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Death of a man; Death of a Hero

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.”

Chris’ Celebration of Life

The day of the memorial, dozens of bikers pulled into Louie’s Chinese restaurant. We were briefed, grabbed our flags and headed to line up. We were the last group the procession would see before ending at the Arena. Chris’ friends showed up to stand with us, as well as, a friend of mine from work whose daughter is an officer with a small Oregon agency. Chris had taught one of her academy classes. As the procession reached us, we stood in honor of a man who had touched many. The more I learned about him from his friends and colleagues, the loss felt more palpable. He was described as one of the best of the good guys and it seems he was. The procession passed and I made eye contact with each vehicle that passed. 454 vehicles in all, including over 100 motorcycle cops, representing 12 states and Canada passed. The faces of the officers were stoic even as tears flowed freely down many cheeks. The loss reached me deeper as I watched my son’s baseball coach pass-by driven in by a Cottage Grove officer. She lived there with her Springfield LEO. In another Eugene PD vehicle, the father of one of the boys on my older son’s hockey team passed. When the last vehicle went by, I lowered my flag and realized the rain had stopped. About the time the procession reached us the clouds had parted and the sun shone through revealing blue sky. A sign that Chris is patrolling for a higher authority now?

Yesterday, I rode to the spot Chris gave his life. I kneeled by the signs, flags, flowers and pictures. I said a prayer for the family, his immediate family and his police family. The sun shone down on me as I mourned for the loss of John Christopher Kilcullen--the husband, father, brother, son, philanthropist, motorcyclist, officer, instructor and hero.

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Michelle Perin worked as a police telecommunications operator with the Phoenix (AZ) Police Department for eight years. She has an M.S. in Criminology and Criminal Justice from Indiana State University and writes full-time from Eugene, Oregon. For more information, visit