Round-the-clock Fairbanks vigil honors slain troopers

Dermot Cole
Alaska State Troopers

FAIRBANKS -- Day and night, they stand watch at the Fairbanks Funeral Home in honor of Gabe Rich and Scott Johnson of the Alaska State Troopers.

A volunteer vigil of law enforcement officers from departments and jurisdictions across Alaska began this somber duty last weekend after the slain troopers were returned to Fairbanks.

The round-the-clock tribute by fellow officers will continue until a memorial service here Saturday afternoon at the largest venue in town, the Carlson Center.

Until then, at least two officers, and sometimes many more, remain close at hand. Others stop by the home throughout the day to mourn and reflect on the lives of the two troopers killed in the line of duty a week ago in Tanana. When the sign-up sheet went out, every four-hour shift was quickly filled.

"We had six in here at one time yesterday," said trooper Lt. Ron Wall, who stopped by at 7:30 a.m. before heading to work. "I just wanted to stop in this morning, pay my respects and bring some new flowers."

Law enforcement is a career in which people are called upon to act. There are no actions to be taken now but the officers who stand and watch say the one important thing they can do is be in the room.

"These are our brothers and they don't deserve to be alone," said trooper Lt. Lonnie Piscoya early Thursday. "We're going to keep them company until they are laid to rest properly."

Piscoya and trooper Tony Beck from Valdez entered the funeral home at 4 a.m. Thursday. Two volunteers from the U.S. Marshal's Office took over at 8 a.m. They stood straight, wearing their blue uniforms, with ties, Stetsons and white gloves. Beck said Johnson epitomized what it meant to be an Alaska State Trooper, both on and off the job. He said "loyalty, integrity, courage" were not just words in the trooper motto to Johnson but principles that he lived by.

Piscoya said Johnson and Rich were outstanding men.

"This is the least I can do to respect them," Piscoya said. "I don't have any problems getting up in the middle of the night to come here. That holds true with every single trooper and officer who joins the vigil."

In the small, softly lit viewing room there were dozens of empty chairs with boxes of tissues close by. At the front, on the left side, a photo of 26-year-old Rich, smiling and standing next to a trooper car, bordered a flag-draped casket. Rich and his fiance have a 14-month-old child, and at the time of his death he was adopting her 8-year-old.

There was an insignia from the North Pole Police Department, where Rich served before joining the troopers.

The folded Honor Flag, which has appeared across the country in memory of fallen officers and firefighters and was recently in Anchorage in honor of firefighter Sr. Capt. Jeff Bayless, rested on a small display in the center of the room. On the right, a table held photos of Johnson and emblems marking milestones in his career. Johnson, 45, is survived by his wife and three daughters, ages 12, 14 and 16.

There was a three-striped insignia showing he was a sergeant, four stars indicating at least 20 years as a trooper, his Stetson, his badge and a pin representing his experience as a K-9 dog trainer and handler, as well as patches and pins for his work on the Alaska Special Emergency Response Team.

There was one other item placed in honor of each man as well -- a tiny spruce cone for each.

Emma Foster, 5, the daughter of Fairbanks police officer Greg Foster, brought the cones to the room and left them for Rich and Johnson. She told her mom that cones make trees and it would be nice for "our friends" to have trees in heaven.