristi Tovar, and their teenage daughter, Dylan. They sat in the front row as music from a string instrument quartet emanated throughout the arena before the ceremony.

“It’s something to see,” Costa Mesa Mayor John Stephens said. “Everybody should see the outpouring of respect for Officer Vella — the brotherhood that these officers have from all over the country here. It really is a beautiful thing to see. It’s a terrible tragedy, but it’s brought us together as a community.”

Stephens added that Costa Mesa used to have its own helicopter crew, but the city has contracted Huntington Beach’s helicopter service for a number of years. The Costa Mesa Police Department lost two of its own officers — James Ketchum and John Libolt — in a helicopter crash March 10, 1987.

Firefighters standing next to trucks salute passing police cars
Members of the Santa Ana, left, and Costa Mesa fire departments stand at attention Tuesday.
(Kevin Chang / Times Community News)

Vella, 44, was a 14-year veteran of HBPD and previously worked for the Laguna Beach Police Department.

Huntington Beach Police Chief Eric Parra has been on the job for less than three months, so he told mourners Tuesday that he pulled Vella’s personnel file to learn more about him.

Parra found sparkling evaluation reports and 80 commendations in Vella’s file.

He noted that Tuesday’s procession went right past Edison High, which was grieving after the deaths of brothers Josh and Jeremy Page in a car crash Monday.

“The kids, even though they were mourning for their classmates who were very popular football players, they lined the procession route,” Parra told those gathered. “They were out there for Nick. To me, that was beyond meaningful because it shows the importance that society places upon what many of you do every single day.”

Attendees also heard from Huntington Beach Officer Francisco Jimenez, as well as Vella’s father-in-law, Ron Tovar.

Columns of motorcycle officers with blue and red lights on
Orange County sheriff’s deputies arrive for Officer Nicholas Vella’s memorial Tuesday morning at Honda Center in Anaheim.
(Kevin Chang / Times Community News)

Tovar said his family makes tamales at Christmas, and it takes big pans. Vella always insisted on washing the pans, while everyone else was still socializing.

“He was teaching us about serving,” Tovar said. “He was teaching us stability.”

Vella’s father, John, shared that Vella’s high school senior yearbook quote at St. Margaret’s Episcopal School was from Martin Luther King Jr. — beginning with “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

John Vella said the last letter of commendation that Nick received in Laguna Beach was for representing that department at the annual police officer memorial honoring heroes who have lost their life in the line of duty. Nick Vella’s name will be added to that same memorial in Sacramento in May.

“All of you that wear a uniform, please know that you have our respect, our [honor] and admiration for protecting and guarding us as you carry out your duties,” John Vella said. “As we continue to honor Nick’s memory throughout the ceremony today, also know that this honor is directed towards each and every one of you that wear a uniform.”

A video tribute celebrated Vella’s life at the end of the ceremony, closing with a helicopter taking off into the skies.


A flyover then was conducted in a missing-man formation in honor of Vella after the remembrance ceremony. The flyover featured five helicopters flying northbound, with one of them veering off from the pack.