On the morning of Eugene (OR) Police Officer J. Christopher Kilcullen’s Celebration of Life the temperature hovered around freezing. The typical Oregon April showers had turned to slush and it was snowing at the base of the Cascades just east of the city. On most mornings like this, I wouldn’t have dreamed of putting on my helmet and jumping on my Triumph to ride the 20 minutes into work. Today was different. I had to go in for only a few hours before heading back west to stand with the Patriot Guard Riders who had been invited to come and honor Chris’ life. As I rode that morning, freezing rain pelted me and soaked through my pants and my gloves. My fingers were so numb I could hardly shift. My outlook was uplifted and proud despite the physical misery. The thoughts that kept running through my head were, “I’m doing this to honor a hero. Chris spent countless hours on his motorcycle keeping the citizens of my town safe. I’m proud to have been invited by the family to stand a flag line in honor of his life.” And, essentially, “I may be cold and wet, but I’m not dead.”
The Death of an Officer
Officer Kilcullen, a 12 year veteran, was killed on Friday, April 22 after attempting a traffic stop. He followed the red light runner just east into Springfield and when he pulled up beside her and attempted to get off his motorcycle, she pulled out a gun and shot him. Although wearing a vest, the bullet struck him where there was no protection. He was killed instantly and the suspect fled leading several jurisdictions on a chase through the rural area just east of the city. After holing up in her car for several hours, she ultimately gave herself up and was taken into custody.
The news of Chris’ death spread fast through the community. Chris grew up in Eugene and had friends from all time periods of his life locally. He left behind his wife, Kristie, and two young daughters, Sydney and Katie. EPD had not lost an officer since 1934. To make things worse, he had not died during a gun battle with criminals after the commission of a horrible, violent crime or by an out of compliance parolee. The killer was a local woman with a history of mental health issues. This doesn’t make her crime less significant. To me, it makes it sadder because it leaves the community with less of a direction for their anger.
Within days, the Celebration of Life for Chris was planned for the following Friday. It would include a public safety procession traveling from Eugene to the spot where Chris was killed in Springfield and back to Matthew Knight Arena, which the University of Oregon had offered for the memorial service. Thousands of officers were expected to come pay their respects. This would be an event unlike any Eugene had ever seen and many people, including friends of the fallen officer, were having their first experience with the ceremonial rituals of the police culture.
Sorrow of Friends
I received a call midweek from the mom of my son’s best friend and she was in tears. Her and her husband had gone to school with Chris. In fact, she and Chris had dated for a while before he introduced her to her husband. She tearfully told me stories of being over at Chris’ house and also calling him at the radio station back when he was “Killer Cullen.” After reminiscing about the man Chris was, she told me the reason for her call. Several of Chris’ long-time friends, and motorcycling companions, wanted to pay their respects during the procession but had been told they could not. Understandably, they were upset and reflected Chris’ Celebration had been taken over by political figures and felt even Chris’ family had been shoved aside. As she spoke, I immediately thought of Val Van Brocklin’s article, “What’s a Cop’s Life Worth?” I tried my best to explain to her the purpose behind the “chaos” of a police memorial. I tried to describe the reasons why it felt the “man” was being lost in the focus on the “police officer.” Pulling from Val’s words and my own experience, I explained why the community needed to honor their hero. I reflected the community’s loss of security and safety and the need for Chris’ brothers and sisters in blue to pay their respects in this ritualistic manner. Officers needed to ride in the procession and visit where he died. Community members needed to tie blue ribbons on the trees along the procession route and stand along the street clutching little flags. Children at the elementary school needed to hold signs saying things like, “Kids Care,” and “Thanks for Protecting us.” I hope I was able to help her understand. She told me she had heard I would be standing in a flag line with my motorcycle group and asked if Chris’ friends could stand with us. “Of course,” I said. “Have them call me.”