Five days after gunfire ended his life, family friends and fellow officers wept as Ventura County Sheriff’s Deputy Peter John Aguirre, Jr. was laid to rest in the town where he was born.
Aguirre died at work, Wednesday, July 17, 1996, as he tried to calm a maritial spat in Oak View, Ca. Michael Raymond Johnson shot him once in the shoulder and twice in the head. Johnson was charged with murder and the special circumstance of killing an on-duty police officer, which could lead to the death penalty.
Aguirre and three other officers had answered a domestic dispute call, arriving to find Guillermina Johnson warning them that her husband had a gun and was in the shower. Aguirre entered the home alone and several shots rang out. Authorities said Johnson, naked, ran outside and fired shots from two guns at Deputy James Fryhoff.
Fryhoff returned fire and hit Johnson in the rib cage. Johnson was further accused of attempting to kill Fryhoff. Prosecutors also charged him with kidnapping and forcing sex on his wife.
Sheriff Larry Carpenter said in his eulogy that the rookie deputy grew up in Santa Paula, and fell wearing a gilt deputy’s badge with a snapshot of his wife and young daughter taped to the back. “He was murdered because he was a deputy sheriff,” Carpenter said, “and he was simply doing his job.” “He was a good deputy, very well thought of . . . and very very sincere about helping those who were not as fortunate,” the sheriff continued.
Solemnly Carpenter gripped the lectern at Sacred Heart Church in Ventura, which was packed with Aguirre’s extended family and childhood friends from Santa Paula and nearly his entire sheriff’s academy class.
Carpenter read briefly from an essay Aguirre wrote barely two years ago after he put aside early aspirations to be a teacher and applied for work as a deputy. “Today’s officer must use all of his intellect, senses and fair judgment,” Carpenter read. “Today’s officer needs all the cooperation the community can give… and the community must respect our officers if they are expected to respect the law.”
Carpenter remembered Aguirre as a 26-year-old former religious studies student who was “confident without being abrasive .. sensitive without being soft Peter was a real hero,” Carpenter concluded. “He was a lawman.”
Close friends choked back tears at the lectern as they remembered growing up in tight-knit Santa Paula – skateboarding, plowing through grade school and eyeing girls – with “Petey.” And they talked about his dedication to police work.
Aguirre earned a bachelor’s degree in religious studies at Cal Sate North ridge. At one point he considered going into the priesthood and teaching, but opted for a career in law enforcement, according to his grandfather, Don Aguirre. Aguirre joined the Sheriff’s Department in mid-1994 and served at the County Jail until January, when he was transferred to patrol duties in Ojai. After a four-month training period, he became a full-fledged patrol officer about three months ago.
“Petey loved his job so much, despite the dangers it possessed,” Gene Martinez, Aguirre’s cousin, told the congregation. “He always told me how exciting it was.”
As a sea of tan-clad deputies snapped to attention, the mournful wail of bagpipes drifted through the air. Pallbearers lifted the coffin from the hearse and bore it to the grave site as friends and family choked back sobs and wiped away tears.
After the mass, a procession of 150 motorcycle officers and hundreds of police cars drove east on Highway 126 to Santa Paula Cemetery, past an electronic traffic sign that flashed “In Memory of Peter Aguirre” in yellow letters on a black backdrop. It had been set up by California Department of Transportation workers.
Three white doves perched on power lines near the grave Site. Family members said they had been roosting there for several days, and were the reasons that Aguirre’s wife chose the Site for Aguirre’s grave in the shadow of an avocado grove.
Father Daniel O’Sullivan delivered a prayer. Then he plucked three crucifixes off the casket, blessed them with holy water and handed one to Aguirre’s widow, one to his mother and one to his child. Marie Aguirre brought the crucifix to her lips in her son’s memory and delivered a gentle kiss.
The sheriff’s honor guard surrounded the casket and neatly folded the American flag that lay on the cherrywood coffin as a lone bugler blew “Taps.”
Then, Enedina Aguirre – the grade-school sweetheart who became Aguirre’s wife of four years and then his widow – stoically accepted the crisply folded flag from Sheriff Carpenter.
Aguirre’s friends and family flinched at the sharp crack of a 21-gun salute, the harsh military farewell for the native son they knew fr6m his days as a clerk at his grandfather’s grocery store.
For some, the massive show of respect – the bagpipes, the riderless horse, the fly-by of the Ventura County sheriff’s helicopter squad – did little to diminish the pain. Aguirre was the fourth police officer slain in Ventura County since 1993.
“It’s terrible that these things happen, and somehow we have to find a way to live through it,” said Donald Ayala, a distant cousin of Aguirre’s. “Just about every day, you hear about police officers getting killed. You don’t know what is going to happen from one day to the next.”
As a mariachi band filled the graveyard with music as the service ended, a long line of mourners offered their condolences to the family and filed past the casket. They drifted to a poster-board covered in photos of a younger, smiling Aguirre who played baseball and football as a boy.
Enedina Aguirre laid a hand on the coffin, then lifted her daughter to deliver a light kiss to the wood. Aguirre’s mother, Marie, and father, Peter, followed, running their hands along the casket’s sleek finish before being helped away.
A group of deputies who worked with Aguirre huddled around the casket, rapping. it with their knuckles as if to let their good friend know that they had not left his side.
“This is too sad,” said Kathy Andres of Santa Paula, as she pointed to a card announcing Aguirre’s birth on Oct.17, 1969. “He was too young to die.”
“Peter was always an angel,” said Sylvia Montoya as she placed a red rose on his casket. “He’s just gone from one home to another, but he’ll always be in our hearts.”
A memorial fund has been set up for Deputy Aguirre’s wife, Enedina “Dina,” and their 3-year-old daughter, Gabriella. Donations can be sent to: Peter Aguirre, Jr. Memorial Trust Fund, American Commercial Bank, 300 E. Main St., Ventura, CA.