09/27/2006

Grief runs free at services for fallen Colo. detective

James B. Meadow
Rocky Mountain News
Copyright 2006 Denver Publishing Company
Staff Writer Charlie Brennan contributed to this story

On a day when the sky was so uncluttered and blue it almost hurt to look at it, they buried a good cop. Maybe a great cop. Maybe even a "fallen Colorado hero" - at least that's what the governor said.

But, for Detective Mike Thomas, just being a good cop was always good enough. The guy who was forever telling friends, "I ain't nobody," the guy who didn't bother to tell his own brother that he had won the Aurora Police Department's highest honor, the guy who wore his sense of duty and honor as comfortably and effortlessly as he wore his T-shirts - that guy would have been uncomfortable with the pomp and circumstance that accompanied his funeral Tuesday at the Heritage Christian Center.

Still, the 3,000 souls who showed up to honor him - many of them fellow cops, but some of them ordinary citizens whose lives had been touched by the 24- year veteran - weren't buying the premise that Thomas was nothing special.

They knew the officer who was gunned down last Wednesday in a random act of violence as not only a good cop but a dad, a son, a brother - as a man who made a difference.

The fact that Thomas hadn't been in uniform when he was killed - he had been sitting in his own car at a red light while on a break from a training exercise - seemed to make the tragedy more wrenching.

"The pain becomes more unbearable each time," said Aurora Police Chief Dan Oates. "We always seem to lose the very best. And Mike was one of the best."

Detective Ron Wysocki, of the Durango Police Department, knew that - even though he didn't know Thomas. Along with his son Joey, 8, Wysocki had driven to the service because, "Good people should be honored."

Unspoken connections

Law enforcement officers came from across the state. And some who weren't there - specifically, officers from the Denver Police Department and the Arapahoe County Sheriff's Office - didn't come because they volunteered to cover for the multitude of Aurora police officers who attended.

But you didn't have to be a police officer to grieve.

Seated alone on top of her car alongside Sheridan Boulevard, just north of Fort Logan, 18-year-old Felicia Mercado waited for the funeral procession to roll silently by.

"I came down to pay my respects, because these officers do a lot for us," she said. "You're going to feel bad for any person who gets shot. But officers do so much for us, and that's what I respect."

Many who stood along the procession routes or sat in the church were there because of some unspoken but palpable connection to -Thomas.

For some, the connection was more vital, such as the anonymous woman who showed up at District 3 headquarters and left flowers and a card that read simply, "You saved my life."

Just how many lives Thomas touched will never be known because he was, said eulogist Capt. Jerry Hinkle, of District 3, "a private and humble man." He was also a "man of compassion," Hinkle said. Then, after a soft pause, "Mike was a tender warrior."

What he was, above all else, was a loving father, a fact that was underscored repeatedly by the speakers. It was almost as though they felt they owed their fallen friend one last favor, an obligation to tell his daughter - and the world - of his abiding devotion to her.

The night Nicole Thomas married Nathan Bantau was, Hinkle said, "the happiest night of Mike's life."

Other stories of his love drifted through the church. The many times Thomas would fill out reports in his patrol car while parked outside Nicole's day-care center, just so he could be a little nearer to her. All those calls to her on Christmas Eve to report Santa Claus sightings. Those nights when he would keep Hutch, his beloved K-9 dog on the front porch when Nicole's dates came by - a quiet but emphatic reminder (warning?) to be a gentleman with his angel.

"You were Mike's heart and soul - his whole life was about you," said Division Chief Ken Murphy.

But if eyes all over the sanctuary became wet at these stories of paternal devotion and love, they were almost matched by the smiles evoked by Murphy's tales of Thomas' human side.

How "Mike could be stubborn," and how "there was no in-between, no gray areas with him." How his attitude was an unbending "what is right is right, and what is wrong is wrong" - and he didn't care if you were a rookie or an elected official, he'd tell you to your face when you were wrong.

And when Murphy would warn him to go easy before taking some big shot to task, "He'd say, 'Ken, I ain't nobody. What are they gonna do to me?' "

Fanfare for good life lived

Murphy talked about how -Thomas loved pizza and the Denver Broncos and was not above demonstrating his knowledge of curse words when sight-challenged referees called penalties on his team. How he loved to do home remodeling and follow the stock market. How he lived to ride his motorcycle and religiously lifted weights to keep his 6-foot-4, 220-pound frame harder and fitter than any 52-year- old body has a right to be.

Murphy closed with, "Mike, you were somebody," walking from the altar while the quiet slowly yielded to a wave of grateful applause.

The clapping was in stark counterpoint to the profound quiet that frequently gripped the room, a silence so deep that even the muted sniffling of a woman in the balcony seemed like a shout.

But then, most of the words that were spoken softly still quivered with emotion.

Gov. Bill Owens spoke of "the spirit of charity imprinted on his character" and stressed that "every American should be inspired by the life of Michael Thomas."

As for the cops, the protectors who survived Thomas, Oates had a rallying cry.

"Leave this place determined to be better at what we do, better able to keep the innocent safe," he urged in a voice that wasn't always steady.

Then, at the close of his remarks, he looked out at the faces before him and said, "For the life of Mike Thomas and to honor how he chose to live, I'd like you all to give him a round of applause."

And so they did, rising to their feet and clapping. 
 
or 303-954-2606 .; DETECTIVE MICHAEL THOMAS / 1953-2006

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