Oakland remembers 4 fallen officers
By Jason Dearen and Lisa Leff
OAKLAND, Calif. — They were fathers and sports fans, mentors and husbands doing a gritty job they loved despite the crummy hours and dangers.
Mark Dunakin, John Hege, Ervin Romans and Daniel Sakai had a half-century's experience in the Oakland Police Department, and the department will hold a joint funeral for them Friday at Oracle Arena, the home court of the Golden State Warriors.
They were all fatally shot in the line of duty Saturday, the biggest single day, gun-related loss of life for law enforcement since four federal agents died 16 years ago during a raid on the Branch Davidian cult in Waco, Texas.
The 26-year-old parolee accused of killing Dunakin and Hege with an automatic pistol during a traffic stop, then Romans and Sakai with an assault weapon during the ensuing manhunt, also died in a hail of bullets.
Freeways are to be closed Friday as motorcades shepherd the slain officers' families and caskets to the ceremony from four directions. Officers and firefighters from around the nation and overseas were expected to fill the 16,900-seat arena.
"For the families, for the surviving officers, the show of support and solidarity from the public and their colleagues is a source of tremendous comfort and strength," said Craig Floyd, chairman of the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. "Those survivors realize their loved ones didn't die in vain, that they're being remembered and that they're not alone."
Losing so many people at the same time would be devastating for any organization, but Oakland's loss is particularly grievous because of the years of service the slain officers had put in and the kind of men they were, people who worked alongside them say.
Sakai, 35, and Romans, 43, were the valedictorians of their police academy classes. Romans was a weapons expert who trained rookies and superiors alike. Hege, 41, was a former high school PE teacher who joined the motorcycle division just two weeks before Saturday's tragedy.
Dunakin, 40, was a former homicide detective who was the lead investigator on a case involving one of Oakland's most violent and notorious killing crews, which randomly murdered five people in late 2002 and early 2003. He was married to a sheriff's deputy who retired after she was taken hostage during a restaurant holdup. Sakai's widow is an officer for the University of California.
"I don't think we've truly come to grasp with how much we've lost. They weren't the types who were gonna put their name out there, they'd just go and do it," said Officer Roland Holmgren, who was participating in the manhunt when Romans and Sakai, his fellow SWAT team members and friends, were killed.
Oakland Housing Authority Police Chief Carel Duplessis worked as a sergeant when Romans worked as an officer at the authority during the early 1990s. Colleagues recognized Romans as "truly a leader among them," Duplessis said.
When it came time to negotiate with the agency's managers over working conditions, "Romans' peers chose him to speak on the behalf of the officers."
If Romans stood out as a leader, Dunakin stood out for his sunny disposition and insistence on being one of the guys. Vallejo Police Chief Robert Nichelini, whose son worked under Dunakin as a motorcycle officer, recalls seeing him on St. Patrick's Day at a monthly buffet dinner hosted by retired Oakland officers.
On-duty officers are given first dibs to fill their plates, but Dunakin refused to step ahead of him in line, Nichelini says. "I said, 'Hey, Sarge, you are in uniform, get ahead of me.' He said, 'No, Chief, it's OK.' So we're standing together in line getting our food. That was the last time I saw him."
Pleasant Hill Police Chief Peter Dunbar, who worked in Oakland until three years ago, knew all four officers, and says he will remember Hege for both his steady demeanor and his creativity. Before he was hired in November 1999, Hege spent years as an unpaid volunteer reserve officer and performed administrative tasks to free up officers to work the streets. Even when he was working the night shift, Hege "kept trying to think of better way of doing things."
"He just loved police work, and different aspects of it," Dunbar said.
Sakai had been with the 800-officer department for the shortest time, since December 2000, but like the others made a lasting impression. A graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, he often impressed colleagues with both his intelligence and his grin.
Sakai "had a subtle sense of humor, an ever-glowing smile to him. He was very humble and reserved and professional and extremely smart," Holmgren said.
Paul Schroeder, a fraternity brother of Sakai's at Berkeley, recalled that when Sakai pledged Alpha Sigma Phi in 1991 the other members were thrilled to have him.
Sakai remained active in the fraternity as an alumnus and a few years ago spoke to a local chapter meeting about his job, bringing along the police dog that was his partner at the time.
"I thought how unbelievably brave to be an Oakland cop instead of a cop in the suburbs where nothing ever happens," said Schroeder. "Every time my wife would hear about something bad happening to an Oakland cop, I would say, 'Man, I hope it isn't him.'"
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