Burbank Police Officer Randy Lloyd went flying over his motorcycle’s handlebars in November 2003, his tires slipping on the rubberized apron of the railroad tracks made slick by light rain.
The Nov. 15 crash near the corner of Buena Vista Street and San Fernando Boulevard would send him to the hospital, and he would take eight months to recuperate.
But Lloyd first had a job to do. He had heard the cries — wails, really — for help, understood officers were involved in a firefight at the Burbank Ramada, and knew it was bad. Really bad.
“I considered running for it,” he said, referring to the hotel about a quarter-mile away. “I really did.”
But Lloyd stayed put, closing down the intersection and directing traffic for 90 agonizing minutes, making it possible for others to get to the scene of one of the darkest days in the history of the department. At the Ramada, officers found one of their own, Matthew Pavelka, dead, and another, Gregory Campbell, gravely wounded.
One of the men involved in the shooting, Ramon Aranda, died in the exchange of bullets. The other, David Garcia, fled on foot and escaped to Mexico, but was captured about two weeks later.
The arrest marked the beginning of a torturous wait for Pavelka’s family, the Burbank Police Department and the larger community. For nearly a decade, and for more than a third of the 24-year careers of the two detectives who worked the case — Chuck Howell and Brent Dyrness — we all waited.
There were more than 50 delays in the case, and allegations of police misconduct by Garcia, further complicated by internal and external investigations of alleged excessive force stemming from the infamous, but unrelated, 2007 Porto’s Bakery robbery case. Add in multiple lawsuits filed by officers against the department and the dysfunctional leadership of former Chief Tim Stehr, and you have a hot mess.
These are the weights borne by Burbank officers, the vast majority of whom are honest and hard-working: the Pavelka case, the investigations and the lawsuits.
On Tuesday, one of those weights was lifted when Garcia, 28, finally pleaded guilty. He was immediately sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
But justice is complicated. It gives closure and relief, but it will always be incomplete. A 26-year-old had his life stolen from him. Regardless of what happens to Garcia, Pavelka will still be dead, and will serve as a reminder that evil exists.
“When you think of Burbank, you don’t think of it happening here,” said Dyrness, who was born and raised in the city. “But it can happen anywhere.”
I spoke to Lloyd, Howell and Dyrness this week at Burbank police headquarters. I wanted to get a feel for how people were feeling inside the building, to get inside their heads a bit. In general, they said officers are pleased the case is over. They also wish Garcia had gotten the death penalty but understand why he didn’t.
Howell, the lead detective on the case, said he was given a heads-up Monday that Garcia planned to plead guilty.
“I was a little doubtful,” he said, a feeling that certainly makes sense, given the history of delays.
But it did happen.
Howell said only three members of the department were in the courtroom: himself, a captain and a deputy chief. This was intentional.
“We didn’t want him to see a bunch of officers and decide to change his mind,” Howell said.
Pavelka’s family made the decision to have the death penalty taken off the table, a move that ended the case, and one clearly respected by the officers.
The only grumbling Howell said he heard was a collective desire to have been in the courtroom. Once they explained why it wasn’t a good idea, he said, everyone understood.
Garcia was 19 when he was arrested and 28 when sentenced. If he lives an average life span, he will spend an incredible 57 years behind bars. His life is gone, despite the fact he gets to keep breathing.
But Pavelka’s memory continues, from the painting that sits front-and-center in the headquarters building, to the Police Unity Tour that Dyrness has done for the last three years in his honor.
Dyrness said next year will be the 10th anniversary of Pavelka’s death, and he expects many people will join him on the 2013 bicycle ride, which goes from New Jersey to Washington, D.C.
I expect so as well. I deeply hope this provides some degree of comfort to Pavelka’s family, and to the department. May all its weights and troubles lift soon.
DAN EVANS is the editor. Reach him at (818) 637-3234 or email@example.com.