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1,500 pay respects to slain Cook County Sheriff's officer

Sunday, December 29, 2013
Chicago Sun-Times
by Maudlyne Ihejirika

An ocean of first responders — from his hometown of Maywood to nearly every west suburban police department — flowed into Hillside Friday night for the wake of slain Cook County Sheriff’s Officer Cuauhtemoc Estrada.

Over the course of six hours, some 1,500 attendees — family, friends, saddened strangers and law enforcement officers — would file through to pay their respects to the 50-year-old officer killed just days before Christmas, as he walked up on two armed men robbing his daughter, and tried to protect her.

There weren’t any speeches, just a quiet gathering where the brotherhood among first responders was felt throughout Russo’s Hillside Chapels, 4500 Roosevelt Rd. They filled every room within the gigantic funeral hall — greeting each other with hugs and hushed commentary — waiting in a winding queue at times hours-long to pay respects to a fallen member.

Estrada, an investigator for more than two decades and a former U.S. Marine, was attending a family gathering at the Bellwood VFW Hall on Dec. 20, when he walked outside about 9:15 p.m. and saw the two men trying to rob his daughter and her boyfriend.

Police said Estrada identified himself and tried to intervene when he was shot. He was taken to Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood and later died.

Two Bellwood men in their early 20s with petty criminal pasts, Brandon Jackson and Gage Thornton, are being held without bond on charges of first-degree murder and attempted armed robbery in his death. Besides being caught on surveillance video, officials said footprints in the snow led to the home of one of the offenders — only 400 feet from the crime.

Cook County Sheriff’s spokesman Benjamin Breit asked media not to attempt to interview Sheriff’s Office employees, and to allow family and friends to privately mourn “during this difficult time” at Friday’s wake and Saturday’s scheduled 10 a.m. funeral at Holy Name Cathedral.

A procession of municipal squad cars accompanied the arrival of the body Friday afternoon, as helicopters whirred overhead. At 3 p.m, officers in diverse uniforms, municipal fire departments too, began streaming into the chapel.

Kindred agencies like the U.S. Marshall’s Office, Homeland Security, Secret Service and Border Patrol were all represented, and throughout the evening, a shuttle continuously spilled Sheriff’s Department officers finishing their shifts onto the grounds out front of the facility and into the chapel.

“There must be squad cars from every city here,” said Estrada’s cousin, Nat Flores, 54, as he stepped outside for air. “They’ve really gone out of their way for one of their own. They even picked up the family in squad cars.”

Flores was with Estrada the night of the tragedy. He and Estrada had arrived together at the pre-holiday family gathering — Estrada always loved family celebrations, said Flores — and they saw the car of his daughter and her boyfriend. Flores said he carried food inside, then heard a gun pop and ran outside.

“His son told me ‘They ran that way!’ I started to run after them, but he said, ‘No! My father’s down! Help him first.’ I hadn’t even seen him on the ground,” Flores said. “He was a family man, crazy about his wife, kids and grandkids. We all lived on the same block a couple houses down from each other for 20 years — parents, aunts, in-laws. He was just all about family.”

At the end of an hour and a half wait in line were myriad collages filled with family memories of a man family and friends said was proud of his Latino heritage and of his family; a soldier and officer who fiercely loved his country.

A video replayed weddings, birthday parties, barbecues, quinceaneras; a uniformed, fresh-faced, young Marine; a confident sheriff’s investigator in a different uniform; a man joyfully laughing and playing with his children and grandchildren.

A field of flower bouquets from myriad police departments surrounded his coffin.

His formal officer’s white cap and gloves lay encased beside it.

And inside lay Estrada in his formal blue officer’s uniform, the American flag and other municipal and state flags standing guard.

At the center of one of the collages, his family had penned a poem entitled, “My First Christmas In Heaven.” A palm card poem read: “God saw you getting weary. He did what he thought best...He opened up his golden gates on that heartbreaking day...A part of us went with you the day God called you home.”

The Veterans of Foreign Wars presented Estrada’s family with a military award for valor and service.

At one point, a couple hundred officers queued for a ceremonial walk past the coffin, in a final salute to one taken from his family at the toughest time of the year.

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