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Fallen Huntington Beach officer Nick Vella honored at Orange County Peace Officers’ Memorial

The family of Huntington Beach Police Officer Nicholas Vella hugs.
The family of Huntington Beach Police Officer Nicholas Vella hugs as Vella’s name is added to the memorial wall during the Orange County Sheriff’s Advisory Council annual Peace Officer’s Memorial on Thursday.
(James Carbone)
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Huntington Beach Police Department Officer Nicholas Vella has been described by those who knew him best as a giving man.

He gave his all to his job, and ultimately his life, after the HB1 helicopter he was in crashed off the coast of Newport Beach on Feb. 19, 2022, while responding to a call for service.

Vella was honored Thursday night as he was added to the Orange County Peace Officers’ Memorial Wall, located at the Orange County Sheriff’s Training Academy in Tustin.

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The plaque for fallen Huntington Beach Police Officer Nick Vella.
The plaque for fallen Huntington Beach Police Officer Nick Vella at Thursday’s annual Orange County Peace Officer’s Memorial ceremony.
(James Carbone)

The wall honors and remembers the county’s fallen peace officers. Vella’s name will be the 54th and the first one added since 2014, the year after Laguna Beach Police Officer Jon Coutchie was killed in the line of duty.

Vella, who was 44, was survived by his wife, Kristi, daughter, Dylan, parents, John and Marcella, and brother, John Jr. All were present at Thursday night’s ceremony, which was put on by the Orange County Sheriff’s Advisory Council and concluded with a candlelight vigil next to the memorial wall.

Kristi has made a circuit of sorts, as she attended events honoring her late husband in Washington, D.C. and Sacramento. Nick Vella’s name was inscribed on the California Peace Officers Memorial at the state capitol in a ceremony earlier this month.

“This one is closest to my heart because it’s local,” Kristi Vella said Thursday night. “I appreciate all the agencies. It’s heavy. It doesn’t get any easier … [but] the support, and the fact that he is honored continually in anything, tells me he will not be forgotten.”

Huntington Beach Police Chief Eric Parra escorts Kristi Vella, the wife of Huntington Beach Police Officer Nick Vella.
Huntington Beach Police Chief Eric Parra escorts Kristi Vella, the wife of Huntington Beach Police Officer Nick Vella, to place a single red rose on a wreath for her husband at Thursday’s ceremony.
(James Carbone)

Kristi Vella and Huntington Beach Police Chief Eric Parra placed a red rose on the memorial wreath in honor of Nick. Parra and Dylan Vella, who is now a high school senior, lit the memorial candle.

Parra was the keynote speaker at the event, which included police chiefs and officers from all over Orange County, as well as survivors of those previously killed in the line of duty. He said he only met Nick Vella once, but he has been impressed getting to know his family over the last handful of months since the tragedy.

He said he has drawn from the strength that Kristi Vella has shown.

“If you have the opportunity to receive a hug from Dylan Vella, and you don’t take it, you’re missing out on the opportunity of a lifetime,” Parra said during his remarks. “She gives hugs like nobody else. I got one tonight, it almost knocked me over by the way, but it was beautiful. I will never forget it, and I’m going to get some more later. I love you, and more importantly, your dad does. He’s going to be there in your heart forever, and we’re going to help you never forget that.”

Officers from the Newport Beach Police Department pay their respects during Thursday's ceremony.
Officers from the Newport Beach Police Department pay their respects at the plaque of Huntington Beach Police Officer Nick Vella during Thursday’s ceremony.
(James Carbone)

The annual Peace Officers’ Memorial also included an honor roll bell, a three-volley salute and the traditional playing of “Taps,” as well as “Amazing Grace” on the bagpipes. Helicopters from the O.C. Sheriff’s Department, California Highway Patrol, Huntington Beach and Anaheim police departments conducted a flyover in the missing man formation in honor of the fallen heroes.

Dignitaries present also included Huntington Beach Mayor Pro Tem Gracey Van Der Mark and City Manager Al Zelinka. Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes and O.C. Sheriff’s Advisory Council past president Wayne Pinnell gave their remarks.

Vella, a 14-year veteran of the HBPD, is the third HBPD officer on the wall, joining Leo Roy Darst (1928) and Leslie J. Prince (1974). A roll call was taken Thursday, with representatives of each agency standing when their fallen officer’s name was called.

Orange County police officers and the family of Nick Vella stand for the presentation of the colors.
Orange County police officers and the family of Nick Vella stand for the presentation of the colors at Thursday night’s annual Orange County Peace Officer’s Memorial ceremony.
(James Carbone)

Parra talked about all of the human decency he has seen in the wake of Vella’s passing, from civilian responders on a boat who attempted to rescue him to the people of Lido Isle and the mobile home community where the helicopter went down.

“From this tragedy I’ve seen so much human decency, and I’ve seen so much human decency over my career in law enforcement,” Parra said. “Everybody on the wall, and Nick, do this job because they love it. They don’t do it to get rich, they don’t do it for recognition, they don’t do it for a lot of other reasons. They do it because it’s what they want to do, and it’s what they believe in their hearts … They’re all heroes in my mind.”

Rey Ortiz, who came to the event in a blue T-shirt honoring Vella, wouldn’t argue. Ortiz said he and Vella were neighbors in Anaheim Hills and became good friends for more than 12 years.

Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes gives the opening remarks at Thursday's ceremony.
Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes gives the opening remarks at Thursday’s Orange County Sheriff’s Advisory Council annual Peace Officer’s Memorial.
(James Carbone)

Both had a wife named Kristi — spelled the same way — and a daughter the same age, and they quickly hit it off.

“He was an amazing person,” Ortiz said. “A lot of people here know him from law enforcement, but we only know him as our friend and neighbor. He was amazing. He was fun to be around, always uplifting, always helpful. We had a really good relationship.

“Even in this line of work, he was never bringing stuff home. I can just imagine him at work because as a person in our neighborhood, I’ve never seen Nick frustrated or mad. He was always that person who was more concerned about how you felt, than about sharing his own personal feelings.”

The service closed with a prayer from HBPD Chief Chaplain Roger Wing.

Candles surround the plaque of fallen Huntington Beach Police Officer Nicholas Joseph Vella during Thursday's ceremony.
(James Carbone)

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