Slain Baton Rouge officers all hailed from same community

Slain Baton Rouge officers all hailed from same community

Dechia Gerald, wife of slain officer Matthew Gerald, holds her two daughters during a candlelight vigil Tuesday, honouring her husband who was shot and killed on Sunday in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. (AFP photo)
Dechia Gerald, wife of slain officer Matthew Gerald, holds her two daughters during a candlelight vigil Tuesday, honouring her husband who was shot and killed on Sunday in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. (AFP photo)

Fresh out of the police academy, Matthew Gerald was so proud to bring his cruiser home that he stood in the driveway, wiping it down under the hot Louisiana sun. His neighbour, Ashley Poe, watched as he flicked the blue lights on and off, on and off.

Ms Poe and her husband shared a laugh. The 41-year-old former soldier and Marine looked like an excited kid.

"It's like living out the dream," she said.

Gerald got to live it only for a few months. He was one of three officers gunned down in an ambush on Sunday in Baton Rouge, traumatising a nation already on edge.

In the span of 10 turbulent days, 10 law enforcement officers have been killed by attackers.

The officers who died on Sunday all lived just outside Denham Springs, a quiet community across the Amite River from Baton Rouge, which has been in turmoil for two weeks.

Tensions rose sharply after the death of Alton Sterling, a black man killed by white Baton Rouge officers after a scuffle at a convenience store. The killing was captured on cellphone video.

As the nation debates race and policing, this community is mourning three of its sons -- all husbands and fathers described by friends as being committed to protecting and serving the public.

"You hear about these things happening across the country to officers just trying to defend us, but this brings it right here, to our home," Livingston Parish President Layton Ricks said. "These are our families. These are good men. They're the only line of defence between good and evil. We say we don't want to let this evil affect how we live our daily lives. But it does."

Gavin Long, a former Marine from Missouri dressed in black and carrying extra ammunition, opened fire on officers around 8.45am (8.45pm Thai time) on Sunday, police said.

The gunfire also killed 45-year-old Brad Garafola, an East Baton Rouge Parish sheriff's deputy and a father of four, and 32-year-old Montrell Jackson, a 10-year veteran of the Baton Rouge Police Department with a newborn baby at home.

Garafola and Gerald were white. Jackson was black, as was the gunman.

"The world is crazy right now. It is complete chaos," Jackson's sister-in-law Lauren Rose said. "And it all needs to stop, everything. We all need peace."

Three other officers were wounded. One of them, Deputy Nicholas Tullier, remained in critical condition on Monday. The gunman was killed at the scene.

Ms Poe watched from the window on Sunday morning as a line of police cars pulled up in front of Gerald's house. She woke up her husband, a former city police officer.

"He said, 'What's wrong?' and I said, 'There's units everywhere, and you've told me that's never a good sign,'" she said. They turned on the news.

The gunman shot Gerald and Jackson first. Gerald was a Marine from 1994 to 1998. He later joined the Army and served as a decorated soldier from 2002 to 2009, including three tours in Iraq. Less than a year ago, he joined the Baton Rouge Police Department.

He had a wife and two daughters, Ms Poe said, and was devoted to them.

Ms Poe said her 14-year-old son was interested in the military, and Gerald was always ready to answer his questions.

"He'd tell him how he was proud to protect his country," she said. "It seemed like that was his passion to do that."

Denham Springs, population 10,000, is the sort of town where everyone is connected, said Mayor Gerard Landry. There's a palpable sense of anger and despair.

"There's no way to describe what it does to a small city like this," Marilyn Wallace said on Monday, standing behind the counter of the store she and her husband, Randy, own on a two-block long stretch of antique shops in the town's historic district.

The city is in Livingston Parish, about 21km from Baton Rouge, with a history of racial tension. But that history seems remote here.

Jackson's father-in-law, Lonnie Jordan, called him a "gentle giant" -- tall and stout and formidable looking, but with a peaceful disposition.

He said his son-in-law had been working long hours since Sterling was killed.

Jackson posted on Facebook that he was physically and emotionally tired. He wrote that while in uniform he gets nasty looks and out of uniform some consider him a threat.

"I swear to God I love this city," he wrote, "but I wonder if this city loves me."

He had been on the force 10 years and risen to the rank of corporal, said Kedrick Pitts, his half-brother. He worked hard, sometimes seven days a week.

He was funny and good natured, Mr Pitts said. He collected shoes, 500 pairs, including special Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan lines. But what he loved most was his wife and 4-month-old son.

"He's going to grow up without a father," sister-in-law Ms Rose said. "But we'll be there to give him memories and let him know how his dad was a great man, and how he died with honour... Hopefully one day, he'll be like his dad."

At the convenience store on Sunday, Garafola tried to intervene and help the fallen officers.

Surveillance video showed Garafola firing at the gunman from behind a dumpster as bullets hit the concrete around him, East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff Sid Gautreaux said.

"My deputy went down fighting. He returned fire to the very end," he said.

Garafola's friends described him as a man committed to public service and devoted to his family.

He had a wife and four children: a 21-year-old son, a 15-year-old daughter, a 12-year-old son and a 7-year-old daughter.

Sgt Gerald Parker, a close friend, described him as a "jack of all trades" who enjoyed helping people in his neighbourhood, like mending their fences or mowing their lawns. He worked hard, often picking up extra hours.

"He was a man of strong character," Mr Parker said. "All these officers are heroes. Some people would run. But these gentlemen leave their families knowing something can happen."

His colleague, Mr Tullier, a father of two teenage sons, is surrounded by family at the hospital.

Carol Sue McManus, a relative, said that he is a workaholic who serves on two units, one patrol and the other motorcycle. She said he was injured at one point when he was run over while escorting a funeral procession.

"I'm mad," Ms McManus said with tears in her eyes. "I wish all this madness would stop." 

Associated Press

News agency

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