As a lone bagpiper played a soulful rendition of “Amazing Grace,” an estimated 4,000 mourners gathered February 21, 1994, on a grassy knoll overlooking Los Angeles harbor to bid farewell to two slain Palos Verdes Estates police officers.
Captain Michael Wayne Tracy and Sergeant Vernon Thomas Vanderpool were lauded as heroes for saving fellow officers by breaking up an armed robbery. The veteran officers were honored with a 21-gun salute, a sheriff’s helicopter flyover, a procession of 64 motorcycles, and a motorcade of numerous black and whites.
Among the dignitaries who attended the funeral were Governor Pete Wilson, Los Angeles Police Chief Willie L. Williams and Los Angeles County District Attorney Gil Garcetti.
A troop of uniformed Boy Scouts helped guard the casket of Vanderpool, who had been the troop’s assistant scoutmaster for seven years. While tough street cops fought back tears, the chief of the close-knit Palos Verdes Estates Police Department broke down as he described his fallen comrades, particularly Tracy, who was his best friend.
“They loved being cops and they loved helping people, and when they were called, they were heroes,” said Chief Gray Johansen who witnessed the killings. “They saved the lives of the other 11 people in that room, and I speak from experience, because I was there. These two officers saved our lives.”
After praising Vanderpool as one of his most reliable officers, Johansen turned toward Tracy’s coffin while reaching beneath his glasses to wipe away tears. “God bless you, my friend,” he said, his voice cracking. “I love you.”
Tracy, 50, and Vanderpool, 57, were gunned down on Valentine’s Day, Vanderpool’s 36th wedding anniversary. The shooting took place during a police management meeting on the 12th floor of the Torrance Holiday Inn. Witnesses said the gunman, 32-year-old David Joseph Fukuto, the son of a state appellate judge, burst into the meeting room shouting, “This is a robbery!”
Authorities say they may never know whether Fukuto, who was wearing a bulletproof vest, intended to rob the group, or whether he had a grudge against police officers. When Tracy and Vanderpool lunged at him, he shot them. Other officers subdued Fukuto and he died in the ensuing struggle.
Tracy and Vanderpool were the first police officers killed in the history of the affluent South Bay city, which prides itself on having its own small police force rather than contracting with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department as some neighboring communities do.
In a eulogy delivered for his father, Tracy’s son, Sean Michael Tracy, said plaintively, “I don’t understand many things in life. Funerals happen to be one of them.”
Security was tight at the funeral. Five sharpshooters were stationed on the church’s roof. Because the families of the officers wanted the services to be private, only uniformed police officers and family members were permitted to enter the 1,100-seat chapel. Members of the media watched on closed-circuit television, as did about 1,000 mourners who arrived too late to get a seat in the sanctuary. Others stood outside.
The ceremonies were laced with humor as well as sadness.
Vanderpool’s nephew, Oceanside Police Detective Ken Gow, prefaced his eulogy with a gesture: Sergeant Vernon Thomas Vanderpool taking off his tie and unbuttoning his top shirt button. “Tom hated ties,” Gow proclaimed, as the crowd erupted in applause. “He also hated long-sleeved shirts, but there’s nothing I can do about that now.”
Gow then talked of how his uncle had guided him into a career in law enforcement, pushing him to finish his education.
He also shared the recollections of Vanderpool’s children, who sometimes heard their father crying in solitude after he had spanked them. “Tom was a big man, but he had a gentle heart,” Gow said.
Tracy’s three children wrote a eulogy for their father, read aloud by Drake Morton, the department’s chaplain. They described a man who loved dirt-bike racing, who thought he was “the funniest man alive,” who believed in backing his friends and making other people feel special.
Then, in apparent reference to their father’s taste for beer, the letter closed with these words: “P.S., Dad, we’re looking forward to seeing your cheesy smile someday at the big Bud keg in the sky.”
After the funeral, a lengthy motorcade of police cars, motorcycles and limousines carried family members, city officials and Palos Verdes Estates police officers to nearby Green Hills Memorial Park for the memorial service. The rest of the mourners walked to the cemetery, where they stood behind a low cinderbiock wall and a human blockade of police officers, to witness the service from a respectful distance.
Dozens of American flags lined the winding route into the cemetery, waving against a clear blue Southern California sky. At times, all that could be heard was the flapping of the flags in the afternoon breeze.
The somber ceremony lasted 45 minutes. At its close, after widows Billy Jean Vanderpool and Becky Tracy were presented with the flags, the members of the Palos Verdes Estates Police Department filed past their colleagues’ bodies, laying a white glove atop the blue steel coffins in a final gesture of solidarity.
Raised in Torrance, Tracy graduated from Torrance High School and pursued his lifelong ambition to become a police officer. He began his career in 1966 as a reserve officer with the Palos Verdes Police Department and police officer with the Garden Grove Police Department. After attending the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Academy, he hired on full-time with Palos Verdes Estates in 1969.
Tracy was a member of the Los Angeles County POA, California Peace Officers Association and the FBI National Academy Association. He was well-known and respected within a wide circle of law enforcement professionals.
In addition to his wife Becky, Tracy is survived by daughters Tammy Andersiand and Leslie, son Michael Sean, grandchildren Aaron and Kendall Andersiand and Ellisse Tracy, parents Dorthea and Andy Acampora, and in-laws Pat and Ray Hendershot.
Vanderpool is survived by his wife Billy Jean, daughters Kathleen and Debra, son Thomas, father Vernie T. Vanderpool, sisters Judith Gow and Debra Frazee, and brothers Raymond and Russell Vanderpool.
A memorial fund for both officers was established. Contributions should be mailed to: Palos Verdes POA, RO. Box 1153, Palos Verdes Estates, CA 90274.