With fond words, the drone of a bagpipe and tears, hundreds of friends and loved ones said good-bye Friday, Feb. 21, to San Diego Sheriff’s Deputy Patrick Steven Coyle and celebrated the blessing he had been in their lives.
Coyle, 42, died Sunday Feb. 16, after the helicopter in which he and pilot Ron Hobson were flying lost power and crashed in Sycamore Canyon, northeast of Santee.
His death marked the first fatality in the 25-year history of the sheriff’s ASTREA helicopter unit.
Coyle, during a funeral Mass in the Immaculata at the University of San Diego, was eulogized as a devoted husband and father who had attained his dream job as a flying sheriff’s deputy.
“Patrick Steven Coyle was a heroic and courageous deputy sheriff who never gave up,” Sheriff Bill Kolender said. “He died with his law enforcement friends – his second family. He was never alone.”
Coyle’s law enforcement family came to honor him, and a procession of black and white cars wound its way from San Diego’s Jack Murphy Stadium to the church. The pews were filled with a sea of deputies in olive drab dress uniforms adorned with black mourning ribbons, and with friends from as far away as Scottsdale, Arizona, and Northern California.
An oversized portrait of a beaming Coyle was in front of the altar, where 20 years before he had graduated from high school. Maybe that smile, described as the kind one could hear, provided some comfort.
Police Chief Mike Poehlman of Oceanside, Coyle’s close friend for 25 years, said Coyle reminded him of the central character in the movie It’s a Wonderful Life. “Coyle was a generous, big-hearted man who was able to touch many people in his short but full life,” he said. He was “a real family person, very devoted to his children and helping young people in the community.”
“All he wanted to be was a street cop,” Poehlman said, “All he wanted to be was where the action was.” Poehlman recalled their start in law enforcement as police cadets in El Cajon, the Catholic faith they shared, and the good times they spent body-surfing on beaches from Ocean Beach to Oceanside.
He talked of the love Coyle had for his wife of 13 years, Jackie; his daughter, Chelsea, 5; and his son, Cory, 9. “I think those (heavenly) hosts are saying here lived a great friend who did his job,” Poehlman said, “Thanks God for sharing him before taking him back to you.” Coyle had worked as a deputy in the Central and Vista jails, on patrol in Fallbrook and recently staffed overtime shifts in San Marcos, where many deputies knew him. “His personality was magnetic,” San Marcos Sheriff’s Sgt. Mark Coppes said. “He was a gentleman and very well respected.”
Sgt. Frank Adams of the Fallbrook Sheriff’s Substation was Coyle’s superior during his two years there. Coyle took routine patrols in Fallbrook and was instrumental in starting the station’s bicycle patrol, Adams said.
Coyle “was a very proactive deputy,” he added. “People enjoyed him. He was the mascot of the station, a big teddy bear and a good guy. You could really depend on him.”
Coyle had a lifelong Interest in flying. had a private pilot license, was instrument certified and was working on a commercial pilot license, Poehlman said. In addition, he was an avid body surfer and had served as a judge several times in the world body surfing championships.
“He was very enthusiastic about his job,” said Sgt. Jack Dunn of the Sheriff’s Aviation Unit Deputy Coyle, an Oceanside resident, was responsible for getting a sheriff’s helicopter dedicated to the North County, he said.
“It’s easy to say something good about someone after they’re gone,” added Dunn, “but he was in fact extremely well liked by the people he worked with.” Coyle was also a parishioner at St. Francis Catholic Church in Vista. Both San Diego natives, Poehlman and Coyle met as 17-year-old high school students in the El Cajon Police Department’s cadets program. “It was there where we became friends,” Poehlman said. “I was the best man at his wedding and he was in my wedding party. I considered him my best friend.”
At age 21, Coyle moved to Northern California to serve as a Solano County Sheriff’s deputy for 12 years, while Poehlman joined the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department. Upon Coyle’s return to San Diego, the two joined forces as deputies and in off-hours activities.
“Pat loved flying, ever since he was in high school,” Poehlman said. “His father was a PSA (Pacific Southwest Airlines) pilot He loved being a sheriff’s deputy and being able to fly every day.”
Poehlman said, “Thank goodness I would talk on the phone with him regularly and we talked last Sunday. I am thankful to the Lord that I did that. He was a good man. I’ll miss him.”
Deputy Coyle and three others in the ASTREA unit received the department’s Medal of Lifesaving for rescuing five illegal border crossers who had fallen off a 12O-foot cliff near the Otay Lakes Dam in January 1996. The pilots risked their own lives as they rested their helicopters on a single skid in the dark in order to rescue the injured.
Deputy Coyle “was always interested in what he could do for others,” said Poehlman. “He was not in it for himself. He was a very dedicated officer. All he ever wanted to be was a cop.”
At Holy Cross Cemetery in Chollas View, Coyle’s fellow ASTREA deputies carried his flag-draped casket from the hearse to the grave site as Deputy Rob Carroll played “A Welsh Lullaby” on the bagpipe.
After prayers, final remembrances from Coyle’s kindergarten friend Russ Schumacher, San Diego Detective Sharon McNair and a Marine rifle salute, it was time to say good-bye.
Standing over the casket, helicopter deputies carefully smoothed and folded a U.S. flag and a state flag into tight triangle. Don Watkins, chief of the Highway Patrol’s Border Division, gave one flag to Jackie Coyle; Kolender gave the other to Cory along with a kiss on the cheek.
Each pilot removed his white carnation and laid it on the brown country pine casket Then, as the bagpipe played “Amazing Grace,” 20 helicopters in a missing-man formation flew over the cemetery.
Kolender said the ASTREA base in San Marcos will be dedicated to Coyle.