Police pause to remember fallen friends

Despite a visit by Israeli President Shimon Peres, former Costa Mesa Police Chief Dave Snowden was not at his current post at the Beverly Hills Police Department on Friday morning.

Instead, he was back at Costa Mesa police headquarters, standing on the helipad alongside about 120 sworn colleagues and community members in a memorial ceremony for officers John "Mike" Libolt and James "Dave" Ketchum. Both men died in the line of duty after their helicopter collided with a Newport Beach chopper 25 years ago.

"I just told the crew, 'Look, I gotta be here for this,'" said Snowden, who was chief at the time of the March 10, 1987, crash.

An Anaheim chopper similar to the one Libolt and Ketchum were in rested on the helipad, along with photos of the men, an empty helicopter helmet and a baby-blue-and-white floral wreath.

A 50-foot American flag was displayed in the background. Officers from the California Highway Patrol, Costa Mesa and the Newport Beach, Fullerton and Santa Ana police departments were among those who came to pay tribute a quarter century after the incident.

Newport-Mesa Unified school board President David Brooks, a retired Costa Mesa cop who also serves as a department chaplain, used to work burglary cases with Ketchum. He remembered his friend as "low-key, never flamboyant," and as an avid outdoorsman.

"No matter what was going on in his life, Dave was going fishing," Brooks said, adding that Ketchum was born about 100 years too late. "He would have loved to have been a cowboy."

Libolt, a former model, was remembered not only for his good looks, but also for his sensitivity and humor.

He was "the whole package," said retired CMPD Sgt. Bill Bechtel.

Bechtel remembered talking and joking with both men that night in the hours before their helicopter collided midair while pursuing a suspected teenage car thief.

At the time of the crash, Bechtel was pursuing the suspect on the ground. He said his face streamed with tears when he learned of his friends' fates.

One of the more memorable images was of Ketchum and Libolt drinking Crush. In a toast to the men, current CMPD Chief Tom Gazsi joined the others with their glasses full of the orange soda popular in the 1980s.

Gazsi said the officers' impact on the department has stretched over four decades, and that it was important to celebrate their memory.

Snowden described the death of Ketchum and Libolt as the biggest tragedy of his career.

He recalled the knock on his door 25 years ago when he was told of the crash, and being driven out to the scene of the wreckage. He visits the men's gravesites two to three times a year.

As the Anaheim helicopter passed overhead, showering the ceremony's visitors with crimson and ivory rose petals, Bechtel said he's never been able to visit the crash site.

"I want to remember them as the good friends and buddies they were," he said.


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