Saturday, May 14, 2016
Her first word was “papa,” but Olivia Ruth Orozco soon will be saying “mama.”
Hector Orozco often shows his 15-month-old daughter photos of her mother, Kerrie Orozco.
“It’s your mommy!” he tells her.
Those moments are a stinging reminder for Hector that Kerrie is gone. That she will never again hold Olivia.
But then Hector looks into the big, bright eyes of Olivia, his living remnant of Kerrie.
“You know, we need her. It’s just hard to live like this,” the 34-year-old says of his late wife. “It’s hard to think ... (Olivia’s) never going to share anything with her mom.”
Nearly a year has passed since Kerrie, 29, became the first female Omaha police officer killed in the line of duty. She was fatally shot on May 20, 2015 — her last scheduled day of work before she started her delayed maternity leave — before she could cradle preemie Olivia at home, not the hospital.
As thousands in the Omaha area and across the country mourned her death, a mantra took hold: “Kerrie On”: a reminder to live as Kerrie did.
It's been nearly one year since Omaha Police Officer Kerrie Orozco was killed in the line of duty, and it's still difficult for her husband, Hector. But he has their daughter, 15-month-old Olivia Ruth, at top. (Top photo by Rebecca Gratz/The World-Herald)
HONORING HER LEGACY
Omaha Police Officer Kerrie Orozco, 29, died May 20, 2015, after being shot by Marcus Wheeler near 30th Street and Martin Avenue as police sought to arrest the fugitive on an assault warrant. Below is a list of honors given posthumously in Orozco’s name.
May 29, 2015: Nebraska lawmakers pass a resolution expressing sympathy to Officer Kerrie Orozco’s family and honoring her service on the police force and to the Omaha community.
June 2015: The Boys & Girls Clubs of the Midlands award the first Officer Kerrie Orozco Memorial Scholarship to Amber Franklin, a member of the North Omaha Boys & Girls Club.
June 26, 2015: A single peregrine falcon chick atop the Nebraska State Capitol is named “Orozco.”
August 25, 2015: A 13-foot artificial tree lit with blue bulbs is dedicated outside Central Police Headquarters. The memorial honors Orozco and other fallen officers.
September 19, 2015: Orozco’s hometown of Walnut, Iowa, hosts a fundraiser. The Walnut Volunteer Fire Department unveils its new firetruck, which features a tribute to Orozco.
December 7, 2015: Kerrie’s Causes, a program created by the First Responders Foundation to carry out Orozco’s legacy of humanitarianism, presents a total of $118,000 to seven organizations: Big Dogs Huge Paws Inc., Black Police Officers Association, Boys & Girls Clubs of the Midlands, Iowa COPS, Police Athletics for Community Engagement, Special Olympics of Nebraska and University of Nebraska Foundation.
December 14, 2015: Orozco receives the Enrique Camarena Award from the Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks. The award, in memory of a murdered Drug Enforcement Administration agent, is given to an American law enforcement officer for extraordinary efforts for their communities. Orozco is the first female police officer to receive the award.
December 18, 2015: During the Omaha police recruit graduation the department offers, for the first time, a “Kerrie On” award to the recruit who showed a strong commitment to the Omaha community.
April 10, 2016: Race car driver Jim Cahill’s 2006 Chevy Cobalt car displays a large portrait of Orozco on its hood. The car is also emblazoned with Support Blue and Kerrie On logos.
April 21, 2016: Orozco is named Officer of the Year by the Omaha Police Foundation. She also is honored with its Purple Heart award. Orozco’s mother, Ellen Holtz, and grandmother accept the awards.
2016: The field at renovated Miller Park will be named Kerrie Orozco Memorial Ballfield, with a blue sign to honor the officer.
An officer for seven years, Kerrie devoted her free time to several organizations that mentor young people. Her passions for volunteering and community policing are part of her legacy.
To Hector, Kerrie was his wife of four years and best friend of five. They spoke Spanish together — she studied the language and he helped her perfect it.
Hector struggles to get through each day without breaking down.
“Sometimes you don’t know how you passed the day before. You just did it,” he said in a rare interview last week.
With his left hand, which still flashes his silver wedding band, he wipes away tears as he talks about Kerrie.
Hector has avoided the public eye since Kerrie’s death. He said, though, that he is deeply thankful for the outpouring of community support, donations and well-wishes.
