This was no ordinary graduation speech.
It had to balance celebration — the achievement of 56 recruits graduating from the L.A. County sheriff’s academy — with tragedy — the fact that 12 classmates weren’t able to share this momentous day.
One remains in critical condition. Two are in rehabilitation. All are grappling with the trauma of a terrible Wednesday four months ago.
That Nov. 16 morning, an SUV veered into the wrong lane during an academy training run and crashed into the formation. Bodies went flying, leaving behind what one witness likened to “a war scene.”
They were just eight weeks into the academy, and the recruits — training to become deputies and police officers — found themselves applying tourniquets and packing wounds with their white T-shirts.
Even as the months passed and they returned to the academy, reminders of that day remained: in updates on a recruit fighting for his life in the hospital; in the green water bottles bearing the names of two injured classmates, left on their desks; in the drive to make it to graduation day to honor those who couldn’t.
Capt. Pat Macdonald, who leads the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department’s training bureau, struggled with how to capture hope, resilience and loss in one speech.
On Friday morning, in front of a crowd of hundreds, Macdonald found the words.
“Class 464 is a resilient and remarkable group, and they had to grow up quick,” he said. “Unlike most police officers, they did not get six months of academy training before they found themselves in the middle of a high-risk, life-and-death situation.”
Seventy-six recruits started the training program Sept. 22 at STARS, the Sheriff’s Training Academy and Regional Services Center, in Whittier. Although the majority hoped to become sheriff’s deputies, several were preparing to launch careers at smaller police departments.
Their reasons for getting into law enforcement were as varied as their life stories.
Oscar Mora became a Los Angeles Police Department cadet when he was 14. After he and his family became homeless, officers in the program bought him groceries. They helped him get his first job, at Ross Dress for Less, after he graduated high school.
“If it weren’t for them, I probably wouldn’t be here,” said the 23-year-old, who has applied to become a sheriff’s deputy. “I have to follow in their footsteps and inspire other young people.”
Sylvia Granados, 28, wants to help change the perception of law enforcement and “humanize the badge.” Born in Mexico, she hopes to help Latinos “feel safe to approach someone like me.”
Brendan Kilgore is a Marine turned registered nurse who has “always had a desire to be of service.” After deciding that law enforcement was his calling, he applied to the Glendale Police Department.
The men and women would spend a punishing 22 weeks at the academy. They would endure Black Monday, the boot-camp-style initiation, practice defensive tactics on one another, go through intense physical training.
Their biggest challenge, though, came in their eighth week — on Nov. 16.
That day, Kilgore rose at 3 a.m. and met up with his carpool to head to STARS. Once there, he was briefed on the plan for physical training — a four-mile off-campus run. Class 463 had left for the same run about 20 minutes before.
One of eight road guards, Kilgore had to block traffic and help guide Class 464 through intersections. He ran at the back of the formation and wore a yellow reflective vest.
They were about a mile into the run when it happened. Yadira Fernandez, 29, had just finished tying her shoe and caught up to her spot in the third row when she spotted an SUV coming straight at them.
As the car barreled toward her, Fernandez froze. A fellow recruit yanked her out of harm’s way. They crashed into a black fence.
“After that, it was just chaos,” she said. “I just remember chaos.”
The Honda CR-V had crashed into recruits in the middle of the formation who didn’t have time to jump out of the way. The vehicle then slammed into a lamppost, which prevented it from striking more recruits. The pole knocked down a wire, which caught fire.
Everyone sprang into action. Two staff instructors rushed to detain the driver, 22-year-old Nicholas Gutierrez.
Fernandez ran to a recruit who was on the ground, hysterical and trying to get up.
“Is my leg still there?” he asked Fernandez. He couldn’t feel it.
“Your leg is still there; you just have to relax,” she reassured him. She told him he might have a spinal injury, and getting up could make it worse.
Mora tended to another recruit who was bleeding profusely. With bare hands, he fished concrete shards from a gaping wound in her leg. Another recruit, who had experience as an emergency medical technician, came to help.
