Petaluma police officer Vilho Ahola, shot in the neck and paralyzed from the chest down 29 years ago, was known for his relentless optimism and community service, while confined to a wheelchair.
The rugged New Englander and rifle marksman died Sunday, February 1, at a Santa Rosa hospital at age 70.
“Vil Ahola was a hero,” Petaluma police Chief Pat Parks declared.
“He is without a doubt the bravest man I ever met,” Capt. Dave Long said. “An inspiration to all of us here – and to the community.”
The Sonoma County Coroner’s Office attributed Ahola’s death to complications of paraplegia because of the gunshot wound, and classified it as a homicide.
Chief Parks said no further action would be taken against Ahola’s assailant, 80-year-old Walter E. Hale, who was convicted of assault with a deadly weapon in 1970, served a prison sentence and was paroled.
“Vil wouldn’t want that either,” Chief Parks said. “He never held a grudge.”
Ahola was dispatched to Hale’s I Street home in Petaluma on Nov. 7, 1969, to stand by while Hale’s wife removed personal items from the house. Ahola was shot as he reached out to disarm Hale, who later said the shooting was accidental.
The .25-caliber pistol bullet damaged Ahola’s spinal column near the base of his neck. After a year in physical therapy, Ahola returned to work in 1971. He was technically retired, but did clerical work part time until 1989, when his fingers had become too stiff to operate a computer keyboard.
Ahola moved to Sonoma County and joined the Petaluma Police Dept. in 1961. He had previously worked for the Sciyuate Police Dept. in Massachusetts.
In the early 1970s, Ahola helped organize the Police Athletic League, now a countywide youth organization. Ahola coached a PAL rifle team for years, and also taught Petaluma officers rifle marksmanship. He held the National Rifle Association life master title and had won more than 20 national shooting titles. He qualified for membership on Olympic firing teams on several occasions.
The son of Finnish immigrants, Ahola was born and reared on the Massachusetts coast. He built his own home in Penngrave in 1964. He was a member of the Elks Club and the Cotati Rod and Gun Club.
He is survived by his wife, Marjorie Ahola of Penngrove; sons Dana Ahola of Colusa and Kurt Ahola of Santa Rosa; brother, Arthur Ahola of Maine; sister, Velma Campbell of Massachusetts; and a grandchild.