L.A. Now

Hundreds fill cathedral for LAPD motorcycle officer's funeral

The cathedral was full — the choir seats filled by uniformed police officers — but it was silent as the microphone was lowered for the little boy.

Ten-year-old Jonathan Navarro looked out at the hundreds of officers seated before him to mourn his uncle, LAPD Officer Christopher A. Cortijo, and began speaking directly to the fallen officer.

"Uncle Chris, I will always remember you," he said. "You took your time with me and treated me with tough love. You are my hero."

Hundreds of people gathered in downtown Los Angeles early Tuesday to pay their final respects to Cortijo, a Los Angeles Police Department motorcycle officer who died earlier this month after being struck by a driver suspected of being under the influence of cocaine.

A 26-year veteran of the department, Cortijo, 51, had been assigned to the Valley Traffic Division when an SUV struck him from behind on April 5.

At a funeral Mass at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, colleagues remembered him as a man who so cherished his role as a motorcycle cop that he wore a leather motorcycle jacket even in the searing San Fernando Valley heat.

They said Cortijo was known throughout the department for his sense of humor and a mustache so large that it earned him the nickname "Lorax," after the Dr. Seuss character.

Jonathan remembered his uncle making him laugh. "Remember Taco Bell?" he asked. "You would tell me it was healthy food because it had fresh lettuce and tomato."

Cortijo, who served in the Marines before joining the LAPD, was a lifelong "Valley boy" who was proud of his Southern California roots, Mayor Eric Garcetti said.

LAPD Chief Charlie Beck has called Cortijo's death the "ultimate irony" because the officer had arrested more than 3,000 drivers suspected of being under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

"If you pause for a minute, you can feel the breaking of 13,000 hearts — the hearts of the members of the Los Angeles Police Department," Beck said.

Cortijo was rear-ended by a Chevrolet Blazer while stopped on his motorcycle at a red light near Saticoy Street and Lankershim Boulevard in Sun Valley, authorities said. Prosecutors allege that Qaneak Shaney Cobb, 33, was under the influence of cocaine when she struck Cortijo. She has pleaded not guilty to a felony DUI charge.

Capt. Maureen Ryan, Cortijo's commanding officer, said Tuesday that he was "en route to help a fellow officer with a DUI driver when he was violently struck by a DUI driver."

Fellow officers and family members held vigil at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center as Cortijo fought for his life, but he died four days later. Ryan said she carried Cortijo's badge while he was hospitalized, hoping that he would one day wear it again.

"I laid his badge that he loved so much on his chest before he breathed his last breath," she said. "Chris went to heaven wearing his badge, No. 10775."

Cortijo's death comes during a particularly rough stretch for the department. Last month, Officer Nicholas Lee was crushed to death when his patrol car was struck by an out-of-control dump truck. Lee's family was in attendance at Cortijo's funeral.

Cortijo was assigned to the Valley Traffic Division in 1995 and worked on the DUI Task Force for 17 years, according to the department. He received more than 120 commendations throughout his career.

A group of helmeted motorcycle officers escorted Cortijo's flag-draped casket into and out of the cathedral as the sound of bagpipes cut the air.

Bill Tatem, a retired Valley Traffic Division officer, had been Cortijo's partner for so long that even though Tatem was no longer with the department, on the day of the accident his cellphone was flooded with messages saying his partner had been badly hurt, he said.

Tatem had been trying to talk Cortijo into retiring.

"I would tell him, 'There's life after LAPD, and life is good,'" Tatem said. "Chris would say he just wanted to get a few more years."

Tatem broke down into sobs as he spoke, his voice echoing in the cavernous cathedral.

"Part of me feels that had I not retired, Chris and I would still be working together, and I could have protected him. I always watched out for him," he said. "Chris, I love you. And I will always miss you. You were my best partner, friend and little brother. Until we partner up again, Chris Cortijo."

In the audience, officers wiped tears from their eyes.

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