Kilgore’s military and nursing experience kicked in. He told fellow recruits to roll a man who was coughing on his own blood onto his side. Then he ran to Alex Martinez, who had been thrown about 20 feet. Martinez’s legs appeared to be broken; one had already swollen to the size of a small trash can. Kilgore put a tourniquet on the left leg.
Soon after, Kilgore heard a familiar voice shout his name. When he turned around, he saw his older brother, an L.A. County firefighter and one of the first responders. His brother asked if he was OK.
Kilgore held up his bloodstained hands and broke down in tears.
“464 until the day I die. … Second to none, that’s my battle cry.”
The cadence call rang out as Class 464 ran down the Huntington Beach boardwalk Feb. 10. The recruits were on the four-mile Colors Run, which they dedicated to Gardiel Solorio, a Monterey Park police officer who was off duty when he was fatally shot last fall.
Alondra Reyes trailed after the group with her 5- and 10-year-old in tow. Her son held a sign that read “Go Class 464 We Love You!!!” Reyes was supporting her husband, who for decades had wanted to be in law enforcement.
“Being able to see them in their final stages is overwhelmingly joyful,” she said.
The group ran past surfers with half-zipped wetsuits, washing off sand. As other runners spotted the recruits, they wondered aloud about Gutierrez, who had mowed down the trainees three months earlier.
“Has he been charged yet?” one woman asked her running partner. He didn’t know.
Gutierrez was arrested on suspicion of attempted murder of peace officers shortly after the incident but was released the day after the crash. His lawyer said Gutierrez had fallen asleep at the wheel on his way to work.
No case has been presented to the district attorney’s office, according to a spokesperson, so Gutierrez has not been charged with a crime. The California Highway Patrol said the investigation remains active.
As the recruits finished their run Feb. 10, Rachel Macdonald was there to cheer them on. If not for the crash, she would have been running with them. She and 11 other recruits had to separate from the class due to injuries. They left the academy and would not be graduating in March.
Macdonald, who broke her ankle in the crash, plans to join another academy class in the summer. The separation was devastating, she said, because she lived through the experience with Class 464.
“They just get it, and you had that community,” she said. “To get ripped from that — that was probably the hardest part of getting separated.”
But being there for the Colors Run, all she felt was joy for the recruits.
“They’ve created this legacy of overcoming what seemed like insurmountable trauma, and now they’re here on the other side of it,” the 31-year-old said. “I can follow in the same footsteps too.”
The 56 recruits helped one another pin badges to blue or tan uniforms on graduation day Friday. The ceremony would start in less than two hours. They wore white gloves and black shoes so shiny they reflected the fluorescent lights backstage in the auditorium at East Los Angeles College.
In the waiting crowd, family members held cutouts of graduates’ faces and carried bouquets. They wiped away tears as video played of the moments before last year’s crash, showing the SUV barreling forward in the wrong lane.
“They were tested early on and worked together as a team to make it through that horrifying event,” Macdonald told the crowd. “This incident does not define them; however, it will make them stronger as they move forward in their lives and careers.”
Soon after, the recruits stood, raised their right hands and repeated after Sheriff Robert Luna as they swore their oath. They stood up as recruits. Then Luna told them, “You may now be seated as peace officers for the state of California.”
The graduates erupted into cheers. They high-fived and held tight to their partners — whom they’d come to see as brothers and sisters.
Although they weren’t graduating with Class 464, the recruits who had separated sat behind the formation. They cheered for the recruits turned peace officers and knew their turn would come soon.
For Kilgore and others, the day felt bittersweet.
“For the most part, it feels great. I’m very excited to start my career,” said Kilgore, who will start with the Glendale Police Department on Monday. “And then there’s the other part of me that feels very saddened that those that we lost on Nov. 16 aren’t here with us. I’m sure there’s no price that they wouldn’t pay to be here with us.”
As the ceremony neared its end, Luna invited Martinez’s sister and father to the stage. Martinez, who remains in critical condition, had been sworn in as a full deputy soon after the crash. Luna embraced them.
Amid a standing ovation, Luna handed the teary-eyed relatives Alex’s graduation certificate.
And his badge: No. 464.