Whenever a Los Angeles police officer has been killed in the line of duty during the last five years, colleagues have soberly marked the officer's absence by including a riderless horse in the funeral procession.
This week, there will be no horse when police gather to say farewell to Officer Charles Dean Heim, who died early Saturday after being gunned down at a Hollywood motel the night before. For it was Heim whose duty it was to lead the horse.
The shooting also left Heim's partner wounded. Police are still searching for the man they believe committed the crimes, identified as Manuel Vargas Perez, 26, an alleged gang member.
"(Heim's) wife requested that there be no riderless horse at Chuck's funeral because that was Chuck's detail," said Sgt. Kirk Smith, the slain officer's longtime supervisor in the LAPD's mounted unit, part of the elite Metropolitan Division. Heim's wife, also an LAPD officer, is assigned to the same division.
The 33-year-old Heim, on temporary assignment to the LAPD's Hollywood Division, was shot when he and his partner, Officer Felix F. Pena, 35, followed up on a tip given to them during a traffic stop on a run-down strip of Sunset Boulevard. They were told someone was dealing drugs from a motel room in the same block.
They knocked on the door of the room at the Dunes Motel, and the suspect's girlfriend opened it, department sources said. When Heim stepped into the doorway, someone began shooting, striking Heim and wounding Pena in the right hand before Heim could draw his gun.
"There weren't even words exchanged," said one officer familiar with the shooting. "The guy just opened fire." Police did not divulge whether they have uncovered a motive for the shootings.
Another officer at the scene, Armen Sedvalian, ran to the doorway, exposing himself to the gunfire, and pulled Heim away, officers said.
Heim, shot twice in the upper body, died a few hours later at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. Pena, assigned to the Hollywood Division, was treated at Queen of Angels-Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center and released Saturday.
Immediately after the shooting, SWAT officers were called to the scene and cordoned off the area, believing that the suspect might be barricaded in the second-story room. But he had apparently jumped from the bathroom window and escaped.
Heim, an 11-year veteran of the force, is the second LAPD officer to be shot to death within the last year and the 10th Southland law enforcement officer to be gunned down in the last year and a half.
On Feb. 22, rookie Officer Christy Hamilton became the second female in LAPD history to die in the line of duty, when a teen-ager in Northridge cut her down with a semiautomatic assault rifle. It was Heim who led the riderless horse at her funeral.
Others killed in the Southland over the last 20 months include two Palos Verdes Estates police officers, an Oxnard policeman, a Riverside sheriff's officer, a Manhattan Beach policeman, a Garden Grove police officer and two Compton police officers.
Sitting in the living room of their Diamond Bar home Saturday afternoon, Beth Heim said she first learned of Friday night's shooting when a friend, Officer Michelle Botello, called to say two unidentified officers had been hit.
"When she said that, I knew immediately it was him," said the widow, pregnant with the couple's first child. "I don't know why. I just knew."
When the child, due in March, is old enough, she said, "we'll go to the police memorial and I'll point out his name. I'll explain what happened."
The slain officer also leaves a 12-year-old son, Charles Heim II, who lives with Heim's ex-wife in Kernville.
Beth Heim, who has been on the force for a decade, recalled how she met her husband of three years when they were paired in the same patrol car in Hollywood. A year and half later they began dating. Their first outing was a memorable one.
"He asked me to go riding with him. I ended up in the emergency room with my eye split open and my hand gashed," she said. "I was riding a horse of his named Slick. Chuck tried to warn me. But I wanted to ride him bareback and I got thrown off."
Her husband enjoyed bareback bronco riding and sometimes rode bulls in police rodeos, she said. "He got hurt every time. He had a broken thumb, cracked ribs, seven stitches in his head, a bruised kidney."
The officer loved animals--even to the point of recently bringing home a rabbit he rescued from a busy street, she said. He had planned to purchase Panzer, the part draft horse, part thoroughbred he rode on duty, when he left the mounted police squad. Charles Heim was worried that nobody else would be able to get along with the cantankerous animal.
"I'll remember his naivete. He was born and raised in the country, out in Acton," she said. "He was in awe of all the lights when he first came to work as an officer in the city. He was a happy person, doing the kind of work that he wanted to do."