Joining a host of mourners, hundreds of peace officers from far and near converged on Oroville Friday, May 30, to bid farewell to one of their own.
Deputy Randy Jennings, who was slain in a domestic violence altercation May 21, was laid to rest in the Oroville Cemetery to the wail of bagpipes tolling “Going Home” while a V-shaped flight of helicopters in missing pilot formation whirled past.
Jennings, 38, was fatally shot in a gunfight in which Pao Xiong, 34, of Oroville was also killed.
The deputy was chasing Xiong across a field when the latter reportedly shot at him and he returned fire. Butte County Sheriff Mick Grey said officers may never know for certain who fired first. But since all five of Xiong’s shots hit the deputy’s body and only one of the deputy’s 10 shots hit Xiong, the sheriff surmised that Xiong fired first. Two bullets struck Jennings in the neck, just above his bullet-proof vest. Another two were lodged in the vest and the fifth went through the deputy’s right wrist, piercing his watch, Sheriff Grey reported.
Jennings, who opened fire with a 9 mm handgun, shot Xiong in the torso. Before he collapsed, the deputy called dispatchers to let them know he had been wounded.
“Deputy Jennings calmly put out a call on his radio that he’d been shot and needed an ambulance,” Sheriff Grey said. “Those were his last words.”
He died about two hours later at Enloe Hospital in Chico.
Jennings was the first Butte County deputy sheriff to die in the line-of-duty. His death marked the fourth time this year a California law enforcement officer has died in the line-of-duty while helping victims of family violence.
“Randy is the kind of guy everyone liked,” Sheriff Grey said. “We’re all taking it rough.” The deputy’s file is crammed with letters of thanks from the community, and fellow officers said he was beloved.
Hundreds of officers arriving in squad cars, motorcycles and unmarked vehicles began congregating early on May 30 at the Church of the Nazarene where the emotional and dignified services for Jennings was held.
Shoulder patches and vehicle emblems identified departments from dozens of jurisdictions around the state and reportedly from as far as Los Angeles and Washoe County in Nevada.
About an hour before the scheduled services, a team of English shire horses belonging to Nolan Darnell of Corning arrived by truck to be harnessed to his gleaming black and white draft wagon to carry the coffin in a walking procession to Oroville Cemetery about a mile away.
Mourners filled the large church while the overflow crowd of visiting officers waited in ranks outside.
The open, white lined casket with the American flag draped over its lower half reposed below banks of flowers.
Presentation of the colors by two honor guards started the ceremony.
Chaplain Ed Redfern welcomed the mourners and said that the tragedy of Jennings’ death should serve to unify the community. “There’s enough in this community that will fracture and divide us, keep us all in little pockets,” he said. “It’s important to remember that this is a community.”
Earlier in the week, Thai Vang, president of the Laotian Vets in Northern California, issued a statement expressing the Oroville Hmong community’s sorrow and deep hurt over Jennings’ death.
They described him as a “brave and very helpful officer who helped save people’s lives in the community” who was killed by a “domestic violence abuser.” “It is something that effects the whole community,” Redfern said. “We will not recover soon, but we will recover. We find ourselves at this point deeply needing your hands, your heart. Thanks for the police, for their commitment, for risking their lives.”
Christine Lydon said officers know they are at risk, and that their spouses and family members have to live with that knowledge. She sang a song, repeated later by Kelly Furlong, declaring wistfully: “You’ll never know you are my hero. You are the wind beneath my wings, everything I wish that I could be.”
Lee Wood, an associate pastor, in a personal eulogy, described Jennings as a caring and sensitive human being, who really loved to help others while enjoying a full and active life.
Sheriff Grey said Jennings exemplifies the term professional. “He loved the department and we loved him.” In addition to being a “friendly and professional officer,” Jennings was a loving husband and a father, Sheriff Grey stated. He stated that Jennings was being awarded the department’s highest award, the Medal of Valor. Jennings’ friend and supervisor, Sgt. Keith Knotek, posthumously nominated him for the award which was presented to Jennings’ widow, Terry, at the funeral by Sheriff Grey.
He had also been named the Officer of the Year by the Oroville Rotary Club in 1996. Knotek, who was with Jennings in the foot pursuit of the suspect, stated that he didn’t see a weapon. After Xiong shot Jennings, he was able to return fire; killing him. Knotek was unable to return fire because Jennings was directly in front of him, between him and the suspect. He believes that Jennings saved his life. Knotek stated “Randy is and always will be my hero!”
Poems in tribute to Jennings were read by Knotek and retired police detective Hatley. Hatley said Jennings’ loved exciting sports such as motorcycle racing, scuba diving, and flying, and his love for dogs, inspired him to write the poem as a tribute to the officer’s celebration of life.
Jennings was a nine-year veteran of the Butte County Sheriff’s Department. His assignments included Corrections, Courts, Civil, Patrol, Special Enforcement Unit, and the Special Incident Response Team. He was a member of the department’s Special Weapons and Tactics unit and a skilled gunman.
The mile-long procession followed the wagon with the draped casket drawn by the stately, cream colored draft horses with tasseled hoofs to the cemetery. It was followed by the Special Incident Response Team, honor guard, unmounted horse of the Butte County Sheriff’s Posse, members of Jennings’ family, and numerous uniformed officers and mourners. As it neared the grave beneath a huge sycamore tree strummed by gusts of wind, the procession was preceded by bagpipe strains of “Going Home.”
Jennings is survived by his wife, Terry, his teenage stepson, Danny, his mother, Carleen, and brother, Allen, who is a correctional officer with the Butte County Sheriff’s Department. Mrs. Jennings, an Oroville police officer, was off duty the night of her husband’s death. She had stayed home to celebrate her birthday.
A fund has been established for the benefit of Jennings’ wife and son. Donations can be made to the Randy Jennings Memorial Fund, Butte Community Bank, 2227 Myers Street, Oroville, CA 95965.
I’ll be honored to have Randy’s name added to the Memorial…while I wish with all my heart it was never an option. My heart is broken, but the memory of all that Randy was to me and to those whose lives he touched is a comfort. I don’t know how much information is included in the memorial, but I know Randy would want people to know that his ultimate goal in life was to someday have a place with God in His world.
Randy was a good man, and lived a good life in his effort to meet that goal. That knowledge, together with the faith Randy inspired in my own life is my daily comfort.
God Bless us all………
Terry Jennings (widow of Dep. Jennings)
as I am here standing under that old olive tree.
I am standing my watch
as the Lord has called upon me to do.
It was my turn to answer that final call.
Do not weep for me as I’m here
by that old olive tree, the tree of peace.
Now that the Lord has called,
as He has done with others before me
I will be here always, to keep you safe.
I took an oath to keep the peace.
I’m as proud to serve in death as I was in life.
Do not fear my friend,
I have more training to do up here with my fellow brothers,
with the Lord as my master.
He will teach me the ways to keep you out of harm’s way.
I will follow him into battle to keep you safe,
As any warrior would do.
When you pass that old olive tree remember
I’m standing my watch.
If you look very hard and open your heart and soul,
you will see me. Listen for the pipes,
you will hear them and know I am here, to keep you safe.
Do not cry for me my brothers and sisters,
I am at peace standing my final watch.
I am doing the job I loved most.
As you walk thru life be sure I will be there by your side.
And never give up faith as the Lord has plans for us all.
Mine was to be with him to keep all safe. So please do not cry,
I will be here standing watch under that old olive tree,
the tree of peace.
By friend: Gloria Culver May 29, 1997
copyright © 1997 used with permission