IT HAD BEEN SEVEN MONTHS SINCE L.A.'s LAST cop funeral, but the scene inside Downey's cavernous Calvary Chapel on Friday suddenly made familiar again both the image of a church filled with guns and the eerie hush that falls upon the thousands of mourners who are carrying them. They'd come to pay respects to L.A. County Sheriff's Deputy David Powell, 42, killed in Artesia when a suspect fired four shots through a house door that deputies were trying to kick open. One slug sailed through a gap in Powell's body armor and drilled into his heart — a one-in-a-million Achilles wound that left Powell's wife a widow with a 7-year-old daughter.
The service was scheduled for 11 a.m., but it wasn't until 11:15 that Governor Gray Davis arrived with Sheriff Lee Baca, county supervisors Zev Yaroslavsky and Don Knabe, and D.A. Steve Cooley in tow; Powell's extended family filed in moments later. Davis appeared, oddly enough, even more robotic than he does on television, an aloof California Brahman who continually referred to a script and at times seemed to glance at it to remember the name of Powell's widow, Emma.
The gaunt, doleful Baca was only slightly more at ease before Powell's flag-draped casket, but he was somehow far more at home with the subject of tragedy than Davis, as though he were on speaking terms with death. His somber voice occasionally choked as he proclaimed the creation of a new departmental award for 10-year radio-car vets, and Powell would be the first recipient. As the service progressed it became more relaxed as friends, colleagues and family members recalled anecdotes about Powell, who apparently was quite a joker — he once calmly followed two suspected car thieves into a McDonald's and, as they finished ordering, added from behind them, “Add two pairs of handcuffs with that!”
This was William Bratton's first law-enforcement funeral as LAPD chief, a position in which he seems to be enjoying an extended honeymoon with the press and L.A.'s cauldron of ethnic-interest groups. His loudly announced plans to suppress graffiti and gang violence, delivered in his unforgettable Boston accent, don't sound as callous as former Chief Daryl Gates' similar pronouncements; even his “Hang 'em high” comment about the subjects of police pursuits and his similarly brusque remarks about cutting off the head of gangs lack Gates' animus and so far have rattled surprisingly few cages in the city.
Bratton did not stay at the funeral long — a little after noon he got word of a Koreatown shooting of an LAPD officer. Minutes later the chief and his staff were huddled in a hallway off to a side of the auditorium. The men were all grim as they discussed a route to Cedars- Sinai, where Officer Victor Alvarez lay, but Bratton's face especially seemed to have petrified into a granite frown as he searched the faces of passersby and listened to logistics suggestions from subordinates.
“We need an LZ [landing zone] at the church,” one officer said into a walkie-talkie. “We need to take Chief Bratton and assistant chief McConnell and deputy chief Papa.”
After 20 minutes, a dark-gray Eurocopter landed on the softball field of Columbus Continuation School across the street from the chapel on Imperial Highway, and in five minutes it levitated into the sky with the chief onboard as students and road workers waved. Bill Bratton may not yet be a hero, but at least he's not yet a villain.
LATER, THAT EVENING, ANOTHER KIND OF tribute was paid to Gilbert Lopez, an 82-year-old Azusa native and Irwindale resident who'd been wounded by friendly fire four days before the end of WWII, but who had never received the Purple Heart, Bronze Star and Combat Infantry Medal he had coming to him.
“The way it was,” Lopez recalls about his brush with death in Austria, “we were high up in the Alps and couldn't bring in artillery, so we had to take the town by rifle fire. My sergeant, who was from Louisiana, and I were replacing guys in a foxhole at dawn when one of them challenged us for the password — but we didn't hear him because of a waterfall. I got hit from behind and the bullet tore an artery in my leg — it was hanging by a thread.”
Lopez was not so lucky to have a helicopter rescue him — he survived only because his sergeant tied a belt tourniquet around his leg and carried him to the occupied town, where an ambulance took him to a hospital. The sergeant put Lopez in for his medals, but he never received them. Although Lopez had encountered plenty of anti-Latino prejudice both growing up in Los Angeles and while moving with the Army, he doesn't think that bigotry had anything to do with it — it was just a case of his files not catching up to him as he was moved from one hospital to another.
“I started to work after the war and didn't pursue it,” he says. “But then all my buddies started telling me I was entitled to [the medals], so I said okay, and applied for them again.”
Fifty-seven years of waiting ended last Friday when, following the regularly scheduled meeting of Irwindale Amvets Post 113, the old infantryman finally received his medals, along with an American flag, from Congresswoman Hilda Solis. Afterward, a mariachi band played, and then Gilbert Lopez returned home to a life of heroic anonymity.