Knights thank officers, firefighters

By Reggie Ellis

The only person who didn't know they were getting an award was the man who organized the event. Francis Richard received a plaque from the Exeter/Farmersville and Woodlake councils of the Knights of Columbus for organizing the Officer and Firefighter of the Year awards dinner for Exeter, Farmersville, Woodlake and Lemon Cove for the last 15 years.

&#8220It wasn't all me you know,” Richard told the crowd. &#8220I'm proud the Knights have been able to provide this venue for you to honor their own people,” Richard said. &#8220We never wanted anything to do with choosing the honorees. This is all for the departments.”

It was Richard's drive and passion for the event that got it started a decade and a half ago. This was the first year that Richard took a step back from organizing the event. While he will still be involved in planning future events, Richard said he wanted to let other people take on more of the duties. Under Richard's watch, the event became more than just a family affair of local public safety personnel and their families. It became an event that attracted some of the biggest names in the Valley to be its guest speaker, including congressmen, Navy commanders and regional state fire chiefs.

This year's speaker was Assemblyman Bill Maze, who talked about the struggle in Sacramento to protect personal rights and county funding.

&#8220I look forward to coming home, hooking up the plow discs on my tractor and tearing it up to get out my frustrations,” Maze said, who farms citrus near Visalia.

Maze, whose 34th District encompasses portions of Tulare, Inyo, Kern, and San Bernardino counties, said government's number one job is providing public safety.

&#8220These men and women are prepared and trained to act in a moment's notice when we need them to provide protection and emergency services,” he said.

With that. Emcee Rich Rodriguez, Exeter native and news anchor for KSEE 24 news, introduced the presenters who gave out the awards for Officer and Firefighter of the Year.

California Highway Patrol

Lt. Graig Kunzler introduced Officer Ray Frakes as the Visalia area CHP's Officer of the Year. Kunzler transferred to Visalia a little more than a year ago. On his second day, he was approached by Frakes, an officer for more than 31 years, who began asking him a series of questions.

&#8220This interrogation lasted an hour,” Kunzler said. &#8220And then I realized that he was asking me how I was going to try and make this department better.”

Kunzler began his career with CHP in San Diego in 1973. Four months later he was transferred to Gilroy. In 1983 he came to Visalia where he has spent most of his time as a field officer. Frakes was also the CHP's Officer of the Year in 1995 and for the past five years has served on the Honor Guard for funeral ceremonies.

&#8220After 32 years his fellow officers still feel he is the No. 1 guy,” Kunzler said. &#8220He has been an ambassador to this department.”

Frakes, who is retiring in July, thanked his fellow officers for creating one of the finest departments he has ever worked for.

&#8220This is the best job in the world,” Frakes said. &#8220Visalia has some of the finest officers I have ever worked with. If it wasn't for them, I wouldn't be here.”

Tulare County Sheriff's Department

The Sheriff himself, Bill Wittman was in town to introduce Victor Miranda as the Deputy of the Year. Miranda managed to elude the Sheriff's gaze as he stood near him at the podium. When Wittman asked if Miranda was there, the laughter pointed him to the officer standing next to him.

&#8220He's good at undercover work as you can tell,” Wittman said.

Miranda started with the Sheriff's Department at the county jail in 2000. In 2003, he moved into fieldwork where he quickly became familiar with the criminal element, where they live, sleep and hang out. Known as a bloodhound, Miranda's dogged determination to get his man was displayed in a case where a criminal was on the run for several months. Miranda never let up on the search until the man was found living in a burned-out building.

&#8220I'm so glad you found me,” Wittman said the man told deputies. &#8220Miranda is making my life a nightmare.” Wittman also shared a letter the man sent from prison talking about the case. &#8220In all my 37 years I have never had an autographed photo sent to me,” Wittman added.

Miranda thanked the Sheriff for the opportunity to work in Tulare County. He also thanked a close friend, who encouraged him into a career in law enforcement.

Exeter Police Department

Police Chief Cliff Bush introduced Officer Jeff Detwiler as the Officer of the Year. Detwiler began with the department as a reserve officer in 2003. In 2004, he became a provisional officer, which meant he had a temporary full-time position with the possibility of being hired by the department. Once the temporary period is up, Bush said he asks the officers for their badge and gun if they are not going to be hired. He asked Detwiler for his as a joke, since he had already decided to hire the officer.

&#8220He had the longest, saddest look on his face and tears welling up in his eyes,” Bush said. &#8220Then I told him welcome to the department. I felt bad about it, but it really showed me the kind of passion he had for the job.”

