"It is hard to be the survivor, the guilt sometimes wants to eat you up inside"
October 14, 1995, a Saturday to be enjoyed attending a football game and a exhibition basketball game. This Saturday would change my life forever. Throughout the day, I had a feeling that something wasn’t right. My niece and I attended a football game that afternoon and I thought of things that could go wrong, and thought briefly of Richard. Throughout the game, I couldn’t shake that feeling. After the game, we walked to the activity center to watch the basketball game. Not enjoying it, we left before it was over and headed to my truck. We no sooner left the building for five minutes and my beeper went off. I immediately knew something was dreadfully wrong because it was almost midnight and one knew not to beep me at that hour. I said something like “Oh no! Something is wrong.” The telephone number was my niece’s. I called her and when she answered, crying she said “It’s Uncle Richard! He’s gone!” My first thought was where did he go? Then she said he had shot himself. I wanted to scream, yell, cry, but people were all around, the game was over. My mind was running at a hundred miles a minute. Richard did do it! He said he would! Why?! My thoughts went back to the time his life changed.
On December 5, 1987, two of Richard’s officers (Andy and Roy) were murdered in southeastern Utah. A bunch of kids from the area had lured the two officers to the place they were partying. The officers were brutally beaten and shot, while handcuffed, in an area that was about a mile and half from Richard’s residence. The officers were later driven to an isolated area, close to Lake Powell, and locked in the back of a police panel, which was doused with gasoline and torched. The autopsy showed they were still alive at the time. Richard had been home and heard them talking on the scanner earlier in the evening, but couldn’t understand them because the reception wasn’t clear. He turned off the scanner. He was suppose to be on duty that night, but stayed home due to a family emergency. Later Richard told me that he had been the one targeted that night. He blamed himself over and over. Trying to ease his pain and guilt, we told him that his life had been spared for some reason. It wasn’t his time to die. (And recently, I found out that it was the wrong thing to say.) He’d get angry and ask why they had to die instead of him. He helped with the investigations and attended the trials of the people involved. Of the 15-20 people involved, only 2 went to prison to serve life sentences. It hurt him so much to see those involved living their daily lives while his officers were in their graves. He had seen their remains, the burnt out panel and heard about all that was inflicted upon his officers. His life had changed. He began having nightmares and couldn’t sleep. When I would visit for a weekend, I’d wake up in the middle of the night, he’ll be sitting in the living room with the lights off and TV on. He’d still be there in the morning. On another visit home, I noticed that his collection of police badges was gone. He had taken it down and packed it away. He became paranoid. He told me that cars would drive up the road to the house, headlights off, and park. One time, he made everyone lay on the floor and he grabbed his rifle. He was sure they were there to get him. I immediately called the utility company and requested that a streetlight be installed. The light was installed right away. Even a canine unit from another police department let him use a dog for at least a month. He would always mention that his chest hurt and that his racing heart sometimes made breathing difficult. Food gave him severe heartburns, and he lost weight. He would visit the officer’s graves every chance he had. He often dreamed about them and said they wanted him to go with them or that they were in a good place. He threw himself into work and hardly joined in during family occasions, and holidays. He was easily agitated and always wanted to be left alone. He had wanted to honor Andy and Roy in some way, but the administration refused to listen to him and he became discouraged. He would phone me late at night and want to talk. Sometimes I could tell that he’d be drinking. We’d talk about mom, my brother James who passed away in 12/91, work, and about Andy and Roy. At times he’d break down and I would try to comfort him, wishing I could make his hurt go away. Concerned about his drinking, I talked to him about it and his wife would talk to him too. Maybe he did realize he needed help, so he arranged to check into an alcoholic rehabilitation center. The first time he changed his mind because he felt claustrophobic and didn’t want to be confined. The next time, his request for leave was denied by his supervisor. At one point I decided to see the police chaplain. I spoke to him of the change in Richard and that I thought he needed help. The chaplain said he would talk to him and see what could be done. I also asked him to keep this confidential and he said he would. I felt relieved because I finally found someone who could help Richard. Later, someone said to me, “Did you hear Richard is going crazy? Someone went to the chaplain and told him that Richard was going crazy.” My heart sank and I couldn’t believe it! I was so angry because he betrayed me. That ended my attempt for help through the police administration. Now I understand why police officers don’t want to ask for help.
