Oakmont father-son team's efforts help add Mon Valley names to police memorial
Homestead police officer Joseph Lecak was rushing to the scene of a major fire when he suffered a heart attack and crashed into a furniture store along Eighth Avenue in October 1961. There had been a gas explosion at a dry cleaner near Lecak's home.
The officer, who was off duty, took his family to safety and was driving back to the emergency when the attack occurred as he was coming down McClure Street toward Eighth Avenue. His vehicle went through the intersection and crashed into what now is the American Buyers Discount Mattress outlet. He was taken to Homestead Hospital after the crash and pronounced dead.
Lecak's story is a compelling one but is not unique in that he is one of many police officers who have lost their lives in the line of duty through the years.
His name and those of several other local fallen officers from the Mon Valley will be added to the Law Enforcement Officers Memorial of Allegheny County on May 3 thanks to the father-and-son team of Rick and Rocky Geppert.
Their efforts have led to the names of dozens of regional police officers being added to the National Law Enforcement Memorial.
Rick Geppert, who has worked in law enforcement for more than three decades and is a police officer in Oakmont, said he started researching fallen officers in the 1990s. The number of cases he was able to crack increased dramatically when his son Rocky, now 20 and an Oakmont auxiliary police officer, began helping him about seven years ago.
“He's the engine behind this,” Rick Geppert said, noting his son will often pour four or five hours a day into his research.
That research can involve online sites like ancestry.com and newspaper archives as well as trips to libraries all over the region.
Rocky Geppert said it's work he finds satisfying.
“Being an auxiliary police officer makes me want to do it so their sacrifice is not forgotten,” he said. “When a police officer gets killed today it's a top news headline. Fifty or 100 years ago, he said, “They didn't get credit for what they did.”
Indeed, the Gepperts said they often find the information they need deep within an old news story or in the form of a two-inch brief.
Establishing that an officer lost his or her life in the line of duty isn't as simple as it may sound. Death certificates, which are among the documents they must submit for consideration by the national memorial, may or may not tell the story.
Rick said there have been times when officers have died from complications related to a work injury months or even years after the incident. Tracing and collecting the information to prove a case is a lot like doing a criminal investigation, he said.
“You've got to have proof,” said Rick. “That's the principle we go by.”
The name of a fallen officer must first be approved by the national memorial before it is considered for the local one.
The Gepperts said Lecak's death was treated as a side note to the story of the fire. The Gepperts said members of Lecak's surviving family have contacted them to thank them for their efforts.
Homestead is not the only local community with the names of police officers being added to the local memorial.
Night Capt. Edward A. O'Donnell was 36 and had only been with the West Homestead police for about three months when he died from injuries sustained in a motorcycle accident along West Eighth Avenue in May 1938. O'Donnell and another officer were on the motorcycle when it collided with a car pulling out of a driveway while pursuing a vehicle that had run a red light.
West Elizabeth patrolman Clarence Jones lost his life to a motorcycle crash in October 1930. Jones was on his way back to West Elizabeth from a meeting with the Dravosburg police chief when his bike went down during a period of wet weather. Jones was a World War I veteran and had 10 years experience with the Pennsylvania State Police and departments in Clairton and what was then called Wilson borough. He'd only been with West Elizabeth police two weeks when he crashed.
Rocky Geppert said motorcycle crashes claimed the lives of a significant number of police officers.
“They were so dangerous,” he said. In the case of the West Elizabeth officer, he said there had been speculation “that he may have been a victim of a hit and run. They don't know if it was an accident.”
The stories of these officers have been memorialized on the Officer Down Memorial Page website at www.odmp.org. The website is a searchable database of on-duty police deaths that dates back as far as 1791 and contains both U.S. and Canadian listings.
Rick Geppert said it's satisfying to bring to light an untold or forgotten story.
“There has been so much sacrifice (by police) here,” he said. “Now they're being recognized.”
The Gepperts say it's hard to estimate how many more stories may yet be uncovered. They concentrate primarily on Allegheny County but have investigated cases from surrounding counties. Their investigations usually start from a tip or recollection from someone with a link to the deceased.
With Lecak's case in Homestead, the tip came from Homestead police Officer John Kaschauer, who'd looked into the case himself but hadn't been able to undertake the level of research required for the national memorial, according to Homestead police Chief Jeffrey DeSimone.
“I give a lot of credit to the Gepperts for putting in the time and effort,” said DeSimone, who said Lecak's story was all but lost to the department, adding, “If I had to dig records up on (officers from Lecak's era), I don't even know that we'd have them.”
Officers who died in the line of duty will be formally remembered at a ceremony at the Allegheny County Law Enforcement Memorial on the North Shore on May 3 at noon. Ceremonies for the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Washington are the weekend of May 10.
Eric Slagle is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-664-9161, ext. 1966, or firstname.lastname@example.org.