I t has been 13 years, and the people of South Tucson have not forgotten Officer John A. Valenzuela.
And that won’t change. This small community is working hard to ensure Valenzuela’s name will forever be a part of the history of South Tucson.
Valenzuela is the only South Tucson police officer to be killed in the line of duty. Although he was an officer in the town for only about a year, he touched so many people that his legacy is as strong as ever.
Valenzuela was deeply concerned about the children of South Tucson. It was that concern that led to his death.
So after he was killed, the city built a center for children on South Sixth Avenue – the John Valenzuela Youth Center. The officer’s University of Arizona diploma, his police uniform and even some of his comic book collection are on display inside, encased in Lucite boxes.
For those who live in a large, impersonal city such as Tucson and for those who think of South Tucson as only a place for good Mexican food, it is difficult to explain how tightly knit this community is.
Sixto Molina spent more than two decades as a Tucson cop, then moved to the South Tucson Police Department about nine years ago to be its chief. He says the town is “almost like Andy of Mayberry. We know everybody.”
And that’s how it was Saturday when residents of South Tucson came together to mark the 13th anniversary of Valenzuela’s death.
When Molina arrived at the ceremony honoring Valenzuela, he was greeted as a friend, not as a cop. There were more hugs and back slaps than handshakes. He was on a first-name basis with almost everyone.
He is not only their police chief, but also their friend.
Officer John Valenzuela was also their friend and their protector. And that cost him his life.
Valenzuela became a Tucson police officer in 1991. The next year, he opted to move to the much smaller South Tucson force. He had spent a lot of time in the town when he was growing up. It was where his mother grew up and where his grandmother still lived.
He became school resource officer at Ochoa Elementary School, a position he eagerly sought. It was while working at Ochoa in May 1993 that several young girls there told him they had been molested by a man living nearby.
Valenzuela investigated and obtained a search warrant. On May 17, 1993, Valenzuela and four other officers went to the man’s house. The man came out shooting, hitting Valenzuela in the head as the officer peeked around a brick mailbox post. He was killed and, in the ensuing gunfire, his assailant died, too.
Sharon Hayes, now a South Tucson police lieutenant, was one of the officers there that day. And she also was there Saturday, at the ceremony honoring Valenzuela, reading a passage from the Bible during a Mass honoring her friend.
After Mass, she tried to explain why Valenzuela’s death still deeply affects this community.
“People don’t want to forget,” Hayes said. “This was somebody the community cared about and loved.”
Whenever a new officer is hired, the orientation includes a lesson on Valenzuela’s life, Hayes said. New officers are brought to the youth center and shown mementos of an officer they never knew.
The South Tucson Police Department recently bought new squad cars – and even there Valenzuela is remembered. On the door posts of each car is written “In memory of Officer John A. Valenzuela – Born June 28, 1965; End of Watch May 17, 1993.
The lettering was donated by Roger McDowell of Payless Tires, a South Tucson business.
James Valenzuela, younger brother of the slain officer, has helped to arrange the memorial service every year. Saturday, he passed out large buttons with John’s photo to the more than 100 people attending.
“We do this not to remember how he died, but how he lived,” James Valenzuela said. “This center is a symbol of my brother’s spirit and what he stood for.”
Valenzuela thought back to a picture taken of his older brother many years ago – when he was about 4 and wearing a cowboy hat.
When the brothers played, “he was always the good guy,” Valenzuela said.
Mark Kimble appears at 6:30 p.m. and midnight Fridays on the Roundtable segment of “Arizona Illustrated” on KUAT-TV, Channel 6. He may be reached at email@example.com or 573-4662.