By Ti Goetz
Sgt. Leonard R. Luna Jr., a ten-year member of the Hawthorne Police Department, and one of my best friends, had already died by the time I finished my code 3 run to the hospital. Weaving my way through traffic, my feelings of dread had continued to grow as updates came in; he had gone down on his bike on the freeway, the California Highway Patrol was asking for a code 3 response, and finally, he was in traumatic full arrest and being transported to the trauma center. One look at the Captains face as I rushed up to the ER entrance said it all, a slight shake of his head was all it took, I knew he was gone.
A few minutes later I stood at his bedside, my eyes fixed upon his still and broken body, my mind reeling in shocked disbelief, my heart wracked with heartache, pain, and a sense of overwhelming loss that struck me to my core. Tears poured unashamedly down my face as I mourned all that was gone from this world. A devoted son and brother, an ardent motorcycle rider and lover of all things Harley Davidson, a fellow officer and motor Sergeant, and, above all, my friend.
I sat there for hours, clutching his hand as the warmth slowly faded from his lifeless body; barely noticing as other shocked and grieving members of the department gathered, talked, cried, or quietly came to his bedside to spend a few moments with all that was left of the friend and fellow officer we had shared so much with. Hardest of all was to see his parents. To see our pain reflected a hundred fold, a thousand fold, in the eyes of his mother and father as they entered that hospital room. With a great sob that seemed to be wrenched from his very soul, the father clung to his son with a bottomless anguish that only a parent who has lost “everything” could ever truly begin to fathom. In that moment in time, I knew, they knew, all of us knew, none of us would ever be the same again. To differing degrees, a part of each of us died with Leonard that day.
As it must, life has continued on since that day. The majestic police funeral long since over, the black bands put away, his spot on the department filled, the department back to business as usual, people laughing and joking in the hallways, officers patrolling the streets, schedules being made, training being planned, the mundane daily events of life that must go on. For me, not so much. I still drive by our coffee shop where we used to meet to shoot the bull, and find myself glancing over as if I expect to see him sitting out front waiting for me. Even though his cell phone has long since been disconnected, I can’t find it in me to delete his name and number from my directory. I periodically read through his email messages, which I still have stored on my computer, and laugh, cry, or reminisce, depending on how I’m feeling at the moment. Can’t erase those either, in a way, they feel like the last real link I have to him. Some tidbits of a final conversation stored forever in digital space. I know it’s silly, but it makes me feel better.
Each day after work, my own motorcycle ride home takes me past the very spot where he fell, a daily re-opening of a wound unlikely to be ever completely healed. When I come to the fork in the road where we used to split off from each other, we would always exchange a final wave or peace sign, the universal gesture of camaraderie between passing motorcyclists. As I pass that spot now, I cannot help but see his ghostly image in my mind’s eye, peeling off with a wave and that cool hand Luke nod of his head. I respond in kind, accompanied by a sad and whispered, “Rest in Peace brother.”
I do my best to stay in contact with his family. I don’t want them to ever think we have forgotten them, their son, or his sacrifice. A group of us went riding with Leonard’s dad a few months after the accident. It was the first time he had been back on his bike since his son’s accident. We all laughed and joked and tried to make it a good experience…..but there was little that could be done to fill the missing hole in our ranks. As we wove our way through the twists and turns that day, I found my mind wandering back over all the motorcycle trips we had taken together, the adventures we had shared, the laughs we had, the many conversations around the many campfires. It was a part of my life that I had hoped we would all share well into retirement. I had always come back from those trips a better man, more refreshed, more invigorated, happier. Part of it was the joys of seeing the wonders of this country from the back of a steel horse, but the real joy was simply sharing that adventure with good friends. A comfortable brotherhood of male bonding that mellowed the soul, soothed the mind, and reaffirmed the spirit.
I’ve had a hard time dealing with Leonard’s death. Probably should have talked to someone about it, in fact, I wanted too. I’m not exactly sure what I wanted to say; I just know I needed to say something. I needed to tell someone about the Leonard I knew, the loyal friend who stood with you through thick and thin, the witty guy with the great sense of humor and the greater sense of adventure, the conversationalist who was as comfortable chatting with intellectuals about politics as he was with the man on the street about engines and old cars. I needed to tell someone how much I respected and valued his opinion and counsel, how much I cherished our friendship and time together, and most importantly, how much I miss him. Guess that’s part of the reason I wrote this, my way of easing the pain of that emotional splinter whose removal I continue to find so elusive.
Like most people in this profession, I’ve witnessed my share of horror and heartache, anguish and grief. Like most cops, I push it aside, cordon it off, don’t let it burrow too deep into my mind or soul. But this time, it’s different; I’m not the same person I was before that terrible day. I guess nobody who lost someone close to them ever really is. Some things seem more important to me now, some less. One thing that remains very important to me is that I honor my friend, our friendship, and his sacrifice to this profession. I have a duty: for his friends and family, for this department, for myself, to keep his memory alive.
Leonard used to jokingly ask me when I was going to write an article about him. I would always tell him to give me something to write about and I would do it. As usual, he was never one to disappoint.
Farewell my friend, may the road you are traveling now be an easy one.
Ti Goetz is a Lieutenant with the Hawthorne Police Department. He has worked patrol, gangs, detective bureau, internal affairs, SWAT, and is now a patrol watch commander and the SWAT commander. He can be reached by email here.