By Reggie Ellis
Assistant Chief Paul Gomez's decision to retire this year left only one real option for Exeter's next chief of police.
His apprentice, Lt. Cliff Bush, was the clear choice to replace John Kunkel after 19 years as chief, one of the longest tenures in the city's history. Following a closed session at its Aug. 23 meeting, the City Council made Bush's new title official with a round of handshakes and hugs.
"I owe a lot to both John and Paul," Bush said of his former superior officers. "They really helped me along and supported me through this whole thing. This is both exciting and scary all at the same time but I'm looking forward to it either way."
Bush will take over as chief on Sept. 1, a day after Gomez officially retires. A swearing-in ceremony will be held for Bush at the Sept. 13 City Council meeting. Kunkel, who has been Exeter's chief since 1986, has been wearing three hats since being appointed by the council to take over for former City Administrator and Clerk Roy Chace, who retired in February 2004. Kunkel, 50, will still hold his current elected positions at city hall.
"It was my vision for him to go toward this career path," Kunkel said of the 44-year-old Bush. "I could see the potential from the time we hired him. Exeter will have a great chief for a long time."
"One day you're here and the next you're gone," said the 61-year-old Gomez, after making the decision to retire after 36 years in law enforcement. "It is like getting a divorce. These people are like family."
Gomez actually started his career with the Woodlake Police Department from 1968-1971. After he and his wife, Belen, found out that their son, Gilbert, was born deaf, Gomez decided to take a job with Champion Homebuilders in Lindsay because he did not have health insurance through the police department. But the pull of public service was too strong so he took a position with the Exeter Police Department in 1974.
"I was here when we got our first radios," Gomez said. "There were only about 6,500 people then and about eight officers. Valencia Village (on the corner of Belmont and Firebaugh) was the only new subdivision and the rest of that area was all orange groves."
Kunkel was the fifth chief that Gomez has worked for, and Gomez himself was interim chief in 1975 between Henry Frye and Pat Buoy and again in 1986 between Frank Jeffers and Kunkel. Gomez was in line to be chief several times, but at that time the city had a policy against the chief living outside of the community and he had just purchased a house in Woodlake. He and Kunkel worked closely together to bring the department's equipment up to date. "For a long time the city did not have the funds to purchase new cars and equipment," Gomez said. "But in the 1980s that all changed."
Gomez was Exeter's first lieutenant, formerly called an administrative sergeant, and helped find grants to build a gun range for officers, which saved the city about $100,000. Gomez said crime has increased in the city, but is still in-line with the population increase. "I think more people report crime too. People didn't used to report a lot of stolen items. Now they report everything, which is good." Gomez said a lot of officers in Exeter go through their entire career without drawing their weapon. He remembers one of the few times he had to draw his. Gomez confronted a man who had assaulted someone and when the man came at him with a butcher knife, Gomez had no choice but to fire in self-defense. "He wasn't killed, but you remember those things."
Gomez was also with the department during another unforgettable instance, when officer Thomas Schroth was killed in the line of duty in 1975 after being shot by a gunmen who then killed himself. Schroth, who was memorialized with the park bearing his name at Belmont Road and Vine Street, was the first and only officer to die on duty for the Exeter Police Department.
Gomez has also faced another killer. In May he was diagnosed with cancer. "I told myself if I made it through this I would take it easy," he said. "So I am." After undergoing a successful surgery, Gomez made the decision to retire. He said he plans on playing "a lot" of golf and doing "a little" traveling. "I have always wanted to drive across the country," he said. A retirement party for Gomez will be held on Sept. 3 at the Exeter Memorial Building. The entire community is invited to celebrate the man who dedicated his life to protecting the citizens of Exeter. Tickets are $10 and can be purchased from the Exeter Police Department.
Gomez said law enforcement has changed a lot over the course of his 36-year career. He remembers coming in one morning early in his career when the chief made an announcement that officers must start Mirandizing everyone they arrested following a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court. "It just happened over night. Now they give us a lot more notice of when things are coming up," he said.
But the one thing that never changed is what Gomez said he will miss most - the camaraderie between officers. "I have spent half of my life in law enforcement and you spend a lot of time with these people each day. This was a big part of my life."
Bush takes over
"We are certainly going to miss his experience," Bush said of Gomez. "He is like a walking historian of the department. He can tell you how something has been done in the past, what worked, what didn't, he remembers everything."
Luckily for the department, Gomez taught Bush almost everything he knows. "Paul is the one that hired me and is one of the reasons I decided to take the position. I never set out to be a chief of police. All I ever wanted to be was a good officer."
In 1990, Bush was happily in the midst of his fifth year with the Tulare County Sheriff's Department when Gomez approached him about taking a position in Exeter. Bush had talked with another deputy who had worked for Exeter who told him that the slower pace would give him more free time and flexibility in his schedule to spend with his wife, Leanor, and their two children, Jimmy, now 25, and April, now 21. The couple added a third child, Bailey, who is now 6. Already living in Exeter, it was a natural fit for the family.
He earned the rank of sergeant in 1995 and was instrumental in identifying gang activity in Exeter early enough to prevent it from becoming a problem. "I approached Paul and chief and told them that we needed to do something about it," Bush said. "Thanks to their leadership and vision, they acknowledged we had a problem rather than ignoring it. I am really proud of being a part of that." To this day he remains a member of the Tulare County Gang Task Force.
He began taking on more administrative duties and played a part in establishing the Exeter Boys & Girls Club, where he continues to volunteer his time. In April 2004, Bush was elevated to the rank of lieutenant and Gomez and Kunkel began grooming him to take over as chief some day.
"It was probably the people of Exeter that made my decision, too," Bush said.
Bush first experienced Exeter's small town charm during a two-week stint at R&N in Exeter in 1980. Bush said he went downtown one day just to see what it was like and at least three people he had never met waived to him as he drove by.
"I love this job because of the daily interaction with different and new people," Bush said. "I've gone out on a call, had one conversation with someone and they treat me like we have been friends forever. Exeter has always been supportive of me during my career."
As the new figurehead of the department, Bush said that reaching out to the people of Exeter will be one of his main priorities. He said he will reinstitute a citywide neighborhood watch program with an officer assigned to each neighborhood, known as Community Oriented Policing and Problem Solving (COPPS). He would also like officers to go out and interact with the youth of the community.
"I want to make sure people know that my door is always open."