California Highway Patrol Sgt. Gary R. Wagers died early Thursday, March 15, when his patrol car crashed at State Route 113 and Interstate 5 in Woodland.
CHP Officer Kelly Baraga said investigators reported that Wagers was in a high-speed pursuit when his patrol car went off the embankment. Tests indicated the car’s overhead emergency lights were on before the crash, although the siren had not been turned on.
CHP officials learned of the crash at 6:05 a.m. when a commuter called 911 on his cell phone after discovering the wrecked patrol car in a wooded area where the two roadways merge. The commuter, who uses SR 113 daily, noticed a set of skid marks going across the road. He got out of his car to investigate and spotted the wrecked patrol car down an embankment about 25 feet from the roadway.
Investigators estimate the car flew about 30 yards through the air before crashing. The roof of the patrol car was crumpled on the driver’s side. Wagers, who was wearing his seatbelt, appeared to have died instantly of head injuries upon impact.
Wagers arrived at work Wednesday at 7 p.m. and was expected to work until shift change at 3:45 a.m., officials reported. The night was a routine one and dispatchers last heard from him around midnight.
He did not check out when his shift ended, but no one noticed or thought anything was out of the ordinary, Capt. Montey Hensley said. When and why the accident occurred remains unknown, Hensley added.
Wagers, a 22-year veteran of the department, had only been working in the Woodland area for the past four months, but he had already made a lasting impression with his coworkers, said Sgt. Brent Country.
“He was 54-years-old but he still had the same strength and energy as he did the first day he came out of the academy,” Country said. “Gary was someone you could confide in and someone you could trust.”
Hensley stated that Wagers transferred to Woodland from Santa Ana in November after his wife, Linda, who works for the Department of Motor Vehicles, received a promotion.
He added that Wagers, in a short time, established a reputation among the 30 officers at the Woodland station as “someone who was approachable with any problem. He was very positive and upbeat.”
A memorial service for Wagers was held at the Capital Christian Center in Sacramento prior to his burial in Southern California. Gov. Gray Davis and platoons of law enforcement officers attended the service to honor an officer who had died in the line of duty. Davis told the 1,800 mourners that made Wagers a hero.
Davis stated that the service represented more than just his death. “We have come to mourn the loss of Sergeant Wagers and celebrate his life and offer the prayers and gratitude of 34 million Californians,” he said. “With honor and valor Sergeant Wagers fought the daily battle against criminals, against those who do violence against us and our families.”
“With honor and valor he gave his life to that ballad. He represents the thin blue line between law and lawlessness. I have great respect for anyone who puts himself in harms way for another human being,” Gov. Davis said. “Gary Wagers did that most of his life. There is no way we can every pay Gary back for his gift, but we can try.”
Rev. Karl Hansen, the chaplain of the Highway Patrol and a friend of Wagers, told the audience that he enjoyed remembering the little things about him that everyone will miss.
“What was Gary Wagers really like? He was a modest 5-foot, 10 inches with his boots on. He loved pizza. He had a thing for deviled food cookies. He had the gift of gab and he had a bad memory for birthdays. You didn’t ask Gary a question unless you really wanted an answer,” the Rev. Hansen said. “As to his work, his second love, he was an excellent officer.”
Hensley told the mourners, “In Woodland we took him to our hearts. I would like to leave you with a thought that I overheard at the scene that tragic morning. A Woodland officer had just climbed the hill to Gary’s patrol car when I heard one of them say ‘God must have needed a good field sergeant. That’s why he took Gary so quickly.'”
Besides his wife, Linda, Wagers is survived by his mother, Joyce; daughter, Shelly; son and daughter-in-law, Garhett and Christine; step-daughter and son-in-law, Carrie and Kevin Fellhoelter; sisters, Joy and Merry; and brother, Mark.
Donations may be made to the Sacramento SPCA at 6201 Florin-Perkins Road, Sacramento, CA 95828.