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LAPD officer serving in Afghanistan is killed by roadside bomb

SWAT team member Robert J. Cottle, a Marine Corps reservist, is the department's first member to die in post-9/11 combat. He previously had served two tours in Iraq.

March 26, 2010|By Jill Leovy and Joel Rubin
  • Bonnie J. Roybal holds a photo of her brother, Marine Corps Reserve Sgt. Maj. Robert J. Cottle, 45, who was killed in a roadside bombing in the Marja area of southern Afghanistan's Helmand province, on the Pakistani border. He is the Los Angeles Police Department's first officer to be killed in combat in Afghanistan.
Bonnie J. Roybal holds a photo of her brother, Marine Corps Reserve Sgt.… (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles…)

The Los Angeles Police Department on Thursday mourned its first officer to be killed in combat in Afghanistan after a roadside bomb took the life of a highly regarded SWAT team member.

Marine Corps Reserve Sgt. Maj. Robert J. Cottle, 45, and a 19-year-old Marine were killed while traveling in the Marja area of southern Afghanistan's Helmand province, on the Pakistani border. The region has been the focus of an intense U.S.-led offensive against Taliban forces, said LAPD Capt. John Incontro, who oversees SWAT operations.

The Marines' armored vehicle struck a roadside bomb Wednesday, killing Cottle and Lance Cpl. Rick Centanni and seriously wounding two others, according to police sources and media accounts.

A veteran of two tours in Iraq, Cottle had deployed to Afghanistan in August and was scheduled to return home this summer. He leaves a wife and 8-month-old daughter.

More than two dozen LAPD officers serve as active military reservists. The department recruits many officers from the military, and leaves for military duty are routine. But until now, the LAPD had lost no one to conflict in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Lanky, blue-eyed and brown-haired, Cottle "loved being a police officer," said LAPD Chief Charlie Beck.

Cottle became an officer in 1990 and joined the elite SWAT unit six years later, Beck said. He called Cottle "an effective and compassionate" officer and "a great human being."

He was "almost the absolute stereotype Marine," said LAPD Capt. Phil Tingirides. "He was one who talked about God and country and he really meant it."

Cottle grew up in Whittier and San Diego, said his sister Bonnie Roybal, 49, of Whittier. As a child, he was bowlegged and had to wear leg braces for more than two years, but he grew into an avid runner and athlete, she said.

"He was made fun of as a kid, and he ended up proving them wrong," Roybal said.

A high-energy teenager, his rambunctious exploits and unimpressive grades led him first to military-style camp, then to the Marines at age 18, and finally to the LAPD, she said.

"He didn't have any pretenses or airs. With Robert, what you saw was what you got," Roybal said.

That direct gaze and knack for effortless conversation were traits that served him well as a police officer. But he never lost the taste for adrenaline that first brought him to the LAPD.

"My brother has always lived his life on the edge. He was into risk-taking, wanted to live an extraordinary life" -- and did, his sister said.

Cottle's LAPD assignments took him to the Hollywood Division's vice squad, the Southeast Division in the early 1990s -- one of the most violent locales in the nation at that time -- then to a tactical dive team trained to combat terrorist attacks at the Port of Los Angles.

"He was the kind of guy who, when he spoke, you listened. He only spoke when it was important," said LAPD Cmdr. Rick Jacobs.

But if Cottle was "the most serious guy when the situation called for it," he could also be light-hearted, said LAPD Sgt. Steve Weaver, a longtime friend.

He shifted instantly from solemn military bearing to being "the funniest guy in the room," Weaver said. He made colleagues laugh "just from the inflection of his voice."

A mix of law enforcement and military dedication suffused Cottle's life. He peppered his speech with Marine lingo, and wore Marine T-shirts with his LAPD friends. But on base, among his military friends, he switched to LAPD gear.

Cottle surprised his family by marrying at 43, shifting his focus from constant training and weekend ice hockey games to family.

Fellow SWAT officers recalled a friend who stood out for the intensity he brought to the job, and the care he showed for other officers.

Incontro remembered the night in 2008 when another SWAT officer, Randall Simmons, was killed during a prolonged standoff. After Simmons was rushed to a hospital, Cottle went from one SWAT officer to the next, helping to calm them and keep them focused on the still-unfolding situation, Incontro said.

Cottle was a sergeant major in the Marine Corps Reserve -- the top enlisted position -- with the 4th Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, based at Camp Pendleton. Among his citations was the Combat Action Ribbon for having been under fire and returning fire.

At Camp Pendleton, his death was announced Thursday during a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a $13-million facility to train Marines to detect improvised explosive devices.

With emotion, Brig. Gen. Rex McMillian, deputy commanding general of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, praised Cottle as a fine Marine who had shown leadership in a variety of assignments since joining the Marine Corps in 1983.

In addition to his wife, daughter and sister, Cottle is survived by his father, Kenneth Cottle of Villa Park; and mother, Janet Deck of Clearlake Oaks, Calif.

jill.leovy@latimes.com

joel.rubin@latimes.com

Times staff writer Tony Perry contributed to this report

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