Officers Britt T. Irvine and Ricky B. Stovall died Tuesday, Feb. 24, when their cruiser dropped off a section of SR 166, that was washed out by the Cuyama River east of Santa Maria. The officers had been dispatched to rescue a stranded motorist.
Irvine and Stovall were last heard from about 2:45 a.m. as they traveled down the foggy two-lane mountain highway. Their bodies were discovered 10 hours later still strapped in their patrol car which was filled with mud, buried upside down under a sand bar in the middle of the river.
The officers were victims of a fierce El Nino storm that caused mudslides and swelled streams, creeks, and rivers into torrents. A 300 foot-long stretch of Highway 166 was destroyed by the Cuyama River. Rescuers located four vehicles in the river approximately one-quarter of a mile downstream; a tractor double trailer combination, a Toyota Camry, a small pick-up truck, and the marked CHP patrol car. Two of the drivers survived.
Deputy Dennis Swack, Santa Barbara County, was dispatched to the scene about 3 a.m. to locate the missing CHP cruiser. “As he drove slowly through the dense fog, his front wheels went over the edge of the highway,” stated Sgt. Jim Peterson. Another sheriff’s patrol car pulled him back with a chain. “It was a close call for that sheriff’s deputy,” Lt. Paul Matthies relayed.
“The Highway Patrol is a family,” Matthies said. “We’re going to be going through a rough time. It hits very hard.”
The Pacific Christian Center church was the site of funeral services honoring Irvine and Stovall on Saturday, Feb. 28. Hundreds of law enforcement officers from across the nation joined family and friends to remember the fallen officers.
Among the thousands of mourners who lined the streets outside the church were Juan Ibarra, 17, and his sister, Veronica, 7, who clutched lilies as they waited for the funeral procession to pass. Juan said he was in the CHP Explorer Program and rode on patrol with Stovall.
Rick Stovall, 39, was an 18-year veteran of the California Highway Patrol. He joined when he turned 21. His father was a major influence on his life which was evident as he chose to follow in his father’s footsteps as a CHP officer.
According to his coworkers, Stovall loved his job and loved removing the drinking driver from the road. He excelled at finding the driver under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs. His passion for the job and its duties motivated him to work the graveyard shift on a regular basis.
His favorite quote was “Endless hours of boredom followed by brief moments of intense excitement.” Being the ultimate family man, he chose to work nights in order to spend quality time with his family during the day and evening hours.
Stovall’s friendly sense of humor and broad smile literally lit up the room when he entered. You could always count on him for an assist when you needed it, said his fellow officers.
Allied agencies also relied on him for his unselfish assistance and back up when they needed it. Stovall proved to be a quality officer and a quality friend.
One of Stovall’s coworkers relayed a story about a violator who had given him a bad time. He had been insulting and placed the officer in a foul mood. Stovall listened to what his coworker said and then told him how he handled similar situations, “Whenever I get someone like that, I do this (quivering his lower lip) and act as if I’m going to tear up and I tell the person, ‘Are you trying to hurt my feelings?’. Everyone in the room rolled with laughter.
Stovall excelled in hunting, fishing and snorkeling. He often joked about scuba divers by saying, “If you need a bottle, you must be a baby.”
He loved his family most of all. He and his wife, Lynn, had been married for 13 years and had settled down in Santa Maria. They thoroughly enjoyed activities with their children, Alyssa, 12, and Riley, 10. Stovall kept his locker adorned with pictures of Lynn and their children. Stovall’s zest for life was reflected in a statement that he often made, “Live each day as if it were your last, for surely someday it will be.” He certainly did. His enthusiasm for life and all he did spilled over into each life he touched.
He would often say, “Life is good,” while doing activities that he loved. As quoted by one of his best friends, “A day with Rick was like spending a day with Huckleberry Finn.”
“Who was my husband?,” asked Lynn Stovall at the church service. “He was a man with great integrity, a man with many interests, a man with many talents, a man with noble character, a man of great charity, a confident man, a generous man, a man who loved laughing, a man full of compassion, an intelligent man, a stubborn man, a childish man, a childlike man, a passionate man full of life and love, a great kisser, a man who happened to be my best friend, a man who spent quality time with his children.
He was a brave man, he was always my hero and now he’s a hero to this community. So how do I go on without you?,” she continued. “I’m not sure, but I know that you expect nothing less.”
