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Vandalism of memorials to CHP officer baffles widow

A flag was stolen, then the name 'Pedro' was hacked from a highway sign, a redwood cross was taken and the gravestone vanished.

December 15, 2012|By Steve Chawkins, Los Angeles Times
  • Colleen Gilmartin, the widow of California Highway Patrol Officer John Pedro, shows the replacement tombstone that was recently installed at Oakwood Memorial Park in Santa Cruz.
Colleen Gilmartin, the widow of California Highway Patrol Officer John… (Mark Boster / Los Angeles…)

The first posthumous attack on John Pedro was a simple, senseless theft.

At the roadside shrine that popped up where the California Highway Patrol officer was killed near Watsonville in 2002, someone stole a flag.

"Some people hate the police," said Colleen Gilmartin, Pedro's widow and a former CHP officer herself. "I thought it was some kind of statement."

But the statements have grown more assertive and more bizarre in the 10 years since Pedro's cruiser slammed into a tree as he was pursuing a speeder. A highway sign erected to honor the soft-spoken, 36-year-old officer was chopped down and had the name "Pedro" hacked out. A 6-foot redwood cross was cut off at the base and stolen. Two months ago, the 200-pound granite slab marking Pedro's grave vanished.

Investigators at the Santa Cruz County Sheriff's Office say they have pored over his old case files but made no arrests. Meanwhile his colleagues at the CHP office in Aptos wonder why someone from Pedro's past might be trying so dramatically to seek revenge.

"It seems very personal," said Sarah Jackson, an agency spokeswoman, "and it needs to stop. We're trying not only to solve a crime but to give Colleen some peace."

Last month, Gilmartin had a new grave marker installed at the site where she and her daughter Sara, now 12, would so often talk and sing and just sit. There was no unveiling.

"Part of me is scared to death that something will happen to this one too," she said.

Pedro was the 193rd CHP officer to die in the line of duty. Two years earlier, his friend Sean Nava was the 190th. Nava was struck by a 20-year-old drunk driver near Carlsbad on Oct. 28, 2000.

The two were classmates at the California Highway Patrol Academy. Starting their CHP careers in San Jose, they shared an apartment for a year. They both married women who also became CHP officers and the couples frequently socialized.

"Sean's death was really hard on John," Gilmartin said. "That really drove it home: 'Oh my God, this is a dangerous job.' "

A graduate of Watsonville High School, Pedro had his heart set on police work. He was an excellent musician — he and his wife met as trombonists in a military band — but he had always been fascinated by a neighbor's stories about working for the state patrol. Also intrigued by the big rigs that his father, an immigrant from the Azores, used to drive, he wound up with his dream job: enforcing truck laws on the highways around his hometown.

Pedro would set up inspection stations and check drivers' logbooks. "Some companies didn't like him," Gilmartin said, but he wasn't the subject of threats or complaints.

Freddie Chavez, co-owner of Truck Drivers Institute, a school in Watsonville, said Pedro once pulled over one of his instructors and said the school's truck was hauling a trailer that was too big. But after agreeing to check paperwork back in the school's office, he admitted to Chavez that he'd made a mistake.

"He was a good guy," Chavez said. "He said he wouldn't pull my trucks over again."

Two days later, Pedro started his day parked at a favorite spot along California Highway 1. Evidently spotting a speeder, he accelerated to about 75 mph and, veering onto a curving offramp a mile south, lost control of his car. The speeder was never found.

Pedro's death reverberated throughout Watsonville.

Woodworker Lee Fellows was coming back from Santa Cruz when he saw Pedro's mangled cruiser being hoisted onto a flatbed truck. He'd never met Pedro but dreamed for the next two nights about making him a cross.

With materials donated from a local lumberyard, he planted one in concrete at the spot where Pedro crashed. It was gone within a few months, chopped off at the base.

"I've talked with numerous officers," said Fellows, who works in parking enforcement at the Santa Cruz courthouse, "and we've all come up with the same conclusion: It has to be someone who John put away."

Some theories have been discarded. When "Pedro" was cut out of a toppled sign that said "Officer John Pedro Memorial Highway," some investigators wondered if the vandal was inspired by the catch-phrase "Vote for Pedro" from the 2004 film "Napoleon Dynamite."

After its destruction in 2005, the sign was replaced.

Gilmartin retired from her CHP job in 2007 and has been taking classes in graphic design. As time went on, she was able to see a photo of her husband and smile instead of tearing up.

"I thought it was over," she said.

Then came the gravestone theft. Gilmartin has offered a $5,000 reward for information leading to a conviction.

The new marker looks much like the old one. It has an etching of a trombone and one of Pedro's badge. Someone defaced the raised badge on the old stone.

Donated by Santa Cruz Memorial, the company that owns the cemetery, and Bras and Mattos, a monument maker in Hayward, the stone has been specially anchored to hinder its removal.

But for Gilmartin, that kind of security only goes so far.

"There's someone out there," she said. "There's something so creepy about it."

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