April 16, 2004, last night someone shot and killed one of our police officers. A son, a husband, a father, a friend and neighbor, one of the good guys. One of the ultimate tragedies. And it happened in our tiny farmland town, just blocks from my home. Way too close to home.
We lost our first policeman in the line of duty in the 115 year history of the city last night. Stephan Gray (pronounced Stef-fawn') had a wife and three young children, seven years on the force assigned to the Juvenile Crime and Gang division. He stopped a car at 19th and Glen (we are three blocks down from Glen on 21st) and the passenger fled, firing two shots to Gray's head, killing him, but not instantly. One of the neighbors talked to him as he died, urging him to stay with her. Someone had to be the one to tell his young widow.
Last night, we heard sirens, nothing new. Then heard the helicopter, thinking it was Mediflight, also nothing new. Next, my son John bursts in the door, a cop has been shot down the street. I know my girl friend, DL, the evidence officer who doubles as the police crime scene photographer is headed for an all nighter. I wonder, I need to know, who was it? I can only wait. And pray. Watching from the porch for almost two hours as the helicopter covers the neighborhood with a floodlight I pray for the policeman, his family and all of our forces. Someone is loose, on foot, probably considered armed and dangerous. We batten down for the night, thinking about the broken down fence board we discovered the other morning, quietly thankful we have dogs that sound aggressive.
We know most of the policeman on our beat having been targeted for numerous vehicle break-ins, and our address is well known in dispatch. I shiver as I wonder who has been shot. What these men put on the line every morning is beyond my grasp, but not my appreciation.. The department has been understaffed for years, with only two men on a shift for quite a large area. Despite this, they are always there for us, always patient and helpful, always willing to assist in what manner they can. This has been awarded, at long last, by a senseless murder of one of our precious police officers.
The news this morning shows a 21 year old man's face, an unfriendly, unsmiling face. The same age as my son, from our town. My son might have gone to school with him. I watch Commander Andrade keeping the facts cold and straight but you can see the strain in his face, you know it is an effort to stay professional and emotionless. You remember that Mrs.Gray has no husband to say good morning to today, her children's father has been shot down.
If you had been able to see the local news on the telly this morning you would have seen my neighborhood. It looks like the classic Elm Street with lush street trees that embroider wide quiet streets with older but elegant, individually personalized homes and gardens tended with love and care. Beaver might have lived here. Only a few blocks away are poorer communities, streets we only drive through if need be. Places that make you shudder.
What you don't see is that the crime has more than tripled in the last fifteen years, and the police force has not. You can't see the unrest in the hearts of local residents as the neighborhoods are commanded by teen gangsters who delight in burglarizing the churches, the houses and vehicles in the middle of the night. You can, however, see all the hundreds of little red dots on our street maps if you look up where registered severe threat sex offenders live. You can see the sorrow from last night on the faces of the well known clerks at Walgreens or Save Mart. You can almost see their thinking, adding Stephan Gray to the growing list of recently nationally known local names that include Cary Stayner, Joie Armstrong, Carole and Juli Sund, Silvina Pelosso, Scott, Laci and Connor Peterson, the Carpenter children and Jonathan David Bruce, the four McFadden children and John Hogan, David Lange and his headless mother, Aurelia.
The suspect, Riviera, a notorious gang banger, evidently does not drive, and will rely on friends and family for transport. The police arrest Riviera's mother for harboring. The weekend news shows Riviera's sister screaming at the police in front of the station and news cameras, hollering and bellowing swear words. She screams the only reason the police want her brother is that "he (Stephan) had a badge." We are insulted and infuriated by her attitude, but celebrate to learn on Monday she was arrested and can be held for twenty days. It appears she was arrested earlier for assaulting a police officer and did not show up for her weekend work duty. She was too busy insulting police officers. Payback.
I am listening to the repeated circling of the two helicopters overhead as the news reports they might have Riviera surrounded in an apartment building less than six blocks away, and I am trying to wrap my mind around the fact this is really happening. The DEA and other agencies appear in force, some complete with swat helmets and huge guns. How frustrated our forces must feel.
Several local agencies are putting in their own eight and twelve hours and then coming down to our town to help out. Food is constantly delivered to the police station, police sleep where they can, when they can. All vacations, all time off have been cancelled, but that is enhanced by the volunteers, police who come out of retirement, or return from other jobs to help out.
Tuesday was spent putting up wanted posters. At the police station, the chief came in a bit after ten am, looking exhausted. His wife had just "given him hell" for not getting enough rest, I mentioned trying to get DL out of there at noon for a break. Someone asked her what time it was, she said "six oh two" and Chief Dosseti looked at me and said "Noon!" I left with another friend to put up posters for the morning. I stopped to put one last one up and was approached by a local news station. We talked for a few minutes before they tried to place a microphone on my shirt as I sat in my car, trying to leave. Evidently they had been recording all along. I finally escape to get my friend and her hubby for lunch. The next morning I was horrified to see my face on the telly. That is a shock I don't want to go through again. Chief Dosseti is on the news, "Give yourself up like a man."
