Huntington Beach officer’s death is fourth time in 113 years department has been touched by tragedy
As the Huntington Beach Police Department mourns the loss of Officer Nicholas Vella — who died following a helicopter crash in Newport Harbor Saturday — some in the community are remembering other city police officers who died in the line of duty.
It’s a rare occurrence, as city officials have reported just three other Huntington Beach police officers, including one K9, have had their service cut short by misfortune, including two vehicle collisions and one criminal pursuit in its 113-year history.
“Last night’s tragic crash of HB1 serves as a reminder that ensuring and delivering public safety is a dangerous occupation,” Huntington Beach Councilman Mike Posey said in a Facebook post on Sunday.
“Officer Vella is the fourth HB officer to lose his life serving his city — we cannot overlook the inherent danger in police work.”
Vella’s passing comes 47 years after the department’s last human casualty.
Leslie James Prince was directing traffic at the intersection of Adams Avenue and Beach Boulevard during a power failure on Nov. 16, 1974, when a man suspected of driving under the influence struck the 26-year-old officer.
Lynda Prince Rudesill recalled she’d been out on a walk with another officer’s wife — her 6-month-old son Michael still in a stroller — when the incident occurred. Prince had been with the force for four years, and they’d only been married for three.
“They came and picked me up and took me to the hospital,” said the Anaheim Hills resident, now 72. “When we first got there, they were telling me his injuries were pretty mild. But it just kept getting worse.”
Prince would lie in a coma for two weeks, having suffered multiple fractures and a severe brain injury, before dying on Dec. 1. The hallways of the hospital were lined with officers, Rudesill recalled, a symbol of the “brotherhood” her husband had come to love in his time with the force.
“He’d told me about the department and how it was a brotherhood and they all stood by each other, and I learned that’s really true,” she said.
Although the driver of the vehicle, 26-year-old Morrison Hall Cress, faced charges, he did not receive a very long jail sentence in Rudesill’s eyes. She cannot recall the exact length of his time behind bars but believes it was less than a year.
“We were all stunned,” she said. “I thought, wait a minute, this was my husband, we have a young child and a life together.”
After Prince’s end of watch, it would be another 17 years before the Huntington Beach Police Department would lose another member of its ranks while on duty.
K9 Kim, a 5½-year-old German shepherd, was stabbed to death by a suspect he was pursuing near the corner of Seal Beach Boulevard and Westminster Avenue the afternoon of May 26, 1991.
Officer Jim Weaver had noticed a vehicle with an expired tag traveling on Pacific Coast Highway and initiated a traffic stop, the Los Angeles Times reported. The driver, Nick Spagnolo, 37, of Harrisburg, Penn., handed over his license but drove off when Weaver returned to his vehicle to check the license.
A short vehicle pursuit ensued, and Spagnolo reportedly exited his vehicle and fled on foot to a nearby parking lot. K9 Kim was released and tackled the suspect. That’s when Spagnolo pulled out a 4-inch knife and stabbed the canine in his chest, neck and paw.
K9 Kim was flown by helicopter to an emergency veterinary hospital but succumbed to his wounds. In an interview days later, Weaver described how his canine partner, “bleeding profusely,” came to his assistance.
“When I first saw the initial attack, I knew it was going to be serious,” Weaver said in a May 28 City Hall news conference, during which he credited Kim for saving his life. “I’m a little uncomfortable with the word hero, but, yeah, he did his job.”
A memorial service for the fallen K9 was held later that week at the city’s Sea Breeze Pet Cemetery, The Times reported.
The first known casualty among Huntington Beach Police Department’s rank occurred the morning of Oct. 12, 1928, during what the Orange County Register reported was the first major rainstorm of the season.
Leo Roy Darst was just five days into his job at the department when, answering a call on Main Street near Crest Avenue with his partner, the pair lost control of their vehicle, according to a fallen officers page on HBPD’s website.
As Darst’s partner hit the brakes, the vehicle swerved across the street due to the wet roadway and struck an oncoming vehicle. After suffering severe brain injuries from the impact, Darst died one day later. At 43, he was survived by a wife and two daughters.
On Tuesday, as members from throughout the police department gathered for a police procession honoring Vella, Rudesill remembered feeling overwhelmed by the ceremonial remembrances made after her husband’s death in 1974.
Although she felt buoyed by the support of her police family, she recalled it as a difficult time and said she could imagine the pain Officer Vella’s wife, Kristi Tovar, must be feeling.
“This is going to be a really, really rough few weeks,” she said, offering to lend an ear if needed. “[But] I hope she can understand how much her husband loved his job. It never makes up for it, but it’s good to know they were doing something they loved.”
All the latest on Orange County from Orange County.
Get our free TimesOC newsletter.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Daily Pilot.