The public has donated tens of thousands of dollars to the Orozco family and Olivia’s college fund.
Yet Hector stays grounded. He wore a trucker hat and a plaid shirt during the interview, and had dirt on his hands from his irrigation job. He’d rather not be photographed.
He prefers small gatherings to large ceremonies that remember Kerrie.
Kerrie’s mother, Ellen Holtz, and her family from Walnut, Iowa, attended the third annual Omaha Police Officers Ball in April. The event honored Kerrie, who helped found the fundraising gala. Hector said he couldn’t bring himself to attend — it’s tough for him to see videos of his wife.
“You take two steps forward,” he said, “but when you go to one of these things, you return five steps, with how painful it is to be around.”
Five days after the ball, a similar short video memorial was shown at the Omaha Police Foundation luncheon that named Kerrie as Officer of the Year and awarded her the group’s Purple Heart. Hector did not attend; her mother and grandmother accepted the award.
On Friday, the Holtz family, Hector and Hector’s two children from a previous marriage, Natalia and Santiago, attended a vigil in Washington, D.C., as part of National Police Week. Her name now is etched on memorials in D.C., Omaha and Grand Island.
Omaha Police Honor Guard members Bill Dawson (left) and Greg O'Neil remove the cover from the name of fallen Omaha police detective Kerrie Orozco during the 2016 Police Memorial Day Service at the Nebraska Law Enforcement Memorial in Grand Island. (Barrett Stinson/Grand Island Independent)
MAKING AN IMPACT
A summary of events before and after Officer Kerrie Orozco’s death:
May 20, 2015: The Metro Area Fugitive Task Force searches for Marcus Wheeler, wanted in a September 2014 shooting. Wheeler, 26, is on foot near 3159 Vane St. When officers approach around 1 p.m., he fires several shots at them. Wheeler attempts to flee but is confronted by Omaha Police Sgt. Jeffrey Kopietz and Officers Kerrie Orozco and Jeff Shada in the backyard of 3057 Martin Ave. Wheeler and the officers exchange gunfire, and Orozco is struck in the chest. Wheeler tries to run but collapses from Kopietz’s shots near a semiautomatic handgun with a high-capacity drum magazine. Wheeler later dies at a hospital. Despite first aid and CPR from officers, paramedics and doctors, Orozco dies at Creighton University Medical Center. That night, the Omaha Police Foundation announces it will give all donations it receives through the Omaha Gives online fundraiser, held that day, to the Orozco family. It tops $75,000 from 1,800 donors — more than any nonprofit in the campaign.
May 26, 2015: Hundreds of relatives, friends and officers attend Orozco’s funeral at St. John’s Catholic Church on the Creighton University campus. Thousands more line the streets of Omaha and Council Bluffs to pay their respects. The Walnut, Iowa, native is buried at St. Joseph Cemetery in Council Bluffs. More than 240 agencies across the U.S. are represented at her funeral. At 2:39 p.m., police dispatchers broadcast a final call for Orozco using her gang unit call sign: 5Delta17.
June 28, 2015 A Kerrie On benefit is held at Ralston Arena and includes a 5K run, 3K walk, silent auction, raffles and live music. Officers sell hundreds of items of blue clothing and other wearables proclaiming “Support Blue” and “Kerrie On.”
July 22, 2015: U.S. Rep. Brad Ashford, D-Neb., introduces the Kerrie Orozco Act, which would speed the naturalization process for spouses, children and parents of first responders killed in the line of duty.
Feb. 17, 2016: Olivia Ruth Orozco turns 1 year old. Omaha police officers hold a birthday party for her, and hundreds of people write messages to the girl online.
May 9, 2016: Kerrie Orozco’s name is unveiled at the Nebraska Law Enforcement Memorial in Grand Island during a ceremony.
May 12, 2016: Several Omaha police officers honor Orozco at the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Hector came to Omaha at age 17 as an undocumented immigrant from the state of Jalisco, Mexico. He received legal status to work and live in the U.S. through what’s known as a U visa in 2012 after cooperating with police when a man attempted to assault him in 2009.
After having the U visa for three years, Hector applied for a lawful permanent residence card, known as a green card. He received his green card in November.
The holder of a green card must wait five years to apply to be a citizen, according to U.S. law.
