Talking about it still brings retired Anaheim police chief Jimmie Kennedy to tears.
A drunk driver crossed the double yellow line, and smashed into a car filled with a Utah family headed to Disneyland.
The mother died instantly.
Kennedy scooped the infant off the floorboard.
And held her as she gasped for the last time.
He recalls the scene in vivid detail.
Nearly 50 years later.
A 30-year-old patrol officer, Staci Dietz searched the ransacked home of an elderly woman whose car was stolen.
She and four colleagues couldn’t find her.
Until an officer moved a blanket near the bottom of a pile of overturned drawers.
Feet popped out.
The 84-year-old woman was raped and tortured, then beaten to death by a burglar.
That was January.
Six months later, Dietz raced to another horrifying scene.
A five-year-old boy told a dispatcher that Daddy killed Mommy, shot his 3-year-old brother, then killed himself.
Inside the home, Dietz – who has an infant son of her own – sprinted past two dead bodies sprawled in pools of dried blood.
Where were the boys?
She found the 3-year-old on his back near trash cans on the side of the house. Shot three times. Conscious but not moving.
As she carried him to paramedics, she held him as if he was her son.
Miraculously, the boy survived.
Dietz later watched his 5-year-old brother recount the violent death of his parents as if he had just watched them on a cartoon.
“It was like a scene out of a movie,” she says.
Heather Williams isn’t a psychologist or a cop, but she debriefed Dietz after both killings.
“It’s important for those involved in unimaginable crimes such as these to talk about what they saw – and how it made them feel,” said Williams, program director with CSP Victim Assistance Program and coordinator of its Crisis Response Team.
Williams and her team respond to bank robberies, homicides and other situations that cause trauma to a community.
“The research shows that dealing with the emotional impact right away is important for long-term mental health of those involved,” she says.
As a career, police officer ranks third among occupations in premature death rates. The number of cops who kill themselves each year is about double the number who are killed, according to the American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress.
Mental health is a concern.
“Police work is tough: no question about it,” says Anaheim Deputy Police Chief Craig Hunter. “The Crisis Response Team is one example of how our police department is working creatively to ensure the health of our police officers.”
But it’s not just police officers who Williams and her team aid, Hunter said.
“Major crime incidents can deal an emotional blow to an entire neighborhood and even an entire community,” he said. “Another benefit of us offering the Crisis Response Team is the impact it has helping victims, witnesses and everybody else touched by crime. It’s part of our commitment to offer a higher level of customer service.”
In May, Orange County Credit Union branch manager Eleanor Heng and five employees huddled in a locked vault as a masked gunman screamed: “OPEN THE DOOR!”
Heng had ushered her employees into the vault before the robber burst in at closing time.
Suddenly, Heng heard the clicking sound of the vault’s security code.
At gunpoint, the robber forced an employee who had been in the bathroom to enter the code.
Even though nobody was injured, and the robber was arrested a few hours later, Heng and her team were shaken up.
“It was very disturbing and unsettling,” she said. “It was a big help and relief to have Heather and CSP’s Crisis Response Team there immediately afterward to talk to us about what happened.
“I don’t think any of us slept the following night,” she added, noting the teller who had the gun to her head met with Williams for multiple sessions.
It isn’t just the tragic death of the Utah mother and baby that haunts Kennedy, the former police chief.
He recalls the wife of one of his police officers.
Days after their baby drowned, she used her husband’s gun to kill herself.
In the 1960s, there was no police chaplain, police psychologist – and certainly not a Crisis Response Team, he said.
Kennedy, 76, acknowledges that he rarely talks about the trauma he witnessed during his career.
“I saw a lot of situations where a professional debrief would have helped a lot,” Kennedy says. “I started in 1958. Back then, ‘suck it up’ really was what we had to do.”
Kennedy retired as Anaheim’s police chief in 1987 and from working altogether in 1999, four years before a madman killed two people inside an Irvine supermarket with a samurai sword.
That was the CRT’s first critical incident.
Kennedy was unaware of its existence until the January killing of Bessie Whyman, the 84-year-old woman killed in January.
Kennedy went to church with Whyman.
“They knocked on doors in the neighborhood, and organized a community meeting,” he said. “There was a great deal of anger toward the suspect. They did a splendid job informing everybody about the criminal justice process. A lot of questions were asked. Sometimes there are no answers.
“I don’t know anybody who didn’t feel a little bit better afterward.”
Kennedy says he was pleased to see the extent to which his old police department was trying to help the community – and its officers – deal with the psychological impact of traumatic incidents.
“When a baby dies in your arms, it’s really tough,” he says. “We know too well what happens when officers carry these things around.”
Dietz, the patrolwoman, thought she was fine following the Whyman killing.
Until she started talking about it.
“To actually be there, to find it … Bessie will stick with me forever,” she says. “We were all affected by it, her age and what took place. It’s a mental picture I will never forget.”
For a few weeks afterward, she admits feeling nervous when she was home alone.
Then, she had to go to court to testify and see the crime-scene photos.
“It brought back a lot of feelings,” she says.
More feelings emerged after the murder-suicide and shooting of the 3-year-old boy.
“It’s my job. I knew what I was getting myself in to,” she says. “I want to help people, and if I have to walk through dead bodies to do it, I will.”
She visited the boy in the hospital.
“I felt I needed to do that,” she says. “It made me feel better. I wanted to take him home with me.”
Dietz said it’s hard for her to verbalize feelings. She is unsure if she would have talked to anybody if CRT wasn’t around. She’s glad they are.
“It probably helps me more than I know,” she said. “It’s got to be better than keeping it all inside.”