More than 1,500 strong, Los Angeles police gathered on a cemetery hill Monday to pay final tribute to Russell Kuster, a much-loved veteran Hollywood detective killed just months before his retirement in an off-duty shoot-out with a career criminal who was waving a gun inside one of Kuster's favorite hangouts.
In plainclothes and blue patrol uniforms, in helicopters and on horseback and motorcycle, Kuster's fellow officers came to honor him for two hours of ritual and teary-eyed remembrance.
Whether they knew him or had only heard of him, they extolled him as a simple farm boy from Indiana who, in the midst of the sleaze and glitz of Hollywood, remained ever a "man's man, a cop's cop and a Marine's Marine."
"His strong, silent nature gave a real sense of strength, a real sense of character," police Chaplain Jerry Powell said as he delivered the eulogy to the large, somber crowd, which included Mayor Tom Bradley, Police Chief Daryl F. Gates, County Sheriff Sherman Block and City Councilman John Ferraro.
"I guess you could say he was a stand-up sort of guy, someone who could take a hit and keep on coming. Someone who could take criticism and not let that criticism go to someone else around him," Powell said under a cover of gray haze that gradually yielded to the sun.
After nearly 25 years on the force, Kuster, 50, was one of the city's most experienced homicide detectives, a veteran of celebrated and sensational cases and head of his division's homicide squad.
Like so many of Los Angeles' murders, Kuster's was a senseless tale of anger and undeserved gunfire.
He was sitting last Tuesday night in the darkened lounge of the Hilltop Hungarian Restaurant, owned by one of his friends, when he tried to calm a pistol-waving customer who had been asked by management to leave.
The gunman, Bela L. Marko, 37, an illegal alien from Hungary and a parolee with a long criminal record, turned his pistol on Kuster and shot him four times. The mortally wounded detective returned fire, and Marko died at a restaurant door, an hour before Kuster succumbed at a local hospital.
"We smile in remembering that Russ, in his final moments, made sure Los Angeles wouldn't be burdened with another unsolved homicide," wrote one officer whose letter was read at the services at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in the Hollywood Hills. The detective's remains were later cremated.
A former Marine, Kuster received full military and police honors. A hearse bearing his dark blue, flag-draped casket was escorted from the industrial-looking Hollywood Division police station to the cemetery by a four-block-long motorcade of motorcycle officers and patrol cars, their red lights flashing in silent homage.
As a bagpiper filled the sharp air with the refrains of "Going Home," white-gloved pallbearers from the Hollywood station carried the casket before an estimated 1,500 to 1,700 mourners.
A riderless horse, a boot reversed in the stirrup, stood at one side of the assembled while a Marine Corps honor guard flanked the other. Enlarged color snapshots of Kuster, young and middle-aged, stared at the crowd. Four police helicopters flew overhead in formation.
Gates knelt beside Susan, Kuster's widow, to give her the flag that had covered her husband's coffin.
It was attention that Kuster would have been uncomfortable with in life.
Kuster "was a simple man," Powell observed. "He wasn't someone to like having a lot of attention, who liked being in the center of the media."
That was why people liked Kuster so much, the chaplain said. He was quiet, generous and unassuming; the kind of guy who liked to watch TV with his wife and who went back home every summer to work on his parents' farm.
Kuster was the kind of guy who got mad if people bad-mouthed President Bush, friends said. The kind of guy who had pictures of Ronald Reagan, Clint Eastwood and John Wayne behind his desk and who liked to listen to the Marine Corps hymn. The kind of guy who joked around.
He called everybody in the homicide unit "Roy," regardless of their name. When he woke his investigators up in the middle of the night to call them to a case, Kuster would say, "Hi Roy, this is your old dad," said Lt. Bob Ruchhoft, the commanding officer of Hollywood detectives. "You knew then your night's sleep was over."
And so, with their trim haircuts and starched blues, the Roys and other officers trudged up the hill, over the groomed cemetery lawns, some of them wearing small black buttons that said, simply, "Russ Kuster--cop."
"He was a good person, very cool, calm and collected. A people person, very knowledgeable," recalled John Ernst, a former detective who had retired from the Hollywood Division more than a decade ago.
Kuster had planned to retire next year, a fact that was not lost on those gathered.
"Send in the Clowns," was one of two songs sung at the services: "Isn't it rich . . . losing my timing this late in my career?"