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Slayings More About Hatred of Police Than Stolen Jewelry

December 15, 2003
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Slayings More About Hatred of Police Than Stolen Jewelry

South Bend Tribune Columnist

When John Roggeman was an all-state running back for Mishawaka High School in 1978, he loved his blockers ahead of him.

One of them was Tom Roberts.

"Tight end, No. 83," Roggeman says without a hitch. "Tom protected me back then, and he later protected me and other Mishawaka citizens as one of our police officers."

So it hit Roggeman like a helmet when he found out that Roberts and fellow officer Bryan Verkler were gunned down by a crime-happy assailant, who also died, early Saturday morning on Sarah Street.

"I cried like a baby when I heard the news," Roggeman admits.

His dad, Bill Roggeman Jr., was a longtime Mishawaka police officer who worked the midnight shift for 18 1/2 years.

"And we knew that every night that Dad went out there, that something like this could have happened to him," Roggeman says. "I know he had a gun held on him at one point.

"I guess that makes the present situation even more emotional for me."

A newly elected Mishawaka Common Council member who will take office next month, Roggeman also has an office in the Mishawaka Police Department in his role as the director of the Neighborhood Prosecution Program under Prosecutor Michael Dvorak.

"If a building could have a heart, then this one would be broken," he says.

The Mishawaka community and surrounding areas have embraced the comrades and families of the fallen officers with flowers and donations and prayers.

Most of the police officers and firefighters in this proud blue-collar town are home-grown heroes -- many of them proudly wore the Maroon and White into battle.

Tom Roberts was one of them, sandwiched between brothers Larry and Gary, who also gave their all for the Cavemen cause.

Bryan Verkler was another tough kid from down the road in the Walkerton area. He placed fourth in the state in the shot put for John Glenn High School and competed in the local Highland Games. He wore a kilt and tossed around stones and telephone pole-like cabers as if they were toys.

He could have stepped right out of a scene of "Braveheart" -- an appropriate term for most police officers.

And there Verkler was, standing beside Roberts on that porch early Saturday morning -- both not realizing that their lives would soon be sucked away.

It happened so fast.

They knew there had been shots fired earlier at another location. They knew that a necklace had allegedly been stolen.

They didn't know that on the other side of the door was Ray Gilkeson, a loathsome individual who had come from California a year ago with a long rap sheet and a hatred for police officers.

"I'm sure they (Roberts and Verkler) were cautious, but officers are always responding to 'Shots fired,' " says one former Mishawaka police officer who retired as a South Bend cop.

But when Gilkeson opened the door and Roberts tried to pull him outside, Gilkeson did the unthinkable. He starting firing a gun he was carrying in his hand, killing Roberts and wounding Verkler. Verkler later died at the hospital where his wife was working her shift as an ER nurse.

So senseless.

This had little to do with a necklace and everything to do with a man twisted by evil.

And why was Gilkeson, with his prior arrests and known to be a threat to law enforcement personnel, free to be out in public anyway?

Along with the anguish comes the anger. "It's the way our society is," says another police officer. "Our courts are too lenient."

"It's the overcrowding problem at prisons," adds another.

It's not right.

Two officers are dead. A community mourns. The thin blue line becomes a raging river of support.

"It makes me want to put back on the uniform," adds the former Mishawaka officer.

To honor the men who died in theirs.

How to help:
A fund has been established at MFB Financial branches for financial contributions to the families of the slain officers. The address of the main office in Mishawaka is:

MFB Financial
121 S. Church St.
Mishawaka, IN 46544
Phone: (574) 255-3146

How you can help:

Mishawaka, Ind. Mayor Robert Beutter said the city's flags have been moved to half-staff and he urges businesses and residents to do the same.

He also said citywide holiday flags will be replaced with American flags out of respect for the two officers killed in the line of duty early Saturday.

Residents can show support by adding blue lights to their Christmas window decorations.

The two officers' patrol cars are parked in front of the Mishawaka police station, at 200 N. Church St.

Residents may show respect by placing cards, flowers or any mementos near the vehicles, Beutter said.

South Bend police Capt. Phil Trent echoed Beutter's comments, urging county and South Bend residents to show respect by flying their flags at half-staff.

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