Fallen officers honored, K9 memorial unveiled at Laguna Beach police remembrance ceremony
A Laguna Beach Police Department tradition of honoring officers who lost their lives in the line of duty went on again Tuesday, with an additional remembrance for the department’s four-legged friends that have passed away.
Laguna Beach’s fallen officer remembrance ceremony has been held on Sept. 21 annually since the passing of Motor Officer Jon Coutchie on that date in 2013. It also honors Officer Gordon French, whose end of watch came on Feb. 13, 1953.
The ceremony this year included a tribute to the K9 division of the department, as a new K9 memorial by Gerard Stripling was unveiled next to the larger police memorial “Eternal Legacy,” which Laguna Beach Cultural Arts Manager Sian Poeschl said was worked on by Michele Taylor and Stripling.
The memorial acknowledged the years of service provided by three police dogs in Gero (1988-1996), Max (1999-2003) and Ranger (2014-2021). Laguna Beach Police Chief Jeff Calvert called upon the respective handlers — Ted Falencki (Gero) and Manny Nunez (Max) — to stand up and be recognized before giving way to K9 Cpl. Zach Fillers, who was Ranger’s handler.
Ranger, who was so named because Coutchie was a former U.S. Army Ranger, died in June, Fillers said. The police dog had been diagnosed with cancer in February.
Fillers told those in attendance the origins of his relationship with Ranger, whom he said came to the department from Europe.
“I was hoping that he and I would become fast friends,” Fillers said. “What happened over the next seven years was the ride of a lifetime. We were together 24-7 at work and at home. We spent thousands of hours together, trying to become a great K9 team, which was one of the most rewarding and frustrating things I’ve ever done.
“Imagine trying to get an animal, who only understands a foreign language, to do exactly what you want upon command when people’s lives are at risk and absolute perfection is required. Not stressful at all.”
Fillers recalled that Ranger had the ability to lighten the mood, and he attempted to do so himself by showing how training the K9 created habits. He had taught Ranger to lay down when he had to communicate on the radio, and like a reflex, Fillers gave the command while on a DUI patrol with another officer.
“On several occasions during the shift, I would grab the microphone and give the lay down command to an empty back seat,” Fillers said.
Calvert shared the stories of the final assignments for French and Coutchie, as well as their lasting legacies. French’s end of watch resulted from a gunshot wound. A suspect was being booked into the department’s jail when a struggle for a gun occurred and the officer was shot, Calvert said. French died of his injuries while being transported to a hospital.
“After his death, it became a requirement for all police officers to attend an extensive training academy,” said Calvert, noting that French had not died in vain. “Additionally, it sparked action within our own community to build a local hospital.
“Six years later, believe it or not, Laguna Beach opened South Coast Medical Center, and later dedicated the emergency wing to Officer Gordon French.”
Calvert and Coutchie had known each other going back to their days as students at Laguna Hills High School. It was the Laguna Beach police chief’s turn to provide a moment of levity when he said the two of them would refer to themselves as “petroleum transfer engineers” while pumping gas as their first jobs at his father’s gas station.
Calvert said Coutchie was moved to protect and defend the freedoms of the United States following the terrorist attacks of 9/11. He remembered Coutchie for his military service, which he said included two tours each in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“After Jon’s last tour overseas, he gave me a call and told me that he didn’t know what he wanted to do when he returned home,” Calvert said of Coutchie, who died in a motorcycle accident. “I told him I had the perfect job for him.
“I knew John would love being a police officer because he lived by the same core values that police officers live by every day.”
Sgt. David McGill, a member of the Laguna Beach honor guard, was presented with the honor guard remembrance flag. It is meant to recognize a person who personifies the principles that the honor guard stands for: honor, sacrifice, courage and remembrance.
At the conclusion of the ceremony, the officers on hand each grabbed a flower and laid it at the feet of the two memorials.
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