Remembering the Fallen: Officers Gene Simpson and Gordon Silva
Today, we remember fallen San Jose Police Officers Gordon Silva and Gene Simpson. On January 20, 1989, Simpson and Silva were killed in a firefight with a mentally ill pedestrian who wrestled Simpson's gun away. Below is an account of this terrible tragedy that was published in the Mercury News following their deaths.
The Worst Day in the Department's History
What started as a routine call of a disturbance in downtown San Jose turned into a bloody, cat and mouse shootout that claimed the lives of two police officers and a gunman Friday. The second and third officers in department history to die after a criminal wrestled away a police gun.
Officer Gene Simpson, 45, died instantly after being stalked and shot in the head with his own gun. Officer Gordon Silva, 39, the second person to face the gunman, clung to life for several hours after being shot in the stomach and the leg. He died Friday evening at San Jose medical Center, despite two rounds of emergency surgery that replaced his entire blood supply at least six times.
The gunman, Dale Randy Connors, 35 was shot three times through the heart by other officers, who swarmed to the scene of the shootout on East Santa Clara Street outside Winchell's Donut House near Fifth Street. Simpson and Silva were the first San Jose police officers to die in the line of duty since July 1985. In that earlier shooting, the officer also was shot to death with his own gun.
The drama began with a typical police call: Simpson went to Winchell's just before noon to check out the report of a disturbance. For five hours before Simpson arrived, Connors reportedly had been acting "bizarrely," Police Chief Joseph McNamara said at a press conference. Connors repeatedly had challenged people to fight and may have been accosting them for money, the chief said. He was kicked out of Winchell's three times before Simpson's patrol car pulled up to the doughnut shop.
When Simpson arrived, McNamara said, he walked over to Connors, who was then outside, and tired to calm him down. Almost immediately, Connors attacked the officer. At least two witnesses said they saw Simpson approach Connors with his baton drawn, as if he were going to hit him. Connors then reportedly kicked the officer in the groin. As they wrestled to the ground, witnesses told police, Simpson appeared to be winning the struggle. But somehow, Connors pulled Simpson's gun from its holster.
Simpson ran for his life, calling for help on a portable radio, according to Samuel Tobias, one of the witnesses. Police dispatchers received his first call of a man with a gun at 11:56 a.m. The second call came seconds later. "Man with my gun and he's firing," Simpson radioed. The officer ducked around cars in the Winchell's parking lot, trying to escape Connors. But Connors followed, aiming Simpson's .357 magnum at the officer and shooting.
What happened next is unclear. But somehow, police said, Simpson fell to the ground, either after he was hit by gunfire or after losing his footing. Tobias, who was in Winchell's when the shootout began, said that after the third shot he heard Connors tell the officer, "I got you now. "McNamara said that as Simpson lay on the cement, Connors walked up to him and fired the gun into his head. A witness, Aubre Johnson, said he watched the gruesome scene unfold: "The dude reached over the truck and blew his head off… There was no life in him. He was dead before he hit the ground."
Officer Silva, flagged down by a bystander, was the first to come to Simpson aid. But as Silva climbed out of his patrol car and apparently before he could fire his own gun, Connors ran into the street and shot him three times, once in the stomach and twice in the leg. By then, other officers pulled up to the scene and aimed at Connors, shooting him three times in the heart and killing him instantly.
Police did not know how many officers were at the scene. But a video tape made by two Santa Clara University journalism students, who were in the area filming a story for a class - 26 shots were recorded in 3 1/2 minutes. Of those, 21 came during the final 30-second volley that killed Connors.
A solemn farewell to comrades
It was a morning of farewell. They came by the hundreds to say goodbye to San Jose police officers Gene Simpson and Gordon Silva. Two good street cops. Two good friends. They came to make a proper ending of it. And they did. So long, with stiff salutes and unchecked tears.
There was frost on the ground. In the chill of the morning, columns of smoke rose from the valley floor like plumed feathers. By 9 a.m. hundreds of police officers from throughout California and hundreds of civilians from San Jose were already driving or trudging upon the steep hill to First Baptist Church. More than 3,000 gathered in all.
Then the motorcycles came in columns of two, more than 170 strong, leading the solemn processions of black hearses and limousines that carried the dead and the bereaved.
The flag-draped coffins, made of oak-stained poplar, were removed by pallbearers and taken through the honor guard into the church. The cops were massed at attention.
Every officer present understood that neither Simpson nor Silva had much time at the end. But Simpson had the presence of mind to radio Code 30, major emergency. The first units were on the scene within 26 seconds of Simpson's radio contact. And yet it was all too late.
Life is a quickly woven tapestry. The bright threads of joy take long moments; tragedy passes in the blink of an eye. But even in terrible aftermath, there are things to be weighed and considered. There are men to be honored, a perspective to be gained.
It was such a morning in San Jose.
"It's OK to feel sad," police Chaplain David Bridgen told those gathered. "It's OK to feel anger and to feel the pain and the frustration of grief.
"But if Gene and Gordie were with us, they would be first to say, 'We chose the profession. We knew the danger. We were aware of the possibilities. We knew and we wouldn't trade it. Stand up. Stand tall. Be proud of the uniform. We are family. And even though we are gone, don't let us down. Stand fast.' "
There seemed little danger of anyone backing down. The fraternal closeness of police officers was evident. Of course, you see that every day. What most people don't see every day is the humanity behind the badges. And perhaps that's because it isn't always revealed.
But we all stand together on a morning of farewell.
Dave Paulides, who gave an emotional and eloquent tribute to his friend Silva, said of both men, "I never heard one thing bad about either of these officers. You have good men and bad men. You have great officers and poor officers. These were the great and good. Two very senior, very reliable men. When the radio went off, they answered it."
It was a thought echoed by officers Kim Garner and Peggy Galvan, when officers gathered after the funeral at Italian Gardens.
Said Garner, "The saddest thing is that they were two easygoing guys, two of the most peaceful and gentle men in the department. They never did anything wrong to anyone."
And Galvan, "I think you feel two things today. One is the tragedy of losing these two men, members of our family. The second is the real closeness, the community of people sharing our grief. It is beautiful."
"This is a lesson you wish you never had to learn," said Officer Dan Vasquez, a member of the street crimes unit, which operates in the downtown area where Simpson and Silva were shot. "The community feels the loss and senses the grief. But there is also a loss here that only another officer can understand.
"What I feel most of all is reaffirmation, an understanding of why we do this job. This call was a common, everyday occurrence. It happens every day, as common as pulling someone over and writing a ticket. And yet, look how tragically it ended.
"We can use it as a learning experience and take it out there with us. But we still have to go on out there. And we will."
During the memorial service, Irene Trapp, married to San Jose Police Sgt. Rick Trapp, sang two beautiful hymns. There were the traditional words of prayer. And then the hundreds of officers from across the state - from Santa Barbara, Long Beach, Ventura, San Francisco, Pinole, Modesto, Salinas, Pacific Grove, Morro Bay, and Vallejo, just to name a very few - filed out in formation, saluting the caskets once again.
Outside again, there was a 21-gun salute. The flag detail removed the flags from the coffins, folded them in ceremony and presented them to Police Chief Joseph McNamara. He presented them to the Simpson and Silva families.
The day had gathered warmth. A large brown hawk soared just overhead, casting the shadows of its wings on the dead and those who would guard them.
- San Jose Mercury News