A community grieves for Deputy Etheridge

Row upon row of uniformed officers stood at attention at Resthaven Cemetery on Friday when police radios suddenly crackled.

"Attention all units," the dispatcher said.

"This will be the last call for Sedgwick County sheriff's Deputy Brian S. Etheridge, who bravely served our community from July 2008 until his final call September the 28th, 2009.

"Please observe a moment of silence for one of our own."

Flags flapped in a heavy wind. Gold and silver badges flashed in the sunlight. A police helicopter flew overhead. Colleagues saluted. Many cried.

"Rest in peace, Brian."

An estimated 2,000 mourners — including law enforcement officers from several states — packed St. Peter Catholic Church in Schulte for a funeral Mass honoring Etheridge. At least 400 joined a procession to Resthaven at Kellogg and 119th Street West, where Etheridge was laid to rest near the outstretched wings of the bronze Eagle of Freedom.

The 26-year-old deputy was killed Monday during what sheriff's officials called an ambush after responding to a report of a theft southeast of Wichita.

In the moments after Etheridge died, one of the questions his wife, Sarah, had for the Rev. Andy Kuykendall was, "What do I tell my daughter?"

The priest's response, which he related to mourners Friday:

"He died a hero. He also died a martyr."

Kuykendall said that in addition to being a hero, Etheridge was a proud family man. He and his wife were parents to Natalie, 2, and had a strong and loving extended family.

"His biggest gift was he was a husband and a father," Kuykendall said. "He loved his family."

During the Mass, Kuykendall read a letter that Etheridge's father, Larry, wrote to his son after his death. Larry Etheridge praised his son, writing, "Ever since you were a baby, you seemed to have a sense of peace and happiness in you."

He said his son was a calm and happy infant, a joyful toddler, an admirable young man who never became jealous of siblings or friends. He continued to make his father proud as he entered his law enforcement career.

"You," the letter said, "are what I wanted in a son."

Tim Hallacy, a friend and fellow sheriff's deputy, said Etheridge was "a laugh when you thought the joke was over," a strong, smart and sensitive man.

Working in law enforcement can make people angry or calloused, Hallacy said.

"But working with Brian, every day you were reminded there are good people out there. There are great people out there."

Kuykendall added, addressing Sarah Etheridge, "Remember the good memories, remember the good times... But also remember this day. Be proud of your husband."

Before the funeral, hundreds of members of the Patriot Guard held flags outside the church. They were joined by students from St. Peter Catholic School, who stood with small flags in hand in front of the denim- and leather-clad Patriot Guard.

Among the officials attending were Gov. Mark Parkinson, Attorney General Steve Six and U.S. Rep. Todd Tiahrt.

Afterward firefighters, paramedics and law enforcement officers from across the region — including Omaha, Topeka, Lawrence, Dodge City, Olathe and Hutchinson — rode with lights flashing to the graveside ceremony at Resthaven.

Along the procession route, many people lined the streets. Some carried American flags and rested hands on their hearts. Law enforcement officers blocking intersections to the public saluted as the procession passed.

Near the Resthaven entrance, motorists passed beneath a large American flag held aloft between two Wichita Fire Department trucks, ladders extended.

Wichitan Rosa Perez, who arrived at the cemetery two hours early, said she wanted to attend because she has a relative who serves with the Sheriff's Office.

"This is going to be a day I never forget," said Perez, 49. "I feel like there's a lot of love here."

In the distance, a bagpipe player blew practice notes and members of the Topeka Police Department rehearsed taps on their trumpets.

"As sad as it is, it's beautiful, just beautiful," Perez said.

Sarah Etheridge sat quietly through the graveside ceremony, which included the traditional 21-gun salute and playing of taps. Officers presented flags to Etheridge's widow and to each of his parents, Larry and Ann.

Afterward, Sarah Etheridge approached her husband's casket, stroked it several times with her hand and then gently kissed it. The couple's daughter did not attend the funeral or the burial.

"For we are dust," Kuykendall told the mourners, "and to dust we shall return."

He urged mourners to honor and remember Etheridge's heroism.

"Today is going to be a difficult day... But there is a time of acceptance and peace," he said. "Brian is at peace."

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