Fellow officers, friends and relatives said good-bye to Ofc. Steve Gerald Gajda Friday, Jan. 9, 1998 in services conducted at the Calvary Chapel in Diamond Bar. More than 2,000 seated in the chapel, as well as 900 in an overflow room, plus many more officers standing outside turned out to remember their fallen comrade.
Gajda, 29, was fatally wounded in a New Year’s Eve confrontation with a gang member, 17-year-old Mario Machado. He was shot multiple times and was taken to Los Angeles County/USC Medical Center where he was placed on life support in extremely grave condition until his death at 3 p.m. He died on his wife’s birthday, January 1.
Gajda, a member of the anti-gang CRASH unit, was shot in the head as he pursued Machado during a crack down on New Year’s Eve revelers. Officers were breaking up a rowdy New Year’s Eve party in Boyle Heights shortly before midnight when partygoers, some identified as gang members, began to flee Gajda who was accompanied by several other officers.
When Gajda reached Machado, the youth turned and shot him in the head. The two struggled and fell to the ground as the youth continued to fire his .25-caliber semi-automatic handgun.
“Gajda had volunteered to work the point, which means he confronted a situation in the position of greatest danger,” his partner Ofc. Cesar Ramirez stated. “He often assumed that role and he was not afraid to jump into a gun battle. The position was not assigned or determined by rotation or chance. Steve took the part.”
Machado, the alleged triggerman in a gang-related slaying in February 1997, was killed when Gajda’s partners returned fire. He died at the scene. It was unknown if Gajda recognized Machado or was simply trying to detain him for being unruly.
Commander of the anti-gang CRASH unit in which Gajda served, Lt. John Incontro, described him as an aggressive officer who willingly accepted responsibility. He said that he was also a talented artist who loved to draw caricatures that showed the humorous side of life with the unit which operates in the most violent neighborhoods in Los Angeles. Incontro said “He always had a joke. He had the ability to tease us but didn’t hurt us. This ability to find humor in what we do brought us closer. It enabled us to relax. He knew who the bad guys were and knew how to find them.”
“All of us live with the thought that we could suffer the same fate as Steve. One thing that enables us to come back to work every day is the memory of those partners,” Incontro stated. As he spoke, tears began to well in the eyes of the uniformed men and women, many of whom wore black bands across their badges in Gajda’s memory.
Gajda’s father, Steve, told the audience of the pride which he felt on the day his son was born. He said that he was never disappointed in his son’s conduct and choices. He added that in addition to his son’s achievements as a soldier and policeman, he found “greater joy in the depth of his concern, his sensitivity and his artistry.”
Gajda said, “My son grew to be a man of many strengths and talents and touched the lives of his family and friends. Everything a man wants his son to be, Steve fulfilled.”
Gajda’s colleagues said that while he led his unit in arrests and citations, he also enjoyed telling jokes and doing impressions, even “in the trenches.” Ofc. Ramirez, his partner, said that Gajda designed a logo for the Hollenbeck station which featured the Tasmanian Devil cartoon character, which remains on a mirror in the building.
Gajda, a seven-year member of the Los Angeles Police Department, joined the department after a stint as a helicopter mechanic in the Army’s 101st Airborne Division. Born in Park Ridge, Ill., he moved with his family to the San Fernando Valley in 1978 and graduated from Cleveland High School in Reseda in 1986.
LAPD Police Chief Bernard C. Parks stated “It is unfortunate to start the new year off in this fashion.” He called Gajda, the father of two, a “person that everyone looked up to and a vital part” of the division’s anti-gang unit.
Parks said “His parents basically sent us the message that he was doing exactly what he wanted to be doing with his life.”
Gajda’s brother, Mark, who is a Beverly Hills firefighter, said “He didn’t want to transfer out of Hollenbeck. He loved the area and helping the people there.”
Family members said that one of the aspects of the job which Gajda enjoyed most were foot pursuits. “It was one of his favorite things to do,” Mark Gajda said. “He always wanted to be the first one to catch a person.”
“It’s devastating,” said Gajda’s brother Scott. “It’s hard to take . . . He was a very loving person with a very big heart. He would open his door to anyone.”
Gajda and his widow, Belinda, were married two years ago after a two-year courtship. They bought a home in Riverside County where they planned to raise their daughter, Brittany.
Belinda told the gathering, “He was trying to get a promotion. All he wanted to be was a good provider, friend, and lover. He was my life.” She spoke her final public words to Steve: “I love you. I miss you, Honey Bear. I’ll see you when I come home.”
Gajda is also survived by his parents, Chris and Steve Gajda; a daughter from a previous marriage who resides in Tennessee; and brothers, Mark, Scott and Brian.
Donations for the Steve Gajda Blue Ribbon Trust Fund may be mailed to the Hollenbeck Station at 2111 East First Street, Los Angeles, CA 90033. Tax refundable contributions may be made to the Los Angeles Memorial Foundation in memory of Steve Gajda, 150 North Los Angeles Street, Room 731, Los Angeles, CA 90012.