NEW KENSINGTON, Pa. — A western Pennsylvania police officer who was shot to death last week once told a fellow officer he didn't want a silent funeral procession — he wanted the emergency vehicles in it to have their lights flashing and sirens blaring.
On Monday, scores of emergency vehicles, including police cars, ambulances and SWAT vehicles, led a noisy six-mile procession to the cemetery in honor of Lower Burrell police Officer Derek Kotecki, who was killed by a fugitive gunman outside a Dairy Queen on Oct. 12.
Kotecki's funeral at the stately, marbled-lined Mount St. Peter Church was attended by Gov. Tom Corbett, other lawmakers and hundreds of uniformed officers throughout the close-knit Alle-Kiski river valley northeast of Pittsburgh and beyond. They joined Kotecki's friends and family, including his widow, Julie, and sons Nicholas, 13, and Alexander, 11.
"It was just love. It was the family, the friends and the community," said U.S. Rep. Jason Altmire, a Democrat who grew up in Lower Burrell and now lives in Pittsburgh's North Hills suburbs in a neighboring congressional district.
"It's my hometown. It's a tough day for everybody," he said after choking up at the two-hour funeral Mass. "We've never had anything (happen) like this. To see the community come together was amazing."
Many residents who live near the church or along the funeral route came out well before the first police motorcycles arrived at the church and were still lining the sidewalks or sitting in their yards when the hearse pulled away more than three hours later.
"My heart said to be here," said Bernadine Cybach, 69, a lifelong resident of New Kensington who listened to the entire funeral on loudspeaker from across the street on a cool yet brilliantly sunny day. "He's just part of the community. He's a protector."
New Kensington and Lower Burrell are twin cities located about 20 miles from Pittsburgh, upriver on the eastern shore of the Allegheny. The manhunt that ended with Kotecki's death managed to pull the two cities together, in part because the events leading up to the killing began 10 days earlier in New Kensington.
That's when authorities said Charles Post, 33, a heroin addict with a history of mental illness, shot at a contractor's truck during a dispute with his boss in a motel parking lot on Oct. 2. Post was charged in absentia with attempted homicide and other crimes, though no one was injured. In sporadic cellphone conversations as he eluded police over the next few days, Post threatened the lives of officers in both cities, authorities said — though they didn't reveal that until after Kotecki's shooting.
Kotecki, 40, was among the first to arrive when police were told they would find Post at a Dairy Queen on Route 366 in Lower Burrell, just a few hundred yards from the New Kensington line.
Post stepped out of the passenger seat of a Jeep and opened fire on Kotecki, killing him almost instantly, Westmoreland County District Attorney John Peck said. Other officers shot at Post after he ran behind the ice cream store but couldn't scale a fence to escape and, according to officers on the scene, then turned his gun on himself. A coroner has yet to rule whether Post died of a self-inflicted wound or one of several fired by police.
Officer Thomas Babinsack, one of five people to eulogize Kotecki, said they had talked about the aftermath of such a situation while driving to a memorial service in April 2009 for three Pittsburgh officers gunned down in a SWAT siege.
They discussed whether it was respectful to use their flashing lights and sirens in a funeral procession, and Babinsack said he's since learned the protocol is to use lights but no sirens — which police vehicles observed on their way to Kotecki's funeral. But Babinsack said Kotecki wanted something else.
"Tom, I want you to promise me something: If something ever happens to me, I want everybody to know I was here," Babinsack remembered Kotecki saying. "I want the fire trucks and police and ambulances going with lights on and sirens."
"He wanted a parade and he's going to get one," Babinsack said from the pulpit of the noisy funeral procession that was to follow.
Monsignor James Gaston, Kotecki's pastor at a Lower Burrell church that was undergoing renovations and couldn't host the funeral, echoed the theme of community in his sermon and said it was one of the lessons of Kotecki's life.Comment on this story
"Sometimes we cannot live with each other; that's why we have a police force," Gaston said. "But what is certain is that we cannot live without each other."
That's part of the reason Marsha Bianco sat sipping coffee in her shady front yard a couple of blocks from the church, watching the processions to and from the funeral.
"Well, there's so much (crime) going on in these towns, it's awful," Bianco said. "That's why I've got to give these police officers all the credit in the world. For risking their lives so we can sleep at night."