Thousands of people made their way to a Ventura County church on Thursday to pay tribute to sheriff’s Sgt. Ron Helus, who died just over a week ago trying to save the lives of others after a gunman stormed a bar in Thousand Oaks.
The service offered a moment of peace in what has been a devastating month for California, with the mass shooting followed in quick succession by wildfires still ravaging the state.
Law enforcement who have been fighting on the front lines of these disasters packed Calvary Community Church in Westlake Village alongside California residents grateful for their service.
When the 911 call about a shooting came in late on Nov. 7, Helus rushed to Borderline Bar and Grill. He ran in through the front door and was cut down by the gunman, becoming one of the 12 killed that night.
At the service, Helus, who was 54 when he died, was described as a hero who sacrificed his life for others. The memorial drew so many people — at least 4,000 — that it jammed traffic nearby. The church sanctuary, which seats 2,900, was a patchwork of khaki, black and navy, filled with uniformed officers from across the state.
In photographs displayed around the church, Helus young and middle-aged smiled warmly. In one photo, he grinned as his son Jordan, then a blond-haired toddler, nervously rode a merry-go-round.
In a series of intimate stories, Pastor Steve Day traced the course of Helus’ life — describing how he met his wife in a college anatomy class, how he proposed to her in a restaurant after sneaking the ring into her purse as a surprise. When she discovered it, Day said, Helus went down on one knee at the restaurant where they were dining.
“They were in the old Charley Brown’s restaurant, which is now the Borderline,” he said. “How ironic.”
Shortly after the memorial began, Billy Ray Cyrus played guitar and sang “Amazing Grace,” accompanied by a choir. He asked everyone present to join in. He then sang his patriotic ballad “Some Gave All,” which includes the words, “All gave some, some gave all.”
The hallways and overflow rooms of the church were crowded with people standing and watching the service on TVs. There, burly men put their arms around each other, their tattoos peeking out from under their sleeves. A woman gave her baby a bottle and kept one eye on the service. A few people walked out into the warm fall air to gather themselves after beginning to cry.
Many, even though they didn’t know Helus personally, came to the memorial to thank him for his bravery and to honor him. One woman approached group after group of officers, saying thank you to each one.
Brandon Apelian, 21, stood outside the church and gripped a blue flag that rippled in the wind. The California Lutheran University student knew Justin Meek, the bar’s bouncer, who was killed in the shooting. Meek had recently graduated from Cal Lutheran with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice.
Apelian said that, growing up in Ventura County, he felt that law enforcement “had my back.”
“Now it’s my turn to show them that I have theirs, too,” he said.
Tracy Carr, 58, drove two hours from San Dimas for the service with his dog, Scooby Doo, who took a nap in the shade.
“I like to respect law enforcement because they lay their life down,” said Carr, who wore a baseball cap that read “don’t forget to thank a cop.”
At the start of the service, Lauren Smith took the stage, standing next to her uncle’s flag-draped casket.
She talked about how much Helus loved his annual Mammoth trips with his son, now 24. He couldn’t wait until her own son was old enough to tag along too, she said, her voice breaking.
Smith said Helus, who was also her godfather, was protective of her and loved his family deeply. She told a story of a Thanksgiving holiday when he found out that Smith, who had just gotten her learner’s permit, was afraid to drive on the freeway.
He immediately took her out to face her fears, in his new blue truck. Though she worried about crashing his truck, she didn’t.
But as they were returning, she cut things too close, scraping a mirror. She figured she was done for.
“Instead of getting upset, he calmly thought of my feelings at first,” Smith said. He looked at her and said: “Let’s just keep this our secret — it’s just a truck.”
When the 911 calls began to pour in on the night of the shooting, Helus was on the phone with Karen, his wife of 29 years.
“I gotta go handle a call,” he told her. “I love you. I’ll talk to you later.”
She had heard those words many times before. Helus, who was on the brink of retirement, had worn a badge for the length of their marriage.
At the service, Ventura County Sheriff Bill Ayub spoke of Helus’ extraordinary commitment to duty.
“Ron dared to go where most would flee, and he selflessly ran towards gunfire to confront someone who attacked the innocent,” Ayub said. “He entered the nightclub with no other purpose than to defend the defenseless and to save their lives — and lives he did save.”
Ventura Flores came to the service to thank Helus. His 26-year-old niece was at Borderline on the night of the shooting, he said, but she crawled to safety as bullets flew.
Two days later, his sister’s home in Malibu burned down in the Woolsey fire, and his sister and niece came to stay with him in downtown L.A. Together, they drove to Westlake to pay tribute to Helus and other first responders.
“My sister and her daughter wanted to come over and pay their respects for their bravery,” said Flores, 52. “It’s been a tough week.”
At the end of the service on Thursday afternoon, more than 1,000 officers filed out of the church. Some leaned toward each other as they walked, quickly embracing. They clutched their hats to their chests, positioning them back on their heads as they walked out of the sanctuary. Many whose badges said Ventura County Sheriff’s Department, stared at the floor, eyes wet.
Outside, people poured out of office buildings to watch the procession to the burial ground — nurses in scrubs, firefighters in yellow jackets, workers on their lunch break.
The area around the church is verdant, with rows of pepper trees and a golf course nearby. The backdrop is black, mountains recently charred by fire.
Officers lined up along the wide street as the procession began. Hundreds stood at attention, necks stiff, saluting their colleague.
Times staff writers Marisa Gerber and Javier Panzar contributed to this report.