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Mother of slain Tampa police officer finds a way to voice her grief

KISSIMMEE — Sandy Kocab doesn't remember much about the ride from her Kissimmee home to Tampa General Hospital on June 29. She was told her son had been in an accident. She felt numb, but held to hope, repeating the Hail Mary and Lord's Prayer.

She thought of Jeff, the boy who starred in his junior high's Charlie Brown play and ran around hurdles instead of over them, the man who became a cop to help people, the husband and expectant father.

She had no idea Jeffrey Kocab was already gone, that he had been shot on a routine traffic stop with Tampa police zone partner David Curtis.

For days afterward, Sandy Kocab, 57, wouldn't answer the phone. Her sister made sure she didn't watch the news. She quit her teaching job.

People tried to comfort her. Some had experienced loss and gently told her, "I know what you're going through."

"They don't," Sandy said recently, speaking nearly 10 months into her grief. "It was so unexpected. To be out-and-out murdered?"

• • •

Together, in the home they share, Sandy and her daughter Stephanie, 27, surround themselves with fragments of his life.

A badge and handcuffs sit in a shadow box over their computer.

A flowered memorial box rests beneath photos of Jeff. There's Jeff as a high school senior and Jeff as a groom, hugging his new bride, Sara.

"Do we have a shrine? I don't want it to be," Sandy said. "But he was our life."

For weeks, the self-proclaimed neat freak left laundry unfolded. Most days, she wore a police memorial T-shirt. Her organized pantry became a jumbled mess.

She saw her family doctor every Friday, just to talk.

Over the next 10 months, she would shed more tears than she thought possible and sometimes struggle to see the point in living.

But she and her daughter also would find moments of healing. They'd make new friends and focus their energies on a charity.

In the fall, the doctor invited Sandy and Stephanie to a girls' day out — just the three of them, she said.

The doctor had a suggestion: How about getting a tattoo, something with Jeff's name? She had her own tattoo of her mother's name. It helps, she told the Kocabs.

Stephanie was easily convinced. Sandy hesitated before giving in.

In delicate script, Sandy got Jeff's name, his call number and a heart tattooed on her wrist. The first night, she clutched it so hard she woke up with deep imprints.

"I guess I needed it," she said.

Over time, memories became a comfort. Sandy smiles when she speaks of Jeff's love for the theater, how he acted in many plays and traveled to local schools in Michigan performing a one-man educational show.

But as Nov. 6, 2010, approached, Sandy braced for more tears.

Jeff would have turned 32.

That morning, she and Stephanie packed a store-bought pumpkin pie and whipped cream — Jeff's favorite — and went to his grave site. It was a cold morning, and as they walked to the spot, Sandy accidentally dropped the knife in the dirt.

So there they were, sitting in lawn chairs by his grave, freezing and eating pumpkin pie piled high with whipped cream straight from the tin.

We must look nuts, they thought.

And they laughed.

• • •

Looking back, Sandy and Stephanie feel a little left out.

After police deaths, everyone rallies around the widows. Sometimes, Sandy and Stephanie were left thinking, What about us?

Sandy wants no pity, she says. She doesn't begrudge anything given to Sara Kocab, who lost not only her husband but also their first baby, Lilly, stillborn in July.

But when Sandy wanted mementos of her son, she had to ask. She asked for the badge. She asked for the handcuffs. When the widows got embroidered flags during American Heroes Day at the Strawberry Festival, she told organizers she wanted one, too.

She fired off letters and e-mails when she felt forgotten, though she worried she was being selfish.

Tampa police spokeswoman Laura McElroy said the department has been doing everything it can for Sandy and Stephanie. Though Jeff's personal items all belong to his widow now, an officer still checks in on Sandy.

Officers inform her of every agency-sponsored event, although community ones the department doesn't know about might fall through the cracks, McElroy said.

"We would do anything for the families of our fallen officers," she said. "Our hearts grieve with theirs."

When Sandy and Stephanie heard about National Police Week events observed each May in Washington, D.C., they knew they wanted to go. Each year, fallen officers are honored.

Sandy works part-time at a Build-A-Bear store in an Orlando mall. Her daughter has a secretarial job. Sandy says she got none of the financial support collected in the aftermath of the officer's deaths.

At first, the two women weren't sure how they would pay for a Washington trip. They eventually found a sponsor.

That's when the idea came to Sandy. Someone needed to look out for police families beyond the widows.

• • •

Sandy and Stephanie named their group the T.E.A.R.S. Foundation, short for Travel Expenses and Reservations for Survivors.

They have a website where they post every fallen officer memorial event they hear about, so no one feels left out of the loop.

And they plan to raise money to send parents and siblings of other fallen officers to National Police Week.

"The police department looks after the immediate family — the spouse and the children," Sandy said. "We want to get money to the rest of the family."

They've held carwashes and jewelry sales, but their first major event is a golf tournament on May 30.

They're in desperate need of golfers, Sandy said. Registration ends Saturday

The money will go to the foundation — not them, Sandy said.

Both expect that National Police Week will be difficult. They're bracing for a flood of emotions. But they're looking forward to meeting other parents and siblings of fallen officers.

"We'll be able to interact with people who can honestly say 'I know what you're going through,' " Sandy said.

Times news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at (813) 226-3433 or jvandervelde@sptimes.com.

.Fast facts

Benefit golf tournament

Sandy Kocab hopes her T.E.A.R.S. Foundation will raise money to send relatives of slain police officers to the 2012 National Police Week in Washington, D.C.

A benefit golf tournament is planned for May 30 at Stonegate Golf Club, 404 Village Drive, Kissimmee. Register by Saturday by contacting Kocab at (407) 572-3148 or tearsfoundation

@hotmail.com. For more information, visit www.tearsfoundation.com.

Mother of slain Tampa police officer finds a way to voice her grief 04/22/11 [Last modified: Saturday, April 23, 2011 10:10pm]
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