Texas officer helps woman find family of slain cop
It's not often someone is glad after a car crash, but for Sheila Walthall a September wreck solved a more than six-decade-old mystery
By Rashda Khan
San Angelo Standard-Times, Texas
SAN ANGELO, Texas — It's not often someone is glad after a car crash, but for Sheila Walthall a September wreck solved a more than six-decade-old mystery.
In 1958, Walthall lost her "super big brother" — a Kingsville policeman killed in the line of duty. Sgt. Gene Christopher was fatally shot with his service revolver responding to a bar fight.
At age 14 she attended his funeral and distinctly remembers officers from across the country in attendance. But beyond those memories, she had little else. Fire destroyed her family photos and over time she lost touch with the Christophers. She regretted not knowing what happened to Christophers' then 2-year-old son.
Then she got into a traffic crash Sept. 13 and met San Angelo Police Officer Steven Quade.
A hit-and-run investigator, Quade wasn't supposed to work the crash. However, he was training a rookie officer and decided to volunteer them both.
"We jumped in to take the work and met her in the process," he said. While the rookie worked the crash, Quade and Walthall talked.
"I told him to be safe," Walthall said, then she told him about Christopher.
Bernice and Garland W. "Dude" Christopher, of Fort Worth, met Walthall's mother during her pregnancy and became like family.
"We lived with them from my birth until I was about 5 or 6 years old," Walthall said. "Gene was their only son."
Even after moving out, the families stayed close. Gene would come by to take Walthall to the zoo, to get ice cream, tease — things a big brother does.
"He loved life, he enjoyed life, he was happy and he was always trying to make other people laugh and enjoy themselves," she said.
Gene Christopher served five years in the U.S. Navy before he married Norma Jean Henderson of Kingsville.
"He was real tall and she was tiny," Walthall recalled with a smile. "So we called them Big Gene and Little Jean."
Soon after, Christopher joined the Kingsville Police Department, where he worked four years.
On Feb. 9, 1958 — a Sunday night — Sgt. Christopher responded to a call for assistance at Mayorga's Cafe, where the bartender was having issues with two customers.
When Christopher arrived, he found two officers struggling with Pablo Lomas. As he ran to help, Lomas' half-brother, Pasqual Vasquez, grabbed Christopher's revolver from his holster and shot the officer in the chest. He was 26 when he died.
Christopher's widow moved to Venezuela with their son, Mark Christopher.
After Quade heard the story, he was determined to help.
"She didn't even have a picture of him," said Quade, who has 29 years with the SAPD Honor Guard.
Having been with families after they suffer a loss, Quade has seen the impact. "I wanted to get her something," he said. "All she had were fond memories."
As a police officer, Quade knew he could investigate and research, reach out. So he spent his own time working on the project from September to November.
"I found a lot more stuff than I was expecting to find," he said. "A lot of people helped."
He asked people to find and get rubbings of Gene Christopher's name on memorial walls at the Texas Peace Officers Memorial in Austin and at the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Quade also reached out to Rep. Drew Darby for a proclamation in honor of Christopher, and he obtained a flag flown over the State Capitol for the family.
The officer tracked down articles covering Christopher's death, marriage and more, and photographs. Lots of photographs capturing Gene Christopher at different stages of life — from a lanky youth to a dashing naval officer, one where he is passionately kissing his wife, to another where he's holding his son.
More importantly, Quade found Mark Christopher.
His initial search pulled up six people in Texas with that name, so he narrowed it.
"The article (about Christopher's death) from 1958 said the son was 2 years old," Quade said. "So I started looking for someone born in 1956."
He found a Mark Christopher in Houston with the right year of birth. Quade sent him a letter asking if he was Gene Christopher's son. A week later, he got a call confirming he was Gene's son.
Mark, who is a historian, provided the officer with a lot of photos and information for Walthall.
While he doesn't remember her, Mark said he's looking forward to speaking with her. "She could tell me a lot about my dad," he said in a phone interview. "I want to learn what I can."
The only memory Mark has of his dad is being held by his mother while she said goodbye to Gene as he was leaving the house. Mark said he recalls reaching for the pens in his dad's shirt pocket.
Quade revealed his findings to Walthall on Thursday.
"All these years, I had so many questions and now they have been answered," Walthall said, adding that she's excited the boy she never got to hold and see again has been found. "I can't wait to talk to Mark and tell him what a great father he had."
However, Walthall said she'd wait a bit to call him until she wasn't so overwhelmed and could be a bit calmer and coherent.
As each item was presented — framed memorial rubbings, shadowboxed flag, family photographs — Walthall responded with tears, smiles, fanning herself, holding a tissue to her face, her heart. "Oh my God," she repeated over and over.
Then she beamed at the SAPD officers and called them her "angels."
"I can't believe all this — they went to so much trouble ... and they didn't even know me," Walthall said. "I was just the nobody who ran into the back of a truck."
She paused for a breath. "I'm glad I wrecked my car," she added with a grin.
©2017 the San Angelo Standard-Times (San Angelo, Texas)