Stovall, a native of Crescent City, is survived by his wife, Lynn; daughter, Alyssa; son, Riley; and parents, Mr. & Mrs. Bill Stovall. His father is a retired CHP officer in Santa Maria.
At the officers’ funeral, speakers struggled to express what the two meant to them as tears flowed during the two-hour service. Color portraits of the officers were surrounded by flowers.
President Clinton was among those who praised the officers. He spoke of them when he arrived at the Los Angeles International Airport Saturday evening, “I especially want to send our condolences to the families of Officer Rick Stovall and Officer Britt Irvine, who gave their lives in the line of service as they responded to the emergency in Santa Maria.”
Gov. Pete Wilson joined state and local lawmakers in eulogizing the pair. He said “These were men of uncommon courage and compassion and who knew full well the purpose and meaning of the lives they chose.”
Wilson added, “Their lives were lost doing what thousands of men and women of the CHP do every day – trying to protect the safety of every Californian.”
Stovall’s 12-year-old daughter, Alyssa, stood up before the congregation as they dabbed their tears. She joined the church choir in singing “Come Just As You Are.”
Britt Irvine graduated from the CHP Academy in Sacramento when he was 25-years-old. He spent 15 years on patrol and showed his dedication and desire to serve by re-instating after a short career break.
According to his coworkers, Irvine’s “Go for it,” full steam ahead attitude allowed him to be an outstanding motorcycle officer while he was stationed at the San Jose office. His zealous attitude usually lead to some sort of sprain, strain or break. Irvine’s “Take No Prisoners” quality made him fun to have as a coworker. He volunteered for the graveyard shift on a regular basis which allowed him to enjoy the sports activities which he loved.
Irvine was a dedicated father. He and his stepsons, Michael and Jarrod, enjoyed many adventures with bungee jumping, snow skiing and surfing.
Irvine was an outstanding athlete. He was proud of his accomplishments, but would never elaborate on this without being asked. He was a regular participant in the Police Olympics.
He loved soccer and won a scholarship to San Jose State University as a player where he was an outstanding goalie for the team. When Irvine entered the Highway Patrol, he became a member of the CHP soccer team. He won several medals while participating as goalie.
During the past 18 months, Irvine started swimming on a regular basis following in his father’s footsteps. He would swim two-to-three miles with the Masters Swim Club before going to work.
He entered the 1997 Police Olympics swimming competition with only one year of practice behind him. He medalled in three of five events.
According to those who knew him, Irvine was the kind of guy who was good at every athletic thing he participated in . . . bare foot water skiing, knee boarding, bowling, diving for soft balls in the outfield or simply giving his time to participate in and carry the torch for the Special Olympics.
One of Irvine’s favorite stories was about a stop which he made on a Christmas Day. He observed a gray Mercedes Benz traveling northbound on US 101 making “good time” through the Santa Maria area. He overtook and stopped the car and was surprised to identify the driver as Tom Cruise.
His sense of humor quickly took over as he remembered Commissioner Spike Helmick’s daughter’s infatuation with Cruise. He told Cruise “I’ll give you two choices. I could either get a photograph or I know I can get your autograph.”
Cruise immediately took him up on his offer for the photograph. He then sent a copy of the picture of himself and Cruise to the Commissioner. The picture is still prominently displayed on Helmick’s daughter’s wall.
Irvine was always smiling and nothing ever seemed to bother him. When he was asked to do something, his response was always, “Yeah, no problem.”
Frequently he would change beats with someone who needed the time off. He would always take time to listen if a coworker needed to talk, and he would sometimes offer advice, but usually he was willing to just listen.
Lt. Bob Metallo stated that Irvine’s smile always led you to wonder what was on his mind. “You never really knew what he was thinking.”
Officer Dean Bogios stated about Stovall’s and Irvine’s deaths, “I don’t understand why these things happen to the good guys. There just has to be a more understandable reason why God takes the good guys from us. God must need them for something special.”
Irvine is survived by his parents, Joe and Maxine Irvine; two stepsons, Michael and Jarrod Zacarias, and stepdaughter, Stacie Spotanski.
Stovall and Irvine were the first CHP officers from Santa Maria to die in the line-of-duty since 1971.
Donations may be sent to the CAHP Widows and Orphans Trust Fund, CAHP Foundation or CHP 11-99, c/o California Association of Highway Patrolmen, 2030 V Street, Sacramento, CA 95818.