On the afternoon of April 21 the California Highway Patrol suffered its’ 201st Line of Duty death in the 75-year history of the organization.
Officer Thomas Steiner, a thirty-five year old, five-year veteran of the CHP had exited the Pomona Court House in Los Angeles County after testifying in several matters and was walking across the parking lot to his car. Without warning, a vehicle pulled up alongside the officer and 16-year-old “wanna be” gang member Valentino Mitchell Arenas fired several rounds from a semi-automatic weapon, mortally wounding the officer. When arrested the following day, young Arenas could give no reason for the shooting, and indications were that he had randomly selected Officer Steiner as a target to prove how “macho” he was to members of the notorious Pomona “12th Street Gang”.
Steve Cooley, Los Angeles County’s tough-minded District Attorney, immediately announced that Valentino Arenas would be filed on as an adult, charging him with the murder of a peace officer, with special circumstances. Due to his age Arenas cannot receive the death penalty, but Cooley indicated that his office would press for the most severe sentence possible, life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
The District Attorney voiced the sentiment of virtually every peace officer in the State when he declared “This was the ultimate hate crime – the assassination of a law enforcement officer solely based on the victim’s status in the community and a uniform worn. Those who commit these crimes and those who aid, abet and encourage the cowardly gang subculture should be condemned”.
As a teenager, Steiner moved from Ohio to Long Beach, where he graduated from Robert A. Milikan High School in 1987. Following high school he worked and attended Cal Poly Pomona, part-time, earning a Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration in 1997. He subsequently joined the CHP in October 1998.
Following his tragic, untimely death, Steiner was being praised by a myriad of his peers in the CHP. Jim Newkirk, a Counselor at the CHP Academy remembered Steiner as someone who “stood out as a strong cadet with a positive attitude”. A host of others came forward pouring out adjectives to describe their friend and comrade; “family loving”, “job loving”, “humorous”, “friendly”, “dedicated”, to name just a few.
The day following Steiner’s death Governor Schwarzenegger ordered the flags flown over the Capitol to half-staff in honor of the fallen officer.
In a statement, the Governor was quoted as saying “Thomas was a true hero and a valiant police officer who spent the last five years of his life protecting the lives of others. It is a tragedy to lose Thomas in the Line of Duty. Maria and I offer condolences to his family and friends during this difficult time”.
On the morning of April 27, more than 2,000 mourners gathered in and out of the Calvary Chapel in Downey to pay their final respects to a real hero, taken too soon. CHP Commissioner “Spike” Helmick understandably had difficulty in controlling his emotions in eulogizing one of his fine young officers, declaring “The death of Tom Steiner has reached a new low in our history. On that date a despicable little coward murdered Tom in cold blood. I have a promise to make to all of the coward’s friends; their day of reckoning is coming, and it is coming very quickly. Such cowardly acts will not be tolerated in the State of California”.
Officer Tom Steiner was escorted to his final resting-place at Forest Lawn, Cypress by a mile long caravan of police vehicles representing a multitude of jurisdictions statewide.
Officer Steiner is survived by his wife Heidi, 12-year-old stepson Justin and 4-year-old son Bryan.
Donations to the Steiner family can be made in care of Rancho Bank, Steiner Family Trust, P.O. Box 697, San Dimas, CA 91773.