California News

Oakland to remember 4 fallen officers

Thursday, March 26, 2009

One defied the cynicism of the streets. One loved riding his motorcycle. One made colleagues feel safe. One had a memorable smile.

In life, Mark Dunakin, John Hege, Ervin Romans and Daniel Sakai embodied the archetype of the tough, but neighborly cop, colleagues say. Together, they had a half-century's experience in the Oakland Police Department, which is now preparing to honor their memories in a joint funeral.

The four officers were shot in the line of duty Saturday, the biggest single day, gun-related loss of life for law enforcement since four federal agents died 15 years ago during a raid on the Branch Davidian cult in Waco, Texas.

The 26-year-old parolee accused of killing Dunakin and Hege with an automatic pistol during a traffic stop, then Romans and Sakai with an assault weapon during the ensuing manhunt, also died in a hail of bullets.

Friday's funeral for the four veterans, three of whom were sergeants, is expected to fill the 16,900-seat home court of the Golden State Warriors with officers and firefighters from around the nation and overseas. Freeways will be closed as motorcades shepherd the fallen officers' families and caskets to the ceremony from four directions.

"For the families, for the surviving officers, the show of support and solidarity from the public and their colleagues is a source of tremendous comfort and strength" said Craig Floyd, chairman of the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. "Those survivors realize their loved ones didn't die in vain, that they're being remembered and that they're not alone."

Losing so many people at the same time would be devastating for any organization, but Oakland's loss is particularly grievous because of the years of service the slain officers had put in and the kind of men they were, people who worked alongside them say.

They were fathers and sports fans, mentors and husbands doing a gritty job they loved despite the crummy hours and dangers. Sakai, 35, and Romans, 43, were the valedictorians of their police academy classes. Romans was a weapons expert who trained rookies and superiors alike. Hege, 41, was a former high school PE teacher who joined the motorcycle division just two weeks before Saturday's tragedy.

Dunakin, 40, was a former homicide detective who was the lead investigator on a case involving one of Oakland's most violent and notorious killing crews, which randomly murdered five people in late 2002 and early 2003. He was married to a sheriff's deputy who retired after she was taken hostage during a restaurant holdup. Sakai's widow is an officer for the University of California.

"I don't think we've truly come to grasp with how much we've lost. They weren't the types who were gonna put their name out there, they'd just go and do it," said Officer Roland Holmgren, who was participating in the manhunt when Romans and Sakai, his fellow SWAT team members and friends, were killed.

Oakland's part-time SWAT team members carry pagers, and any time there's an incident they are required to respond immediately. On Saturday, Holmgren arrived after Romans, his field training officer, and Sakai, with whom he had worked on patrol. Romans always was the first on any scene, and the last to leave.

"He was very boisterous, you knew when he was in the room," Holmgren said. "I always felt secure when he was around. We were both former Marines, we had that bond together."

Oakland Housing Authority Police Chief Carel Duplessis worked as a sergeant when Romans worked as an officer at the authority during the early 1990s. He said Romans won a silver medal in shooting while competing in the 1995 all-California police Olympics.

Beyond his gun skills, colleagues recognized Romans as "truly a leader among them," Duplessis said. When it came time to negotiate with the agency's managers over working conditions, "Romans' peers chose him to speak on the behalf of the officers."

If Romans stood out as a leader, Dunakin stood out for his sunny disposition and insistence on being one of the guys. Vallejo Police Chief Robert Nichelini, whose son worked under Dunakin as a motorcycle officer, recalls seeing him on St. Patrick's Day at a monthly buffet dinner hosted by retired Oakland officers.

On-duty officers are given first dibs to fill their plates, but Dunakin refused to step ahead of him in line, Nichelini says. "I said, 'Hey, Sarge, you are in uniform, get ahead of me.' He said, 'No, Chief, it's OK.' So we're standing together in line getting our food. That was the last time I saw him."

Nichelini said he does not know what prompted Dunakin to pull over Lovelle Mixon, the parolee accused of killing him and the three others. But he remarked that as a motorcycle sergeant, Dunakin went beyond the call of duty in doing so on a Saturday afternoon. Of the four officers killed, he had been on the force the longest, 18 years.

"As a motor sergeant, squad supervisor, there is no expectation that he produce citations. He is doing this because he feels compelled to do it, that it's a job that every police officer has," Nichelini said.

Others commented on Dunakin's consistent good humor and generosity, a quality that set him apart in the often grim world of policing.

"He was very fun-loving, took negative things with a grain of salt," said Pleasant Hill Police Chief Peter Dunbar, who worked in Oakland until three years ago. "We in law enforcement tend to be cynical because we are trying to apply law and logic. Mark was just somebody who thought he understood his role and absolutely enjoyed being an Oakland police officer."

Dunbar knew all four officers, and says that he will remember Hege for both his steady demeanor and his creativity. Before he was hired in November 1999, Hege spent years as an unpaid volunteer reserve officer and performed administrative tasks to free up officers to work the streets. Even when he was working the night shift, Hege "kept trying to think of better way of doing things."

The last time he saw Hege was on March 16, at the funeral of another Oakland officer who had died unexpectedly. As usual, Hege was bouncing off ideas for improving officer relations, Dunbar recalled.

"He just loved police work, and different aspects of it," he said.

Sakai had been with the 800-officer department for the shortest time, since December 2000, but like the others made a lasting impression. A graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, he often impressed colleagues with both his intelligence and his grin.

Sakai "had a subtle sense of humor, an ever-glowing smile to him. He was very humble and reserved and professional and extremely smart," Holmgren said.

Paul Schroeder, a fraternity brother of Sakai's at Berkeley, recalled that when Sakai pledged Alpha Sigma Phi in 1991 the other members were thrilled to have him. A native of Big Bear, Sakai had been a competitive mountain biker in high school and drove a pickup truck.

"I was always amazed we could get a guy this cool to pledge our house," Schroeder said.

After graduating in 1995 with a degree in forestry, Sakai spent a year teaching English in Japan before he decided to become a police officer. A diabetic, he was initially refused entry into the police academy, but eventually prevailed, said Oren Levy, another college friend.

Sakai remained active in the fraternity as an alumnus and a few years ago spoke to a local chapter meeting about his job, bringing along the police dog that was his partner at the time. He captivated his audience by relaying how he checked the license plate of every Toyota Camry he saw because the sedans were so easy to steal.

"I thought how unbelievably brave to be an Oakland cop instead of a cop in the suburbs where nothing ever happens," said Schroeder. "Every time my wife would hear about something bad happening to an Oakland cop, I would say, 'Man, I hope it isn't him."'


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