Memories of slain Lower Burrell officer Kotecki endure
There are 8,760 hours in one year. And for Richard and Elizabeth “Dolly” Kotecki, life suddenly switched to one hour at a time one short year ago.
“We've been doing this for a year. A full year,” said Richard Kotecki, whose son, Lower Burrell Patrolman Derek Kotecki, 40, was ambushed and murdered by a fugitive on the night of Oct. 12, 2011.
Derek Kotecki's killer also died that night, forever impacting two families, friends and the larger community.
A year later, Kotecki's widow, Julie, continues to shield her two young sons, Nicholas, 13, and Alexander, 11, just as Derek Kotecki had done in life, and, through her father-in-law, declined comment.
Julie Kotecki and the boys continue to live in the area with Derek's former police dog, Odin, and the family's other German shepherd.
At Derek's childhood home, an hour remains the measure of life.“Sixty minutes gives you a lot of time to remember the good and bad times. Mostly, we remember the good times,” Richard Kotecki said.
On a recent day, one hour starts OK, but tears arrive when Richard and Elizabeth open letters from friends promising to pray for Derek on the anniversary of his death.
“Fortunately, the hour ended OK,” Richard said.
Some hours aren't so happy.
Derek Kotecki played Lower Burrell Little League baseball and was a starter for the Burrell High School basketball team.
He had a sense of humor and liked people. He grew up attending church and continued as an adult to participate at St. Margaret Mary Roman Catholic Church.
Kotecki earned a college degree and became a part-time police officer in Ocean City, Md., before joining his hometown police force in October 1993. He was just 22.
Kotecki was involved with some of the first Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) programs in the Burrell School District and encouraged the department to restore a canine patrol.
At the time of his ambush and murder, Kotecki was just one week shy of 18 years of service in Lower Burrell. He was the department's K-9 officer.
“I remember him as an extremely good officer,” said Lower Burrell Mayor Donald L. Kinosz.
“He was always there and I never heard Derek say no,” he said.Kotecki's death remains on the minds of the police, mayor and council and others in the city.“There's not a day that goes by that I haven't thought about him and certainly I'm not alone,” Kinosz said.
“His fellow officers see reminders every day, and it's tough on them. Everyone grieves a different way, and everyone copes a different way,” he said.
Kinosz and others said they think about the events of Oct. 12 a year ago every time they drive past the Dairy Queen along Greensburg Road.“It's a reminder of how quite suddenly something can happen, and we've each had to deal with it in our own way,” Kinosz said.
“Law enforcement still feels numb,” said Westmoreland County District Attorney John W. Peck.
After the deaths
Thousands of people attended Kotecki's viewing and funeral, held at Mount St. Peter Roman Catholic Church because Kotecki's home church was being renovated.
Thousands of people lined the route to Greenwood Memorial Park. About 4,000 officers accompanied Kotecki's family for his entombment and at least 50 K-9 officer vehicles lined Route 56.
Charles Post, the fugitive who shot Kotecki, was quietly buried in the same cemetery.
Since then, condolences have been expressed to the Kotecki family by many luminaries including the Pittsburgh Steelers.
And, while the hours crawl by for Kotecki's friends and family, a lot has happened in the past year:
• In October 2011, Trib Total Media, parent company of the Valley News Dispatch, committed to donating more than $45,000 to the Derek Kotecki Memorial Fund to reimburse it for the cost of printing memorial T-shirts.
• In December 2011, Burrell High School retired basketball No. 52 worn by Kotecki before he graduated in 1989. It was the first time in 48 years that an athletic jersey has been retired at the school.
• In April, Lower Burrell held a public program to honor Kotecki and other area police officers and military police. Included was the late Ron Zellers, who was chief of the New Kensington police. His department provided police protection to Lower Burrell in the days after Kotecki's death so Lower Burrell officers could have time to grieve.
• In May, Kotecki's name was added to Panel 38W at the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Washington.
• Today, the Pittsburgh-based Amen Corner will add Derek Kotecki's name to its honor roll. The same group will also present its “Above and Beyond” award to New Kensington Patrolman Anthony Grillo, the first officer to corner Post after he shot Kotecki.
Lower Burrell police Chief Tim Weitzel, who was backing up Kotecki when Kotecki was killed, said he nominated Grillo for “his brave actions attempting to apprehend Post and for trying to save Kotecki.”
Kotecki's death “hit us hard,” said Mary Sue Ramsden, a Lower Burrell native and attorney who is president of the 140-year-old Amen Corner.
In addition to community honors, Kotecki's church will remember him in prayer today. A special Mass will be celebrated at 5 p.m. in St. Margaret Mary Roman Catholic Church, Leechburg Road, Lower Burrell.
Chuck Biedka is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4711 or firstname.lastname@example.org.