With pride and pain, families prepare to honor slain officers at 'Fallen Heroes Day'

Rich Leotta buried his son, a policeman, months ago. But this week he feels like he's enduring the funeral again and again.

Tuesday was the Blue Mass in Washington for families of killed officers. Wednesday was a memorial in Montgomery County, where Officer Noah Leotta patrolled nights. Thursday was a Howard County remembrance, and the week culminates Friday with Fallen Heroes Day, the statewide ceremony in Timonium.


"Each one of these events is kind of like burying Noah over again each time, and that's hard to do," Rich Leotta said. "To be honest, I'd rather not be there. But I'm also honored to be there because they're recognizing his service."

Each spring, Marylanders commemorate officers and firefighters killed in the past year. And across the state, grieving families steel themselves.


"I remember the exact same feeling. ... It was just like the funeral," said Sue Nickerson, whose son, an Eastern Shore policeman, was fatally shot in 2001. "The first couple years are tough, but there's a calming and a sense of peace that does come."

Friday's ceremony at Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens will honor four officers. Noah Leotta was struck and killed by a suspected drunken driver in December. Three others, two Harford County sheriff's deputies and a Prince George's police officer, died after being shot.

Harford County Sheriff's Deputy Shane Fraser rode in the ambulance with wounded Deputy Patrick Dailey. He stood guard in Dailey's hospital room, and he was there when the ambulance took his colleague's body to the funeral home, picking up Dailey's son Tyler on the way.

No words were spoken with the teenager, but Fraser remembers "just seeing the grief on his face and how hard it was on him."

He spoke of the scene Thursday as he unfolded chairs at the cemetery in preparation for the ceremony.

"It's the least we can do for someone who gave the ultimate sacrifice," he said.

Dailey and fellow Deputy Mark Logsdon were killed Feb. 10 in Abingdon. Dailey, 52, responded to a Panera Bread restaurant to talk to David Brian Evans, who shot the deputy. Logsdon, 43, was among several deputies who chased Evans. Logsdon was wounded during a shootout outside an apartment complex. Evans, 68, was also killed.

Along with Dailey and Logsdon, Friday's ceremony will honor Prince George's County Detective Jacai Colson, who died in a friendly-fire incident in March. He was fatally shot as he returned to the Landover police station amid a chaotic shootout between officers and a gunman firing in the street.


In the three months before he died, Colson went undercover 12 times to seize $12,000 worth of drugs. He made 29 arrests and recovered three guns, his commander, Maj. Jason Bogue, said.

"It was actually kind of staggering the amount of work he did," Bogue said. "It's a cliche. I'm sure everyone is saying how great all these people are, but it's the truth."

Dulaney Valley has held the Fallen Heroes ceremony every year since 1986. Mary Auld, the event planner, said that, in the past, Maryland Transportation Authority police cadets have helped out at the event. But this year the Harford County Sheriff's Office sent volunteers.

Auld's husband is a Baltimore County firefighter and her family includes retired police officers, so the day is especially poignant for her.

Every time an officer leaves home, "I understand how their families feel," she said.

The Harford County deputies unloaded chairs under a large white tent and unpacked 1,100 memorial pins to be handed out.


Deputy J. Nate Gerres knelt on the wet grass to wipe off the plaques bearing the names of officers and firefighters honored in past years. He said aloud what has lingered on his mind: "Could you have done more?"

Gerres went to the precinct that day in February and heard the call on the radio: Officer down. He recalled how he jumped in a car with another deputy and sped to the scene.

Upon arriving, he spoke to a witness who had tried to stop Evans from running away. The witness said Evans fled toward some woods. Gerres scanned the area but didn't see any footprints in the snow. So he and the other deputies began searching the cars in the parking lot. Perhaps Evans was hiding. Logsdon was searching, too.

Then he heard gunshots.

"I saw Mark go down. I saw him take his last breath," Gerres said.

Deputies swarmed his colleague, and began trying to resuscitate him. And Gerres called on the radio for help.


"You start to question yourself," he said, repeating. "Could you have done more?"

Deputy T.J. Jackson went to Upper Chesapeake Medical Center to be with Logsdon.

"It was rough. Probably one of the hardest days in my career. No one ever thought it would happen in Harford County," he said as he unloaded chairs.

Nearby, Sgt. Christopher Crespo cleared a plaque that read "SR DEP M LOGSDON."

He picked up a toy police cruiser and a small Seattle Seahawks football helmet someone had left on the memorial.

Across Maryland, as the ceremony draws near, fellow officers and the families of the dead turn to the memories of their last encounters with the four slain men.


Most afternoons, before his night shift, Noah Leotta would stop by his parents' home in Olney for a meal or a chat.

His father, Rich, remembers that last afternoon in December, saying "Have a good night" as his son left.

But never saying the words he really meant:

Be safe. Come home.