In January 2005, a four-block area of Exeter was hit by a rash of burglaries. Bush said they had arrested a few people in the area but none that connected to the majority of the crimes. Bush assigned Detwiler the task of serving 50-60 warrants in the area and asked him to pick officers he wanted to help with the investigation. He declined the offer, telling Bush he wanted to do it himself.

&#8220In two weeks, he served every warrant and got the right guy,” Bush said. &#8220The Sheriff may have a blood hound, but we have a rottweiler.” Detwiler was at a loss for words at the microphone. &#8220He chases bad guys with guns every day, but for most of us getting up here is harder than it looks.”

Exeter Fire Department

Lisa Marrone, Battalion Chief for the Tulare County Fire Department and California Forestry and Fire Protection, introduced Kevin Riggi as Exeter's Firefighter of the Year. Riggi has been a volunteer firefighter in Exeter in 2000. Marrone said that most volunteers drop out after two years and half of those remaining drop out in another two years.

&#8220He was already one in 1,000 as a volunteer in Tulare County,” Marrone said. &#8220The life expectancy of a volunteer is only five years. That makes him more special.”

Marrone said there were 15,000 calls to the fire departments in Tulare County last year, or about one call every half hour.

&#8220He leaves his family in the middle of the night when its rainy and cold to take care of others, and he always does it with a smile on his face. I really look up to you, both figuratively and literally,” said Marrone who is at least a foot shorter than Riggi.

Riggi praised his fire captain, fellow volunteers and most certainly his wife.

&#8220If she doesn't let me go out and do this I wouldn't be able to do it,” Riggi said. &#8220If our families didn't support us we wouldn't do this. It's our wives and families that motivate us to go out and help others.”

It was also Riggi's birthday, so the entire crowd sang to him as he shook his head back to his seat.

Farmersville Police Department

Police Chief Mario Krstic introduced Sgt. Mike Marquez as Farmersville's Officer of the Year. Marquez started his law enforcement career at the age of 13 as an Explorer with the Sheriff's Department, where he often worked alongside a deputy for an entire shift and then would stay on for the next shift. After graduating from the Police Academy, Marquez was hired as a full-time officer in Farmersville at the age of 20. Krstic said he would never forget the story of how Marquez's mother had to buy him his ammunition because they didn't believe he was old enough to be a police officer.

&#8220Even though he is only 29, I feel comfortable saying that Mike has 15 years of experience already,” Krstic said.

Last year, Marquez led an investigation into a major drug dealer in the county. In June, Marquez, along with the Visalia police department, busted a home in the 700 block of North Kern Street in Farmersville. Officers found more than $433,000 in cash, 13 pounds of methamphetamine, two pounds of cocaine and 93 pounds of marijuana for a total street value of $1 million. Two cars were also confiscated because they were bought with drug money.

Thanks to Marquez's work, Farmersville and Visalia each received a check for $173,000 and a car confiscated during the bust through a forfeiture program through the U.S. Attorney's Office. Krstic said the money would be used to purchase needed equipment for narcotics enforcement.

&#8220He can be dealing with a homicide, then switch to a drug case and then another case,” Krstic said. &#8220His talent amazes me. I'm proud to have him with the department.”

Marquez thanked the sheriff's department for giving him a chance to see law enforcement at a young age and to Farmersville for giving him an opportunity to do what he loves. &#8220When I go out of the area, I am proud to tell people I am from Farmersville,” Marquez said.

Farmersville Fire Department

Fire Chief John Crivello introduced Lt. John Self as Farmersville's Firefighter of the Year. Self began volunteering with the department in 1995. He became an engineer in 2002 and a lieutenant in 2005 and has been the volunteer chief for the last five years.

&#8220He has a straightforward and common sense approach to leadership,” Crivello said. &#8220No job is beneath him and he wouldn't ask some to do a task he hasn't done himself.”

Those tasks include everything from maintenance on the engines and hydrants and answering every call from medical aides to the 2003 wildfires in Southern California.

&#8220Farmersville Fire Department had 764 call last year, and John was at most of them,” Crivello said.

Self is also the leader on organizing the Firemen's Muster team; partly because he is the only person with a truck large enough to haul the antique engine thanks to his back hoe business.

&#8220I just want to thank my wife for all her patience,” Self said.

Lemon Cove Fire Department

Battalion Chief Lisa Marrone returned to the podium to introduce Corey Delman as Lemon Cove's Firefighter of the Year. However, Delman was unable to be at the event. In a later interview, Delman said he has been with the department for 10 years. He joined shortly after his family moved to the area when the department burned his grandmother's old house as a training exercise.

A finish carpenter by day, Delman said his work has accommodated his schedule as a volunteer firefighter. He currently is certified to drive the light engine and is undergoing training to operate the station's heavy engine on his own time.

&#8220I just enjoy helping people,” Delman said.

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