‘They watched those boys grow up:’ Mourning for fallen El Monte police officers likely to reverberate for years

El Monte Mayor Jessica Ancona was teary as she explained how the sudden, violent deaths of two of her city’s sons — Cpl. Michael Paredes and Officer Joseph Santana, both returning to serve their hometown as police officers — has left her community reeling.

“Heartbroken doesn’t begin to express the loss that we feel,” Ancona said. She noted both officers were “essentially ambushed while trying to keep a family safe.”

Paredes and Santana were killed at the Siesta Inn on Garvey Avenue on Tuesday as they responded to a call about a possible stabbing. When they got there, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department detectives said, 35-year-old Justin Flores confronted and shot them both. As Flores ran out of the building, another officer killed him.

The hurt from the deaths of two El Monte police officers has rattled this overwhelmingly Latino community in the heart of the San Gabriel Valley. The effects of their deaths are almost certainly to be remembered well in this city for years.

When a local police officer is killed, the death can tear at a sense of normalcy for small communities.

Many of L.A. County’s smaller towns are served by tight groups of public employees and coworkers who see one another at community events or across the civic center plaza.

“It’s family with a capital ‘F,’” Joe Vinatieri, the mayor of nearby Whittier, said of the people who work for his city. “People get to know each other. You might see each other at the Christmas breakfast.”

One officer he knew a bit was Keith Boyer. The two had encountered each other at events; Vinatieri knew Boyer for his infectious, beaming smile and friendly demeanor.

“He told me, ‘Hey, Mr. Mayor,’” Vinatieri said of running into Boyer. “He was ribbing me.”

Boyer was gunned down in February 2017 when Michael Christopher Mejia, a gang member who had killed his cousin in East L.A. hours earlier, fired at him and another responding officer after he crashed a stolen car.

Boyer, too, was a son of Whittier. He was born in the city and attended La Serna High School.

Years before the shooting, Boyer counseled a young student at La Serna who was wondering if he should become a police officer, Vinatieri said. That student was Patrick Hazell, the officer who responded with Boyer when Mejia crashed. Hazell was critically injured and later recovered.

Vinatieri said he was presiding at a city council meeting on Tuesday when he got news from his police chief about the deaths of the two El Monte officers. Some of the emotions from Boyer’s death welled up.

“These two gentlemen, they were El Monte kids. They were El Monte people,” he said, haltingly. “Just like Keith was a Whittier kid. He was a Whittier person. That community is hurting because they watched those boys grow up.”

The mourning may never have really ended in Whittier. It rarely does in close communities.

Larry Gonzalez said he knows that lingering feeling of loss, too.

Gonzalez was a watch commander for the Riverside Police Department in February 2013 the night Christopher Dorner, the deranged former Los Angeles Police Department officer who went on a violent rampage across the L.A. area, fired at two Riverside officers sitting in their patrol vehicle.

Gonzalez himself pulled Officer Michael Crain, covered in blood with multiple gunshot wounds, from the car. But Crain was already dead. His partner, Andrew Tachias, was shot eight times, but he survived.

Gonzalez is Riverside’s chief now. Along with Tachias, he still debriefs groups about how Riverside police responded to the shooting and how the city counseled its employees in the shooting’s aftermath.

“It’s still affecting people in our department,” Gonzalez said. “We still talk about it. It’s something that will be with you for the rest of your life, the rest of your department’s life.”

The community feel of Riverside has kept Gonzalez here for more than 25 years. He said the same goes for many of the employees who’ve served the city; the department has little turnover, he said, and retirees are always showing up to community events to swap stories.

He said few are likely to forget how suddenly Crain was taken from them. His officer’s death will always remain in the back of his mind.

“It makes you go right back,” Gonzalez said of the El Monte killings. “You know exactly how they feel.”

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