In the same small neighborhood church where Mario Navidad was baptized a quarter-century ago, his family and friends said goodbye on December 30, 1996.
The 27-year-old Chino father of two was remembered as a dedicated husband, parent and LAPD officer as his body lay in a flag-draped coffin before an altar still decorated with Christmas trees and garlands.
“If one gives his life or her life to protect and serve, that person dies a martyr’s death,” the Rev. Michael McCullough said during the funeral Mass. “And he deserves a martyr’s reward.”
Navidad, a LAPD officer of less than two years, was fatally wounded Dec. 22 by a 17-year-old Los Angeles gang member. Sunday was like any other day. Navidad and his partner, Police Academy classmate Ralph Mendoza, were patrolling the streets of the Wilshire Division when a convenience store clerk flagged them down. The clerk told them that someone had taken beer from his store. When the officers spotted the suspect, Aleim Ulloa Ortiz, he was carrying a six-pack of beer under each arm, police said.
Ortiz loaded the beer under one arm and then pulled out a gun, firing at the officers, police said. Navidad was hit six times even before he could get out of the car. The bullets passed through the unprotected side of his bullet proof vest.
Both Mendoza and Navidad returned fire fatally wounding Ortiz, whom investigators suspect had been on a drinking binge since Friday.
“One person picks up a gun to rob and kill; one picks up a gun to protect and serve,” McCullough told the mourners. “Judgment we will leave to God.”
The crowd of 700 attending Navidad’s funeral filled the pews and flowed into the aisles of the Church of St. Mark in Venice, the same West Los Angeles neighborhood where Navidad grew up and graduated from high school.
His wife, Sandra, 4-year-old son Brandon and 9-month-old daughter Melissa sat in the front pew, surrounded by family and backed by seven solid rows of blue-uniformed police officers.
“He wanted to be their role model, and he is,” Los Angeles Police Capt. John Muntz – Navidad’s commanding officer – said of the couple’s children. “His spirit, his heart and his dreams will live with them.”
Navidad became a police officer after working for almost 10 years in a Culver City supermarket, Muntz said. The Navidads would have celebrated their fifth wedding anniversary in January, he stated.
“He gave of himself each time he put on his badge and went to work for the city of Los Angeles,” said Muntz. Though Navidad had been on the force for just 21 months, Muntz said he had developed the gung-ho tenacity that marks outstanding officers, without ever losing his gentle nature. “His courage, his faith, his dedication, his compassion helped him become the kind of police officer who could be relied on by everyone,” stated Muntz.
Born in Santa Monica, Navidad was raised in Sinaloa, Mexico and returned to the United States, where he graduated from Venice High School in 1987. He earned an administration of justice degree at Santa Monica College, police said. “He was going to school to study about the law and he was also working full time,” said Teresa Webster, a checker at the store where Navidad had worked.
At the Police Academy, Navidad was remembered as a quiet man, always willing to help his colleagues through the rigors of training. “Mario was kind of a quiet individual – he was a very warm-hearted person – very gentle in his nature, a kind of a person who quietly encouraged and supported other people in the class without making a big display of it,” said Los Angeles police officer Greg Stearns, president of Navidad’s Academy class.
Stearns, who graduated alongside Navidad on Sept. 29, 1995, said Navidad had helped him, too. “He was not flamboyant or obvious in his ways, but he gave words of encouragement,” Stearns said. “He lifted my spirits in the academy.” Just two weeks ago, Stearns said he and Navidad discussed their careers. “He was interested in being out on the streets, getting to know his division,” Stearns said. “We spoke about work, and he spoke about Christmas and his family.”
From Navidad’s death, his academy classmates have taken a bitter lesson. “It goes to demonstrate the tenuous nature of this work,” Stearns said. “One minute you are in roll call, joking with your partners, getting ready to go on the street and the next minute in a fight for your life.” Searns said anyone who joins the force knows the risks. “I think anyone who comes into this job, they know that when they accept the responsibility,” he said. “It’s always in the back of your mind, you have chosen a profession that places you in harm’s way.”
At the time of the shooting, Navidad had worked at the Wilshire station for little more than two months after completing his training at Rampart Division.
Los Angeles police Lt. Sol Polen, a watch commander at Rampart, described Navidad as “a real friendly, real happy-go-lucky guy.” “Rampart is known as the most violent division in the city,” Polen said. “He did a good job here on is probation – he just always had a smile on his face. Some kids come in here, they are real intense. He laughed all the time, joked and seemed like he was a happy person, enjoyed his job.”
Besides Navidad’s wife, Sandra, and children, Brandon and Melissa, he is survived by his parents, Saul and Magdalena Navidad.
Contributions to the Navidad family can be made to: Navidad Blue Ribbon Trust Account, c/o Wilshire Community Police Station, 4861 W. Venice Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90019.