If a measure dubbed the Kerrie Orozco Act, being offered by U.S. Rep. Brad Ashford of Omaha, becomes law, it would allow Hector and select others to apply for citizenship immediately after receiving green cards. The Democrat’s measure would expedite citizenship for spouses, children and parents of first responders killed in the line of duty, extending a privilege already given to families of military members.
Hector, Natalia, 9, Santiago, 7, and Olivia met President Barack Obama in January when the president visited Omaha after his final State of the Union address.
Hector said the president told him he supports Ashford’s bill.
Kristin Fearnow, Hector’s lawyer, said the bill would keep families together following a terrible loss.
“You can imagine how devastating that would be, following a tragic situation like that, for there to be some kind of family separation,” she said.
Hector is adamant about staying close to the Holtz family, to make sure Ellen can visit Olivia often. They get together about once every two weeks, Hector said.
“It’s not (only) my daughter, it’s Kerrie’s daughter,” he said. “I tell Ellen, ‘Any time you want to see her, she’s yours, too.’”
Hector and Kerrie met in 2010 at a South Omaha bar where they both worked security. They had a civil ceremony a year later and a church wedding a year after that.
Their busy work schedules left little time for dates, but they made the most of it — going to the movies or biking together.
“We both worked a lot because we wanted ... we just had dreams, same as everybody,” he said. “That’s why I miss her so much, because all my free time I spent with her.”
Olivia Ruth Orozco, the daughter of Hector and the late Omaha Police Officer Kerrie Orozco, is now 15 months old. She was born preterm and spent her first three months in the neonatal intensive care unit. (Rebecca Gratz/The World-Herald)
'WE HAD DREAMS'
WEEK’S EVENTS PAY TRIBUTE
Today: A memorial service at Central Police Headquarters, 505 S. 15th St., at 1 p.m. will mark National Law Enforcement Memorial Day and remember law enforcement officers from the metro area who have died in the past year. Officer Kerrie Orozco’s name will be added to the fallen officer monument.
The guest speaker is Stacy Pratt Laue, widow of Sgt. Jason Tye Pratt, who died in 2003.
Friday: There will be an unveiling of Horses of Honor Omaha at the east end of Turner Park at 10 a.m. Eight riderless horses designed by metro-area artists will be on display for a year starting Friday.
Saturday: A Horses of Honor Omaha tribute concert at Midtown Crossing’s Turner Park will be free and open to the public. The park opens at 5 p.m. The concert, featuring the Finest Hour and Recaptured, will start at 6:30 p.m., and fireworks will follow.
Olivia occupies much of Hector’s time now. The girl, who was born prematurely, spent three months in the neonatal intensive care unit. She now weighs 26 pounds. Hector said doctors deem her healthy, but she’s a little behind developmentally — she doesn’t yet walk.
Kerrie wanted Olivia to learn Spanish, so she urged Hector to use the language around their daughter. Hector speaks fluent English, with an accent.
Hector works during the day as a supervisor for an irrigation company, managing projects from Council Bluffs to west Omaha. His mother, who lives with the family in their Council Bluffs home, takes care of Olivia during the day. Two sisters in town stop by the house about once a week.
In February, members of Kerrie’s gang unit squad held a first birthday party for Olivia at a Bellevue pizza place. The little girl was showered with gifts — including hundreds of messages on Facebook and Twitter from people who remembered Kerrie.
Hector and a handful of Omaha police officers talk daily through group texts.
Recently, one officer sent the group a photo of the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Midlands bus that is emblazoned with photos of Kerrie and the kids she mentored, the baseball players who called her “Coach K.”
Kerrie was a stepmother to Santiago and Natalia long before Olivia was born. Hector said the children miss having picnics in the park with her.
For the anniversary of Kerrie’s death, Hector and the kids might go to Midtown Crossing to watch the unveiling of eight riderless horse statues that honor Kerrie and other fallen Omaha officers.
“Time goes so fast, but at the same time, when you’re looking back, it looks like it was yesterday when everything happened,” Hector said. “The pain is still there and it’s going to be there for ... I don’t know ...”
Hector looks down at Olivia, who is babbling and cooing.
“Hey,” he says, smiling at her.
A little girl who resembles Kerrie is staring back.
Soon the girl will say “mama,” and one day she will read about Kerrie with those big, bright eyes. And she will learn what her mama did for others.
Contact the writer: 402-444-1068, firstname.lastname@example.org