Shopping at the mall for something to wear to the funeral feels safer than being in my own home. My daughter and I drive to the local market for dinner, passed by over a dozen police cars. I want to hug each one. The sirens return, the copter returns, right over our heads. We drive to a court behind our home, an extremely poor neighborhood, to find several news cars and cameras, locals and children., watching a full scale siege just over the railroad tracks. I get a phone message that says, "Pray, now and hard." Two nearby schools are under lock down, the entire Swat team from another agency joins ours as they block off the same apartment complex for the second time. My daughter calls her best friend who lives just beyond the complex to hear they are directly involved. Her mother tried to leave her apartment to go to work, only to be met at the door by a Swat member holding an impressive machine gun and she is told to return to her home. We cannot pick them up or even drive near their home. Brianne watches as the swat team blows open another apartment door with gunfire and gas the apartment, describing each step to Jena on my cell phone. We can only listen in horror. We bring the news men and women fresh coffee and soda. Finally we head home. Riviera has not been found.
Wednesday is the funeral and reception. DL cannot attend as she has to remain at the reception she organized and receive the donated food. Nonsense. I take her place while she and the other female officers go to the funeral. Several wonderful women were there as well, we putter and wait. Putter and wait. DL finally returns after the huge procession down a main street to the burial. She is in quiet tears, but holding up well. We hug for a long time before she takes a deep breath and carries on. Slowly the room fills with policemen from every agency you can think of, even some from out of state. Watching a large group of San Francisco motorcycle policemen in absolute perfect formation drive down the street puts a large lump in your throat. Sadly beautiful. Merced, Stanislaus, Kern, Mariposa, Calaveras, Glenn, Solano, Contra Costa, Tuolumne, California Highway Patrol, Livingston, Atwater, Los Banos, Chowchilla, Fresno, Stockton, Oakdale, Clovis, Hanford, Fowler, Kerman, Reedley, Exeter, Turlock, Sonora, Napa, Angels Camp, Jackson, Delano, Hayward, Morgan Hill, Dublin, Livermore, Mountain View, Sacramento, San Francisco, Union City, Los Angeles, San Jose, Citrus Heights, Justice Officers, I can't remember them all. Michelle finally appears, composed, beautiful, sunglasses hide her eyes. Two thousand officers in one room are deafening. The stories are incredible, coming home to your home full of Swat members, another friend goes outside Thursday night at the sound of gunfire to see Riviera run by him. That evening is another siege, no results. All we can do is pray.
Thursday is more copters overhead, but not as many. Thursday night reports our favorite restaurant under siege. No results by Friday morning news. Friday's Oprah show interviews our veterinarian whose four children were shot down by her ex-husband last year. She looks worn, cautious, tender. Another reminder of that our town has experienced this past year. KP from the left coast and I joke about the fact that it must be our water. Riviera is listed on America's Most Wanted web page, Saturday's show will include Merced if he is not caught by then.
Saturday night we had DL over for dinner, another break for her, a chance to relax and collect her energies so she can return the next day to help feed the hundred officers on each shift. The Chief laughed for once. He says, "Having everyone here is great but I wish they would go home so I can get some sleep." It's like having your relatives out stay their welcome. No real news, no leads that end in capture. San Diego Swat team investigate a tip, no results. We miss America's Most Wanted but pray it helps our officers find him. New calls pour in, it would appear he actually might be in San Diego. Reports on how painful it was for our officers to watch the re-enactment bring tears again.
Sunday I have promised to take Jena shopping for her birthday party decorations. We buzz around the town like the days before the bedlam started. I run into an old friend I have not seen at the store and she says her brother, not one the town's most upstanding citizens, told her to relax, Riviera is in Mexico by now, courtesy of his father via his grandmother who lives in a smaller neighboring town. I am silent, thinking. You claim to be on the 'right' side of the law, and yet, you never said one word. You never called, even anonymously to the police to let them know, they could have checked out the lead and saved hours and hours and hours of time, stress, sieges, efforts for not only the police but the town as well. Maybe the information is not accurate, but it might have been, as well. I am simply disgusted.
Sunday night, May 2nd, the phone jolts us just after nine. It's DL. "They have him!" She can't contain her excitement, yet you hear a sad joy in her voice. Dispatch had paged every officer with "915" (suspect in custody) and they, in turn, called those waiting to hear. Hundreds gather in front of the station. The news is full of the story at eleven and six the next morning, showing a weary Rivera leave an unmarked car, being fingerprinted, then making a phone call, smiling. His family protests in front of the station proclaiming his innocence, another brother is arrested for provoking violence. The father is arrested for some past event, and deported to Mexico. His arraignment is Friday. At least, at least he is in custody.
Nothing anyone can do will bring back Stephan, not even the death penalty. When I snuggle down in my David's arms at night I can't help but think of Michelle who will never run to hug and kiss Stephan when he comes home, his children will never wrestle or play with him, his parents and family will never spend another Christmas or holiday with him, the public will never again benefit from his heart, hours of devotion and sincere compassion.
Why did this happen? Why would a young man of just twenty one with a daughter of two would be willing to change the course of his life this drastically, not to mention affecting so many other lives, by taking a life with such ease.
From the Modesto Bee: Gray's tear-filled address capped a seven-week trial that led to the conviction of Cuitlahuac Tahua "Tao" Rivera, 24, for murdering Merced police officer Stephan Gray in 2004 to avoid arrest. Rivera, also known as "Bullet" and "Trigger," was sentenced last month to die, a punishment that a Colusa judge confirmed at the final hearing. The trial was held in Colusa after a change-of-venue motion. The confessed was a member of the Merced Gangster Crips. When the verdict was announced, the usually stoic Rivera leaned back in his chair and let out a sharp burst of laughter. After the hearing, armed guards took him to San Quentin State Prison to begin his stay on Death Row.
Stephan's Findagrave Memorial
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