Prince George's officer receives a hero's farewell

June 26, 2005|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,SUN STAFF

UPPER MARLBORO - At Steven Francis Gaughan's funeral yesterday, the Prince George's County police chief called the slain officer a "brave soldier of God" and thanked him for protecting the county.

Then Chief Melvin C. High saluted the officer's flag-draped coffin and said he had promoted him posthumously from the rank of corporal to sergeant.

A 15-year veteran of the force, Gaughan, 41, was fatally shot Tuesday during a traffic stop that quickly became a shootout near a Laurel apartment complex. Police have charged Robert M. Billett, 43, of Bladensburg with first-degree murder.

Hundreds of officers from across the state filled the pews of Riverdale Baptist Church for Gaughan's 90-minute service. They sat alongside Gaughan's widow, Donna, a former county police officer, and the couple's young son and daughter.

In their eulogies, the police chief and the president of the county police union recalled Gaughan as a beloved officer who easily made friends of colleagues.

They also pleaded for the community's help in battling violent crime, which has sharply increased this year in Prince George's County.

"While police defend us, we as a society must defend police officers," High said.

Percy Alston, president of the county Fraternal Order of Police, said officers are "surrounded by a community that lives in fear." But he said Gaughan wouldn't want them to turn their backs on the people they serve.

"We are the ones who will give our lives for the community and for ourselves," Alston said.

He said he could picture Gaughan in heaven, sitting with other slain Prince George's County officers and watching over everyone, just as they did when they were alive.

Gaughan is the 24th Prince George's County officer to die in the line of duty, Alston said. The last officer killed in a shooting was Cpl. John J. Novabilski, 31, who was ambushed in 1995 as he sat in his police cruiser in Landover.

Special assignment

Gaughan worked on a four-person, special-assignment team based at the Beltsville police station. On the day of the shooting, the team had been investigating the thefts of all-terrain vehicles.

About 11 a.m., the officers stopped a green Chevrolet Tahoe because one of the occupants had been behaving suspiciously, police said.

When the SUV pulled over at Route 197 and Snowden Road, two occupants got out and ran; one of them drew a handgun and fired several times, striking Gaughan, police said.

As the officer lay dying at Prince George's Hospital Center later that afternoon, it became clear how much of an impact Gaughan had on the community. Even the neighborhood trash collector and letter carrier stopped by with flowers, said Cpl. B. Rumsey, a friend of Gaughan's.

Fellow officers seemed to have an endless stream of stories about their fallen comrade, describing him as a jokester with an infectious smile. They talked of the many times he popped in a set of decaying fake teeth he carried around to amuse others.

Softer side

The son of a Boston police officer, Gaughan's distinctive accent became fodder for bad impersonations, and his difficult-to-pronounce last name (Gogg-han) was abandoned in conversation for an easier one, "Garnett," said Brent Hayes, a fellow officer who spoke at the service.

"He was about 90 percent laughter and fun," Hayes said of his friend.

Gaughan had a softer side, one that those in police work are reluctant to display, Hayes said.

Gaughan and his wife flew to Russia on Mother's Day in 2001 to adopt their two children from an orphanage.

A member of Greenbelt Baptist Church, Gaughan also ministered to the homeless.

The officer's heart showed through smaller ways, too, Hayes said. He recalled a time that Gaughan leapt off the couch during the final moments of a Miami Dolphins football game to greet his wife at the door with a kiss and help her carry in packages - a big sacrifice considering he was such a big fan that the family wore Dolphins jerseys for their family portrait.

Although he strikes an imposing figure in recent photos - thick mustache, bald head, tattoos and muscles - childhood friends said Gaughan was so small growing up that he was nicknamed "Peanut."

Alfred Aylward Jr., with tears in his eyes and a packet of tissues in his pocket, said he had grown up in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Boston where Gaughan's mother still lives.

Gaughan also leaves behind three brothers and a sister. Aylward said he drove overnight to attend the service yesterday.

Solemn service

It was a hero's funeral, with a giant American flag hanging from the ladders of two fire trucks, color guard units from dozens of police departments lining the church driveway and a sea of officers in all shades of blue waiting to greet the grieving family.

After the service, the procession snaked along Route 202 and Route 301, through Upper Marlboro, and into Anne Arundel County, where the officer was buried at Lakemont Memorial Gardens in Davidsonville.

More than 100 stands of flowers formed a horseshoe around the gravesite. Officers dressed in freshly pressed uniforms wiped away tears and sweat in the 90-degree heat.

After a bugler played taps and just before a formation of 10 police helicopters flew overhead, a message squawked across a police radio. It gave Gaughan's police unit number and said he'd be "10-7" - out of service - "for the remainder."

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