Police officer John Buckley was killed Dec. 13, 1935, in the line of duty. But he was almost forgotten by the city he died serving.
Until recently, not a single current police officer knew about Buckley, the only Pittsburg cop to ever die in the line of duty until Officer Raymond J. Giacomelli on April 15, 2003. “It was a big shock,” said Officer Ed Lemons, a history buff who dug up the story from old newspapers. “I was always told we never lost an officer in the line of duty.”
On Monday, the Police Department paid formal tribute to Buckley by presenting its first-ever medal of valor to his surviving sister, a 90-year-old Walnut Creek woman.
The posthumous award honors Buckley for heroism and sacrifice in the line of duty.
“It’s fitting,” said Police Chief Willis Casey, who created the department’s new medal-of-valor program. “And it gives the award a certain dignity.”
The rediscovery of Buckley’s killing was sparked by a conversation between Casey and Lemons last year, in which they discussed the lack of historical photos or other Police Department memorabilia.
Lemons resolved to spend some time researching the department.
Along the way, he talked to a Pittsburg oldtimer who mentioned that a police officer was once shot and killed in the city. At first, Lemons was skeptical.
But he went back to old issues of the Pittsburg Post Dispatch, now part of the Daily Ledger Post Dispatch. The issues were preserved on microfilm at the newspaper’s Railroad Avenue building.
Working off-duty in his spare time, Lemons spent several hours a day for nearly two months reading newspapers dating back to 1920, the year the Police Department was founded.
When Lemons finally ran across the 1935 story about Buckley, it was a big surprise to police.
“Even the longest-serving officers on the department, who had been here something like 24 years, hadn’t heard of him,” Casey said. “(Buckley) had been forgotten a long time ago.”
Newspaper reports gave this account of the shooting of Buckley:
Buckley, 39, was one of two officers called to a 1 a.m. disturbance on Dec. 13 at the old Paloma Café on Second and Black Diamond streets. Inside, a Pittsburg man, who was drunk and had been smoking marijuana, was armed with a .38-caliber revolver and had shot at a phonograph.
When police arrived, Buckley took up a position at the front of the establishment; a second officer went to the back. The man tried to flee out the back, shooting and wounding the second officer. He then ran to the front of the restaurant, where Buckley apparently tried to grab him.
Buckley was shot once in the chest and died.
If it happened today, the bullet probably would have been repelled by a bullet-proof vest. Unfortunately, those devices weren’t around back then, Lemons said.
The shooter was found later that morning, hiding in a bathtub at a York Street residence. After a shootout with two other officers, he died – with 18 bullet holes in his body.
After Buckley’s death, the City Council offered to name a street after him. But his family declined, and the officer was buried without fanfare at a Martinez cemetery, Lemons said.
As a tribute, the City Council at the time planted a redwood tree at City Park in his honor. Today, there is no plaque at the site, and it’s not certain which of the two redwood trees in the park are his, Lemons said.
But now, more than 38 years later, the city is again considering naming a street after the slain officer, possibly North Parkside Drive, Lemons said.
The slain officer’s sister, Mary Castro, 90, of Walnut Creek, accepted the medal of valor on behalf of her brother at a Pittsburg City Council meeting.
She and eight police officers, including Chief Casey, were on hand for the presentation.
“It’s kind of hard to say how I feel now,” Castro said. “I’m very proud tonight.”