After the news of Richard’s suicide, we drove to my apartment, where I picked up some items and drove on to my sister’s place in Gilbert. She had already gotten the call. We were in shock. We couldn’t get hold of anyone; no one was answering their phones. We finally called the hospital at home. (Home was about 500 miles away, a six-hour drive.) Everything was in a state of confusion. We couldn’t get anyone to tell us what had happened, other than Richard had shot himself. Later, it was that his family was traumatized and in shock, and had to be taken to the hospital where they were sedated. My sister was with them. Richard had shot himself behind the house. My nephews had been inside the house and my sister-in-law was outside and not until she heard the shot, she realized what he had done. The house was off limits to everyone, even family, until the early morning hours because of the investigation going on. Richard had been threatened many times so the investigators had to be certain and I’m sure they refused to believe that he shot himself. (Lab reports showed that his blood alcohol was approximately three times the legal limit.) I wanted to head home immediately, but Richard’s oldest son was on a school field trip and calls were made to the forestry office to send a ranger to look for them. And it was a big area. For the rest of the night, we walked around the house, inside, outside, around, lost-waiting for a call. The waiting was unbearable. My heart ached thinking of my nephews and sister-in-law. I wished I were with them. I watched the sun come up, and remembered watching the sun come up on the day mom died. I had walked to a place called “The Point”, and sat on a rock. I heard others calling for me, but I didn’t want to answer. Richard found me, he put his arms around me and we both cried. Then I remembered something he said the last time I’d seen him. He said that one day he would be gone. I asked “Why?” He said he was tired of everything, work and living. And if he wanted to, he would use his gun. (He indicated this by pointing his finger to his head.) I asked him what about us, his family? Didn’t he think of us? He said, “You guys can take it”. And asked me to watch over his boys and help his wife. I refused to think he would actually do it. I scolded him for thinking that way and that he shouldn’t even think that. He was supposed to be strong, able to endure all that was thrown his way. He was a police officer, he couldn’t do that. At times I’ve watched him getting ready for work putting on his vest and belt, and checking his gun. One time he thought it was too hot to wear his vest, but decided to wear it anyway. He said he tells his officers to set a routine, and not to do anything out of the ordinary because something could go wrong. Or he would see them improperly approaching a stopped vehicle, so he’d have them do it the proper way. And he didn’t like to see them sitting around. When the officers hear him coming, everyone would make sure to be busy. Richard cared about his officers. I heard stories of good deeds he had done and he didn’t tell us. To him, it was something to be done and he did it. He wasn’t one to brag. He did tell me that the worse times during work was seeing women and kids who had been beaten and abused. One time I’d seen his son’s Ninja Turtle action figure stuck on his patrol car window. I figured that was for the kids. The tragedy of Richard’s death affected everyone-family, friends, and co-workers. As suicide is described, it has “a rippling effect” on everyone.
The tribal newspaper didn’t make things any better. Richard’s suicide made the tribal newspaper in big bold letters. It was not a good article. It indicated that a suicide was usually due to “mental illness” and also was a result of domestic violence. No mention was made of the family’s grief, or of his good deeds. We sent a letter to the police chief asking for his support and at least an apology to the immediate family for comments he had made. We didn’t hear from him, although he was at the funeral service. The police officers and staff organized a memorial service for Richard on Wednesday and the funeral service on Thursday. They took care of everything, the Honor Guard, pictures, flowers, flags, and speakers. I am ever so grateful for their loyalty to Richard that day. He would have been so proud of them. The funeral service was held at a community center in Kayenta, AZ, 25 miles from home, and also where the police station is located. On the day of his funeral, as we were getting into the car to leave, there was a light, gentle rain on us. I looked around and found the sand around us wasn’t wet but the car window was. The sky was clear, no clouds, no breeze and it was so quiet. That was so strange. When we walked to the building where the funeral was held, there were police officers all around, including officers who had come from the surrounding police departments. I wished I had the chance to meet them and thank them personally. I was just glad they were there. They had formed a line from the parking lot into the building. Our family was escorted into the building. Even the President of the Navajo Nation was there. Students from the high school were there, as Richard was a familiar face at the school functions. I can’t recall the speeches, although I do remember hearing a list of Letter of Commendations and such that Richard had received. I didn’t know about them. The rest of the funeral was a blur. After the service was over, everyone had left the building and I was standing alone by his coffin. The bullet had ricocheted inside his head, leaving his face intact. I looked at him, traced his face with my fingers. I straightened his uniform collar, straightened the pen in his pocket, and held his hands one last time. He looked like he was sleeping. The funeral director came by to close the coffin lid so that the Honor Guards could load the coffin into the hearse. I looked at my little brother once more, and kissed him good-bye. I told the guys to be careful with him. The 25-mile drive back home to the burial site was quiet, my sleeping nephew and I were the only ones in the car. I was the last car and I could see the funeral procession filling a five-mile stretch which went over a hill. Flashing red/blue lights all the way down. The burial services included the 21-gun salute, and the Last Call, done by my younger brother who worked as a detention officer. A reception was held at the local high school after the burial. The high school staff and students, and friends within the area, put the dinner together. Someone had baked a beautiful cake that was decorated with the Navajo police emblem. We are grateful for their show of support. Richard was a good officer and he deserved such an honorable funeral. He gave his best for twenty years and deserves to be remembered as to who he was and not how he died. It will be five years since his death and we love him and still miss him very much. It is still very difficult for my family to put their thoughts into words, as it was for me to write this. Not a day goes by that I don’t think of him. He is in every police unit I see and in every police officer I see.
The signs of post-traumatic stress were there. I didn’t see it. We didn’t see it. I had asked if the police officers were debriefed after the tragic deaths of Andy and Roy, the answer was yes but a follow-up was not done. Was Richard’s life spared in December because there was a reason? I believe so. Because of the Navajo’s belief that the taking of one’s own life is wrong, suicide deaths are ignored. The police department did not have a trained counselor to assist police officers. After Richard’s death, there were three (3) in-the-line of duty deaths in the same station, a total of seven officers’ deaths. Maybe the police administration finally did realize that the officers do need help. Within 3 years of Richard’s death, a conference was held at the police academy for all survivors of police deaths. There was no distinction in cause of death. This was a positive and a much-needed gesture. In May 1998, a memorial was dedicated to the fallen officers, my brother included-although his name is on “the other side”. The memorial was the result of combined effort of an Arizona DPS officer and the Navajo officers. The officers often work in remote isolated areas and are alone. They have to depend on their knowledge and skills to survive. Their equipment is often outdated. Recently, I’ve been told that there is now a counselor ‘s office at the police headquarters. And also, some officers are attending grief seminars that are offered at other police departments. A beginning.
Submitted by Ruth