INDIO, Calif. — Farm workers in straw hats, the governor of California and a phalanx of law enforcement officers standing teary-eyed but soldier-straight gathered Monday to pay tribute to California Highway Patrol Officer Saul Martinez, who gave his life to save his partner.
More than 2,500 mourners spilled out of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church in Indio, where Martinez attended each Sunday, and onto the street outside. Friends and colleagues stood in the stifling heat listening to the funeral Mass on loudspeakers.
"What he did as his last act on Earth was a sign of how he always lived," Father Rafael Partida told the gathering.
Martinez, 39 and a father of three, died Thursday, a week after he pushed partner Donovan Rice to safety and left himself in the path of an oncoming car on a pitch-black desert highway.
On Monday, Gov. Pete Wilson presented Martinez's wife, Remedios, and children ages 14, 12 and 5, with a Medal of Valor, awarded posthumously to the seven-year CHP veteran. The medal is the highest honor California bestows on state employees.
Wilson praised Martinez as a hero who "earned life's crown."
"Saul Martinez gave his life in a way that was not merely defined heroism," the governor said. "It was selfless--it was courage above and beyond what few, if any, of us can muster."
As Wilson spoke, Rice sat nearby in a wheelchair. The officer is still recovering from injuries suffered the night of May 8, when Martinez was critically wounded and Rice was struck in the leg.
Rice marveled at the bravery of Remedios Martinez, as she stepped forward to receive the medal, her chin tilted up and her eyes clear.
"When I couldn't get to the hospital because of this leg, she told me 'Just get better, from now on you and I are going to be partners for life,' " Rice said.
Rice and his fiance, Audrey Serepca, were planning to marry in August but are moving up the date.
"Life has gotten so much more precious and if there is anything Saul taught me, it's that nothing is more important than family," Rice said. "The only way I can try to thank him is to live the way he did."
Martinez was a fixture at his children's schools, an active church member and, as a CHP officer, a relentless crusader for public safety. He spent 10 years working as a farm worker organizer before joining the CHP.
The modest church auditorium where Wilson presented the Medal of Valor is usually used every day at 11 a.m. by Martha's Kitchen, an organization that feeds the hungry. Martinez often dropped by to offer a hand, serving food and counseling to those in need.
At that same hour Monday, the governor presented the medal to the Martinez family, saying he was honoring the officer not only for his final act of self-sacrifice, but "on behalf of all those whose lives he touched and made better."
After the ceremony, family members took their seats in the front pew of the church, where Martinez was honored during a service in Spanish and English.
When bid to say the Lord's Prayer, mourners spontaneously clasped hands.
"They didn't just join the hands with the person next to them, but across the aisles--the sheriff's, the farm workers, his family, everyone. And as I watched this, I thought here's Saul once again bringing us together," said Arturo Rodriguez, president of the United Farm Workers. "I think it's pretty historic when you see all us join in celebration with a person who was part of us all."
Rodriguez stepped forward during the service to give a eulogy to his longtime friend.
"Saul touched many, many lives. He was a farm worker, student, a member of the United Farm Workers, a husband, father, friend and a police officer," Rodriguez said. "In all of these roles, Saul demonstrated his commitment and service to others."
After the service, a procession wound from the church accompanied by the wail of bagpipes. The sky turned gray, and thunder rumbled in the distance.
As the mourners arrived at the grave site, they were joined by hundreds more.
"Everyone thinks they are here for a different reason, a different side of Saul," said Josefina Flores, a farm worker from Bakersfield. "But really, we're all here because he was a real, real good man."