A reverent sadness filled Visalia streets Wednesday, Jan. 14, as hundreds gathered to honor Ofc. James J. Rapozo. He was shot and killed Friday, Jan. 9, during a high-risk situation when SWAT officers converged on an apartment to arrest Alfonso Hernandez – a search warrant raid gone bad.
Sixteen-year-old Hernandez was a suspect in the shooting of five people on Christmas Eve. An investigation had shown that Hernandez not only knew that he was wanted, but had made statements to numerous individuals at different times that he would not be taken alive, and that he would take his own life or an officer’s life if necessary.
When officers entered the residence where Hernandez was staying, he opened fire with a .9mm semi-automatic handgun. The SWAT team members returned gunfire.
Hernandez was struck numerous times and died from his wounds at the scene. The handgun was recovered near his body, and it was determined that it was the same type caliber used in the Dec. 24 shooting.
Rapozo, one of the first SWAT officers to enter the residence, was shot once by the suspect almost immediately. The bullet entered through his left side in an area not covered by his protective vest. The bullet traveled through his chest cavity and penetrated his heart. He died during surgery at the Kaweah Delta District Hospital.
Rapozo’s family, close friends and colleagues attended his funeral service as well as police officers and residents from all over the South Valley. Some of the mourners came from as far south as Redondo Beach, and as far north as Santa Rosa. The cleric’s words were heard by the overflow crowd of more than 1,000 via closed-circuit television.
Monsignor Thomas Kleinhans told the mourners “James, you served the community by giving the ultimate gift – your life. That gift stands for what is good and what is right about our community and our society.”
The 33-year-old officer was praised by many during the services including interim Police Chief Chuck Huchel. He stated “We are proud of James, for he has shown the courage we hope to exhibit. All are touched by his death . . . and all share in this untimely loss.”
Former Visalia Police Chief Bruce McDermott told the mourners, “He recognized the dangers of his job. James knew that you can be as safe as you can, but at the right time, you’re a lamb when a person decides to do the worst thing in the world.”
Rapozo was characterized by McDermott as a top-notch officer with a knack for problem-solving and an eye for detail and safety.
McDermott stated that Rapozo always wore his bulletproof vest. His department photograph clearly shows a slice of blue, his bulletproof vest, near his collar.
Monsignor Kleinhans told the Rapozo family “No one is capable of telling you we know the extent of your grief, but we can tell you how much we love you. May our prayers . . . be our simple gift to you.” He described Rapozo as the quintessential family man who lived life to the fullest, as though every day were his last. He thanked him for cherishing his duty to keep peace and order in a community becoming all too familiar with violent crime.
Kleinhans stated “We are grateful for you and your 33 fateful years with us. You will always remain a proud memory . . . The joy that you lived in life is an infallible sign of God’s love that is with us.”
SWAT team member Jason Salazar, backed by the church’s choir, sang “Amazing Grace” during the service. The choir carried the song as Salazar stopped to regain his composure as he sang.
Humberto Aldape Jr. came from Dinuba to honor Rapozo, who was widely considered a model police officer for his intelligence, impeccable appearance and cool demeanor in the field. Aldape said “A lot of people do wrong in this world. He did good.”
Beneath cloudy skies, the procession of five limousines and 395 law enforcement cruisers and motorcycles entered the Visalia Cemetery gates. The hearse stopped in front of a towering tree, where Rapozo’s widow, Merrily, chose to bury her fallen husband.
Rapozo’s fellow SWAT team members were chosen as honorary pallbearers. They wore “A-93” for “Adam-93,” Rapozo’s call sign, stitched onto the left sleeves of their snug black commando uniforms that they wore at the request of the Rapozo family. They carried his casket from the hearse and set it above the grave site where family members and city officers had gathered.
The Rev. Gregory Beaumont administered the graveside service.
A “missing man” formation executed by members of the California Highway Patrol concluded the ceremony.
Monsignor Kleinhans’ last words at the service were “Eternal rest grant to him, oh Lord. May he rest in peace.”
Rapozo’s death was the first line-of-duty death for Visalia Police Department in 51 years.
Rapozo, a graduate of Hanford Joint Union High School in 1982, and CSU, Fresno, in 1987, began his law enforcement career with the Hanford Police Department. He worked there from April 1986 until March 1990 when he joined the Kings County Sheriff’s Department. He was employed there until January 1991. He became a member of the Department of Justice, Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement, in January 1991 where he served until he lateraled to the Visalia Police Department on April 20, 1992. During his almost six years there, he served as a member of the Basic Car Team, SWAT Team and the Field Training Unit. He was also a member of the Patrol Planning Council for four years.
He is survived by his wife, Merrily, and children, Megan, 6, and Max, 3 1/2; and his mother, Aldine.
A trust fund has been established for Rapozo’s children. Donations can be made to the Bank of the Sierra, c/o the Rapozo children, 128 East Main Street, Visalia, CA 93291, ACC #0710675030, or to the Rapozo Children, c/o Ofc. David Jarret, Visalia Police Dept., 303 S. Johnson St. Visalia, CA 93291-6135.