Less than a year had passed since the community of Fresno mourned the death of a deputy from the Fresno County Sheriff’s Department. On Tuesday, May 28, the Peoples Church was once again the setting for the funeral of a deputy who died in the line of duty. Deputy Dennis E. Phelps was slain May 19 while checking a suspicious vehicle. The suspect, Mark Volpa Jr., was shot and killed by SWAT officers after a weeklong manhunt in the Fresno County foothills.
Phelps, who was on his second week of patrol, was fatally shot stopping a suspected gunman on the outskirts of Clovis, a Fresno suburb. Phelps, 47, who had worked for the sheriff for years as a court bailiff, had recently completed his training and had just begun patrolling the streets alone.
He radioed dispatchers at 11:44 p.m. Sunday to report that he had made a traffic stop. Clovis dispatchers responded that the driver of the vehicle was wanted for two separate shootings Sunday night, including potshots taken at a street sweeper in a shopping center parking lot.
A sheriff’s spokesman reported that it was likely Phelps never heard the report or knew the suspect might be armed. When Phelps didn’t radio back, Clovis police officers went to the scene and found him dead. His patrol car was gone, as well as, his badge, Smith & Wesson .45 caliber handgun and radio.
Another deputy received minor injuries after the suspect shot out his cruiser’s windshield during a chase that led into the Sierra Nevada foothills. The stolen cruiser was later found overturned on the side of the highway near the town of Prather. The suspect apparently escaped out the door and fled on foot.
Hundreds of officers from across the state, Attorney General Bill Lockyer and Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante attended the service to remember the life of Dennis E. Phelps.
Bustamante said, “One of California’s sons has fallen, a son of the Valley. He chose a life of public service, a job that bears risk and jeopardy . . . They wear a badge, offer help, put themselves in harm’s way.”
Fresno County Sheriff Richard Pierce described to the audience a week spent “trying to get a grip” on how events had unfolded. In the end, he said, he came to a simple but grim conclusion.
“Those who wear the uniform, every day have taken on the responsibility of placing ourselves in danger,” he told the crowd made up mostly of peace officers in uniform. “It is what we do. It is what we love. And Dennis loved it, too.”
The Phelps family’s pastor, Tim McLain Rolen of the New Hope Community Church, said the memorial service was about celebrating the love, joy, and adventure of Phelps’ life. Rolen, referring to Phelps, told the group of mourners, “He wanted to do it and he loved it. Any of you who have any regrets about letting him go on patrol: Don’t. His family doesn’t.”
Deputy Chris Curtice, in a voice heavily tinged with country flavor, sang The Grace of His Shield: “The good days are many and the bad days are few. The good days remind us why we do what we do. Pray for each other ‘cuz the dangers are real. When you carry the weight of the shield.”
Following the service, more than 300 sheriff’s cars from as far away as Los Angeles, San Bernardino, San Benito and Amador counties; police cars from San Jose, Riverside, Oakdale and more than a dozen California Highway Patrol units slowly left the church and filed to Phelps’ grave site at Clovis Cemetery District.
More than 60 motorcycles led the way, followed by a hearse, limousines and dozens of Fresno County sheriffs, Clovis police and Fresno police cruisers. As the cars formed a wide circle around the cemetery, two and three abreast, eight helicopters flew over in tight formation.
Deputy Phelps was laid to rest nine days after his life ended on a dusty roadside a few miles northeast of the cemetery.
Phelps began his career in the early 1980s with the Kerman Police Department and as a sheriff’s deputy assigned to the courts. After about 3 years, he left the sheriff’s department to work as a train engineer with the Burlington Northern Railroad.
He returned to the Sheriff’s Department in 1999 as a reserve deputy in order to spend more time with his family. Phelps became a full-time deputy October 30, 2000, and recently completed training to become a patrol officer.
He is survived by his wife, Dana; children, Nicole; 18, and Kenny, 13; and parents, Brice and Mary Phelps of Clovis.
The Fresno Deputy Sheriff’s Association has set up a trust fund for Deputy Phelps’ family. Checks can be made payable to Dennis Phelps Memorial and mailed to Kerman State Bank, P.O. Box 277, Kerman, CA 93630.