Calipatria police Chief J. Leonard Speer died from a bullet wound to the chest Friday, April 10, 1998. He had responded to a call from 59-year-old Rachel Deen at her farm equipment yard in the southeast section of Calipatria. About the same time that he arrived, her son, Omar Deen, 29, walked into the yard. Soon after an argument began. Witnesses were unsure who was arguing or what caused the argument. The call concerned a stolen tractor from the yard.
Sheriff’s Chief Deputy Kenneth Koon stated that Omar Deen struck Speer and managed to take his gun. Deen fired a single shot that struck Speer in the abdomen and penetrated his chest. He then turned the gun on his mother and fired twice. She was pronounced dead at the scene. Speer was taken to the Pioneers Memorial Hospital in Brawley where he died more than an hour later. County Coroner Investigator Ralph Smith said Speer was not wearing a bulletproof vest.
Scores of concerned law enforcement officers from throughout the Valley arrived at the hospital as soon as they heard about the incident. Speer’s wife, Evelyn, stayed at her husband’s side in the emergency room as doctors worked to save his life.
Omar Deen was arrested that day in Mexicali following a 45-minute search by local Mexican authorities. He will face the death penalty, if convicted, stated Assistant District Attorney Joe Beard. He was known to have a prior criminal record.
A handgun thought to be the weapon used in the shooting was found at the crime scene. Deen has pleaded not guilty to two counts of first-degree murder.
Rev. Amador Lopez of St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Calipatria told mourners Thursday, April 16, that Speer was a man who fought for peace. Speer was eulogized by his daughter Zandra Pendleton as more than just a tough cop; he was a husband, a father, a grandfather and a great-grandfather.
Pendleton told the audience of more than 1,000 gathered in St. Mary’s Catholic Church in El Centro for Speer’s funeral, “He gave us the gift of laughter. There was no greater man.” She said, “He will always be watching over all of those in law enforcement . . . I love my mom and my dad.”
More than 300 vehicles led a procession to Speer’s burial site in Mountain Valley Cemetery in Calexico following the church service.
City residents said Speer reduced crime in town. They stated that they could walk the city’s streets at night and feel safe because of Speer’s efforts. Speer was known as a tough officer whose only interest was serving his community and fighting crime.
Sheriff Oren Fox said “Speer was at an age when he could have retired, but that was not what he wanted to do. He wanted to continue to serve the public. I think it saddens all of us when we lose a law enforcement officer. He had 40 years of experience.” Speer celebrated his 65 birthday on December 9, 1997.
Fox continued “I think it is tragic not only for those in law enforcement who lost a friend, but also for this community. This certainly is a tribute to Leonard. He would have been thankful for all the law enforcement presence here today and so am I. They have really shown that they respect him and they respect the profession.”
Acting Chief Sgt. Enrique M. Duran told the audience that it was hard to accept that Speer was gone. He said that Speer had taught him to be a police officer. “This is real hard, real sad,” Duran said, “I could hardly hold my tears.”
Gilbert Otero, Imperial County District Attorney, stated, “Leonard was out there serving the people of his community and that is the bottom line.” Calipatria’s mayor, Daniel Carmichael, said “This has hurt the city of Calipatria. He was a great police chief.” He added, “I feel that I have lost a good friend.”
Margie Carmichael, the mayor’s wife, said of Speer, “I think it is the worst thing that could have happened to Calipatria. That man devoted his entire life to law enforcement. He was honest. He knew penal codes like very few police officers do and he had just about every qualification a police chief could have.”
Speer’s law enforcement career spanned more than 40 years. He served as Imperial County sheriff, police chief in Calexico and a patrol sergeant for the Brawley police force. He also served as an officer in the National Guard.
He had been given some of the credit for securing the construction of a nearby California state prison. He and Supervisor James Bucher initiated the idea for the prison more than 15 years ago.
When Calipatria ended its contract with the sheriff’s office and started its own police department in 1988, Speer was hired as police chief. Calipatria had contracted Speer’s service into the year 2000.
He is survived by his wife, Evelyn; daughters, Zandra Speer-Pendleton and Randalynn Speer-Benson; five grandchildren and three great grandchildren.
A memorial fund has been set up for the Calipatria Police Department in Speer’s name. The J.L. Speer Police Memorial Fund is at Valley Independent Bank, 190 Main Street, Brawley, CA 92227. The account was established to raise money for equipment such as helmets and shields for the Calipatria force.
The murderer of Chief J. Leonard Speer, Omar Deen, has been found guilty on two counts of first-degree murder, with special circumstances. Deen was found to be sane at the time of the shooting, and the jury came back with a sentence of the death penalty.