Just as sure as if he had been shot by a suicidal man or lost his life in a helicopter crash, Newport Beach police Sgt. Steven D. Van Horn died in the line-of-duty on Monday, Nov 16, 1997.
No, Van Horn’s killer didn’t grab the same sensational headlines as cop killers do. His was more insidious, maybe even more cruel. It came in the form of leukemia, sapping his strength and life away bit by excruciating bit.
It is widely believed that Van Horn’s leukemia was the direct result of his exposure to toxic smoke from the Hixson Metal plating plant fire of 1987, at which he was one of the first to arrive. He was not wearing protective clothing or a mask at the time and Van Horn believed that made the difference.
“At the time we were doing what was protocol, what was deemed appropriate,” Van Horn said of the Hixson fire incident. “If you get a call with a guy with a gun, do you refuse to go to it? You can’t. It’s not an option.”
Van Horn died slowly for the city he served.
Hundreds of friends, family members and uniformed colleagues gathered Wednesday, Nov. 18, at the Pacific View Memorial Park for funeral services honoring Van Horn who succumbed to leukemia after battling it for nearly three years.
Van Horn’s casket arrived with a police motorcade that started at the United Methodist Church in Anaheim, where Newport Beach Police Chief Bob McDonell announced Van Horn’s badge number would be retired.
Uniformed police stood saluting in parallel rows as the coffin draped in the American Flag and flanked by Van Horn’s family – wheeled by. Police lights blazed silently as the procession of cars and motorcycles snaked across three freeways toward the burial site, where Van Horn received a 21-gun salute.
Throughout the day, those who knew him paid tribute – both privately and at the podium – to the policeman who didn’t hesitate when duty called him to a toxic fire.
Even as the illness ravaged him, the qualities people knew him for – dedication to duty, caustic wit, encyclopedic memory, a penchant for practical jokes – remained unchanged.
Sgt. Fred Heinecke recalled that Van Horn had a habit of ribbing other cops about their baldness. When chemotherapy made his own hair fall out, Van Horn took a photo of himself with a 1ong-haired wig and sent colleagues a note saying chemo had been good to him, and it might be their only hope.
“That, I think, is a snapshot of the kind of guy he was,” Heinecke said. “He gave his life for the city and the community, and it was perhaps a less sudden sacrifice than that of some other officers, but just as real to his family and us,” said Newport Beach police Detective Jeff Lu.
What many cops were thinking at the funeral, Lu sad, was this: “There’s no explainable reason why it wasn’t me and my family.”
Van Horn will be remembered as a leader amongst his peers at the Police Department. He was knowledgeable, ethical, and always willing to help under any circumstances. He was tireless in his service to the Police Employees Association and subsequently the Police Management Association, serving on the Board of Directors and as president of both organizations during his career. He always ensured that fairness was an overriding factor in all his association work. He was member of PORAC since the 1970s.
Van Horn was a native of Marshalltown, Iowa. He subsequently moved to Yuma Arizona and attended Yuma High School, graduating in 1967. In 1971, he was hired by the Yuma Police Department as a police officer. In 1913, he moved to California and was hired by Newport Beach Police Department where he was employed for the past 24 years. As a police officer, Van Horn was assigned as a patrol officer, a motor officer, and as a traffic investigator. In 1977, he graduated from the University of Redlands earning his Bachelor of Arts degree in Public Service Management. In 1979, he was promoted to the rank of sergeant and served in the Patrol, Traffic, and Detective divisions, as well as in the Office of the Chief of Police.
Van Horn was diagnosed with “Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia” in January 1995. It is a form of cancer that is fatal unless a successful bone marrow transplant occurs. His illness was determined to be job related linked to his exposure to a toxic chemical fire in 1987.
Following his diagnosis, an extensive marrow donor drive was conducted in hopes of finding a suitable donor. He continued to work while the search for a donor went on despite suffering from the effects of the cancer treatment.
On May 6, 1997, almost two and a half years after being diagnosed with leukemia, a donor was found and he underwent a bore marrow transplant at the City of Hope. Following the transplant, doctors were optimistic about its success. On July l5, 1997 Van Horn was released from the City of Hope and allowed to return home for the first time. Following his release, he continued to improve on a daily basis, which had everyone optimistic regarding a full recovery. On August 19, he visited the Police Department for the first time following his bone marrow transplant. He was in good spirits as he talked to coworkers during that visit. At that point, he was living at home, but returned to the City of Hope for treatment twice a week.
As recently as October 9, Van Horn had continued to improve in his recovery. However, on November 14, he suddenly developed complications and was rushed to Chapman General Hospital in the city of Orange where he lapsed into a coma and never recovered.
He was removed from life support on November 16 surrounded by family, friends and coworkers.
Van Horn, 48, is survived by his wife, Nanette, six children, Lisa, 30, Jennifer and Jeffrey, 22, Kim, 19, Jamie, 8, Kelsey, 5; grandchildren, Ashley Dahoda, 10, and Ethan Osborne, 7 months; mother, Jean Massey; brother, David L. Van Horn; and sister, Kathy J. Embrey.
The Newport Beach Police Management Association has established a Steve Van Horn Memorial Fund to aid his widow and young children. The address is: Steve Van Horn Memorial Fund, c/o Newport Beach PMA, P 0 Box 7000, Newport Beach, CA 92658-7000.