Sunday, September 23, 2018
Public safety

Large crowd overflows church at funeral for two fallen Florida officers

ORLANDO — Thousands of mourners came to say their goodbyes this morning to the two Kissimmee police officers who were killed while patrolling the city last week.

The joint funeral for Sgt. Richard "Sam" Howard and Officer Matthew Baxter was held at First Baptist Orlando church on South John Young Parkway.

The pair were patrolling the McLaren Circle area Friday evening when they were shot. Baxter, 27, died shortly after the shooting, and Howard, 36, died the next day.

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Kissimmee Police Chief Jeff O'Dell said during the funeral that the men did nothing wrong in their interactions with the man accused of killing them. He said they died saving the life of a woman in the process.

"These two heroes were responsible for saving her life," O'Dell said. "They just cared that she was a fellow human being that they had sworn an oath to protect."

Since the shooting, residents and law enforcement across the region have rallied behind the Kissimmee Police Department.

Honor guard members of the Orlando and Kissimmee police departments carried the fallen officers' flag-covered coffins into the church shortly after 9 a.m. Walking in formation, the clicks of their boots against the pavement were the only thing heard as dozens of law enforcement officers saluted the caskets as they passed.

Officers from across the state and from as far away as Louisville, Ky., and New York were seen arriving at the church. Gov. Rick Scott and Sen. Marco Rubio also were in attendance.

The church was so full with mourners that the service began late as more chairs had to be brought in to the church that seats more than 5,000. Others lined the wall along the walkways and balcony.

"Heroes that fell together . we honor them together," the church's head pastor David Uth said.

Outside, Howard's patrol car sat decorated with wreaths.

Baxter is survived by his wife, Sadia, and four daughters: Sariah, Isabella, Zarah and Sofia. Howard left behind his wife, Billie Jo, and daughter, Unique.

As people poured into the lobby of the church, they were greeted with four large posters of Howard and Baxter. Large televisions screens in the lobby were lit up black and blue with a Kissimmee police badge.

As many crowded into the lobby, guests talked about how the community has rallied around the Kissimmee Police Department.

One guest remarked, "It's a tragedy, that's for sure."

Another replied, "It's happening too often."

They talked about the January deaths of Orlando Police Lt. Debra Clayton and Orange County Deputy 1st Class Norman Lewis. Clayton was shot and killed. Lewis died in a motorcycle crash responding to the help in the manhunt for the suspect. The two also had their funerals at First Baptist Orlando.

As guests flowed into the amphitheater, music played softly as two slideshows played on screen. The photos told a story of the two officers' lives, including many intimate moments, like Baxter playing with his children and taking selfies in bed as his wife slept. One showed Howard jumping in a photo with his colleagues with his tongue out. Another showed him working out and at the beach.

O'Dell called for an end to violence against law enforcement across the country and for "long-term mental health care, especially for our veterans." The man accused of killing the officers, 45-year-old Everett Glenn Miller, is a Marine veteran and his family said he was struggling from post-traumatic stress disorder.

"The men and women of law enforcement are not expendable," O'Dell said. "The men and women of law enforcement do not consider anyone in their communities expendable . "

Many teared up during O'Dell's comments. One woman handed out tissues to strangers sitting nearby.

Baxter's wife - who met him on the job while serving in the same Kissimmee police squad - said though they both worked in law enforcement and knew the profession was dangerous, she "never imagined this happening" to her family.

"This week has been the hardest week of my life," Sadia Baxter said. "Words cannot describe how my life has crashed."

Through her grief, Sadia Baxter told the audience she "will continue to proudly serve you all" to honor her husband.

Baxter's sister, Elizabeth Salyers, asked the community to fight hate so her brother "will not die in vain."

"There's so much hate in this world and it is so heartbreaking to know that someone we loved so much was taken away by a senseless act of hate," Salyers said.

Howard's loved ones described the recently promoted sergeant as a fast talker and optimist. Lifelong friend Chris Sheets called him a "great man."

"I know it's hard to swallow God's plan sometimes because he was such a bright light in the darkness," Sheets said. "Whatever the reason is, we have to understand it."

Prior to the service, Capt. Jeff Tambasco and Sgt. Ian Downing addressed the media with personal remarks about their fallen comrades.

Tambasco talked about how Baxter joined the Boys and Girls club.

"I asked Matthew why he had chosen to join that and he simply replied 'so I could have a positive impact on a young person's life,'" Tambasco said. "Matthew's contagious smile was something I looked forward to."

Tambasco said Baxter - who was born and raised in the Baltimore area - enjoyed working with the community, playing basketball and giving out free Slurpee coupons to kids.

Downing talked about how nice Howard, who was born in Bartow, was to him when he joined the Police Department 10 years ago.

"Sam went out of his way to wish me, a rookie who he barely knew, good luck," Downing said. "He did it with his patented Sam Howard handshake and smile. Ten years later, that smile and handshake held strong. Only two hours before he made the ultimate sacrifice, Sam went out of his way to shake my hand and bless me with that beautiful smile."

At the end of the ceremony, officers performed the volley of three with three gunshots into the air, played Taps from a horn and folded the flags from their coffins. Members of the military also presented Howard's family with a flag in honor of his Army service.

The Kissimmee Police gave the end of watch call for the officers before the funeral ended with a prayer and bagpipe player performing Amazing Grace.

"10-7, Sgt. Sam Howard and Officer Matthew Baxter are out of service on this date, Thursday, Aug. 24, of 2017," a dispatcher's voice rang out over the church speakers. "Rest easy gentlemen, we have the watch from here."

After the funeral, the officers are being taken to Woodlawn Memorial Park & Funeral Home in Gotha.

Scott ordered flags at the Osceola County Courthouse, Kissimmee Police Department and Kissimmee City Hall be flown at half staff Wednesday in honor of Baxter and Howard.

Sentinel staff writers Krista Torralva and David Harris contributed to this report. ©2017 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)

   
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