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Police Officers Share Grief of Losing One of Their Own

Mourning: James Jensen Jr. is remembered by family, friends and the Little Leaguers he coached.

March 19, 1996|ANDREW D. BLECHMAN TRACY WILSON and ERIC WAHLGREN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

VENTURA — Outside the church, the Oxnard Police SWAT team stood in salute, their fatigue-clad bodies in rigid formation.

The team was all there--except two.

One was leaving the church in a flag-draped coffin. The other was walking behind it.

Five days earlier, Sgt. Daniel Christian had mistakenly pumped three rounds of buckshot into his partner James Rex Jensen Jr.'s chest during a predawn drug raid. Now he was plodding behind his protege's casket, tightly clutching the hand of a young widow.

The 21 other SWAT members stood utterly motionless, weathering the drama before them with an unflinching sense of ceremony. But their grief, however masked, was not lost on the 1,000 police officers from across California standing with them.

"Look at them," Redondo Beach Officer Robert Sevilla said of the Oxnard SWAT unit. "They are a family in mourning. They just lost a brother."

Oxnard Police Chief Harold Hurtt said Jensen's loss is all the more difficult to deal with because of how it occurred--the killer was a friend, the death a mistake. "There is no one to focus your anger on," he said.

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Many took their lead from Jensen's widow, Jennifer, who displayed no anger at all.

She kept Christian at her side throughout the day. They arrived together holding hands, they comforted one another with embraces during the tearful service, and they left clasping hands so tightly that they greeted well-wishers jointly.

At the cemetery, Christian sat with 6-year-old Lindsey Jensen on his lap, his arm wrapped around the little girl.

Christian left Jennifer Jensen's side for the first time following the ceremony, when he stood to hug one of his fellow SWAT team members. In his absence, Jennifer Jensen reached across Christian's empty seat to grasp the hand of Gracie Christian, who sat softly crying next to her husband throughout most of the ceremony.

As Christian reached out for his teammates, all of whom dressed in their camouflage fatigues, their weapons strapped to their lower thighs with nylon holsters, others gathered around them one by one, until a dozen or so of the team had surrounded Christian, sobs emitting from the mound of men.

"This will only pull us all closer together," said John Crombach, leader of the SWAT team. "Jim will be an eternal member of this team. And we pray that Dan will stay with the team and that he can work through this.

"Whatever Dan-o needs to get through this, that's what he'll get," Crombach added, still wiping tears away from under his dark glasses.

"Dan and Jim . . . were good friends. Our hearts go out to the Christian family," said Elizabeth Lopez, Jennifer Jensen's sister.

Lopez, a 33-year-old Ventura native who now lives in Sacramento, gave a heart-wrenching, and often humorous, eulogy in addition to orchestrating the funeral arrangements.

She said her sister asked her late Sunday afternoon to speak at the service. Lopez stayed up all night writing and rewriting the eulogy with the help of a close friend, and finished early Monday morning. She had not even practiced the speech before coolly reciting it during the service.

"I asked Jim when my father passed away to give me strength to do him justice," she said. "I wanted Jim to be remembered the way Jim was. I hope I did that."

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After the funeral, a dozen players from the Oxnard Little League team Jensen coached for two years gathered in the parking lot of Ventura's Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, all dressed in their red baseball jerseys.

The beloved coach they nicknamed "Drill Sergeant Jim" never missed a practice and had become a role model to many of them.

"He was always there for me and my teammates," said Michael Johnson, a 14-year-old first baseman for the Sunset Phillies. "I know in our hearts Jim's memory and spirit will always be there."

Wives of officers who came to support the Jensens and the Christians said they felt a jumble of emotions.

"It's just sad," said Jennifer Contreras, whose husband, Robert, is an Oxnard officer. "You're glad it's not you, sorry it's her. . . ."

Oxnard's Chief Hurtt said every officer has been deeply touched by the tragedy, each one reexamining his or her own career.

"But tomorrow, we'll be 10-8 again," he said. "That means we are ready to serve."

Assistant Chief Tom Cady said the investigation into the shooting would continue for another few weeks. "You can't ever wholly prevent a tragedy like this from happening again," Cady said. "But we can certainly learn from this."

Jensen's death was mourned by more than his family and comrades-in-arms. His passing left an impression on countless more who watched the black hearse drive by followed by hundreds of patrol cars and motorcycles.

Many, like the students at the nearby Loma Vista Elementary School, mourned in silence during recess.

"I've never seen them so silent before," said fifth grade teacher Mary Salmonsen.

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Farther down Mills Road, Stephanie Price, 5, stood with her mother Sherry. Like many in the audience, the girl's greatest concern was for Jensen's two young daughters.

"These kids won't have a daddy anymore," Stephanie said. "They will just have one person to take care of them now."

Tracy Wilson is a Times staff writer. Andrew Blechman and Eric Wahlgren are correspondents. Times staff writer Joanna M. Miller also contributed to this report.

* MAIN STORY A1

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