At their son’s grave on the family farm near Corsicana, Brent Thompson’s parents often find flowers, full bottles of Shiner Bock and coins. Each coin — left by those who knew Brent before he and four other officers died in the Dallas ambush last July 7 — comes with a message, in accordance with a police and military tradition.
Officers who trained with him leave a nickel. Those who served with him, a dime. The quarters come from those who were with him when he died. On a recent Sunday, the Thompsons found a bouquet of roses and four quarters on his headstone.
In Redford Township, Mich., near where Michael Krol was laid to rest last summer, his mother’s home is full of afghan blankets, crosses, Bibles and other gifts from all over the country. There have been memorials in cities large and small, scholarships created and trees planted to honor the fallen. Some survivors from the officers’ families have befriended one another, sharing a common grief.
For some during this year of firsts — first birthday, first Father’s Day, first anniversary, first Christmas with an empty seat at the dinner table — comfort comes in the prayers and well wishes. For others, none comes at all.
His nephews know Uncle Mike is a guardian angel now.
Amie Schoenbaechler, Krol’s little sister, says her sons remember the last time the whole family was together, Thanksgiving 2015, when Krol stepped in the way of a mugger in downtown Detroit. The family was walking to their hotel when a homeless man, strung out and angry, confronted Schoenbaechler’s husband.
“Mike just came out of nowhere,” Schoenbaechler said. “Like Superman.”
Krol was armed, but he never reached for his gun. His fellow officers in Dallas said this was his M.O. — to de-escalate a dangerous situation by talking it out. That night in Greektown, with Uncle Mike the protector in harm’s way, that’s what Schoenbaechler wants her boys to remember most.
In the wake of the Dallas shooting, the Krol family chose not to speak at length and closed his services to the media. Last week, his little sister spoke for the first time about her brother and the past year.
“We’re all just still trying to figure it out,” Schoenbaechler said. “You’re supposed to be strong and thankful he served, and we are, but it’s such a big loss for our family.”
Susan Ehlke, Krol’s mother, traveled the country, from the first funerals and services in Dallas, to the visitation and funeral in Michigan, to a National Police Week ceremony in Washington, D.C., to a memorial dedication at Krol’s high school in Massachusetts. This week, she and the family will return to Dallas for the Weekend of Honor events.
“It has been really nice to hear all the memories,” she said. “A lot of tears, but a lot of good memories and I don’t want to miss it.”
This spring, William Thomas Ahrens walked along the intersection of Main and Lamar streets as a retired Dallas police officer detailed how Ahrens’ son died. He heard how Senior Cpl. Lorne Ahrens yelled out to a woman frozen in shock that she needed to run — even as he fell after he was shot.
“Though it was painful, it was better for me to be there and know exactly what happened,” the father said. “Absent that, it can be agonizing just imagining the worst over and over again. The truth was very different. They said he saved that woman’s life.”
Ahrens came to Dallas in May for the city’s annual ceremony honoring fallen officers. He met with friends and colleagues of his son who shared their memories of the 6-foot-5, 300-pound officer affectionately known as “Meat.”
Ahrens, a retired engineer, will spend Friday in his quiet Alaskan town, away from the memorials and ceremonies. He follows the news in Dallas closely, particularly when it comes to the financially strapped police pension system. He’s even written to Mayor Mike Rawlings, urging him to protect the benefits for those who protect the community.
Despite the way his son died, Ahrens said memories of Texas are always with him. And usually they are ones that give him peace — especially support he saw when hundreds lined Lorne’s funeral procession.
“There was one older woman I saw kneeling with her hands over her heart and her eyes closed, praying for my boy,” he said. “I’ll never forget that image and the sensitivity and love from the Dallas people.”
Thompson’s name is on the back of a red leather chair at an Oak Cliff diner. His fellow DART officers pass his untouched locker, now covered with Plexiglas, as they begin their shift at headquarters. And in his hometown of Corsicana, yard signs in his honor are still planted in lawns.
Away from those tributes, his two brothers, parents, wife, six children and stepchild have had to learn how to carry on. His wife, Emily, continues to work as a DART police officer. She recently marked what would have been their first anniversary. Their marriage license from their wedding, about two weeks before his death, is stamped July 7.
Lowell Thompson, his brother, made a list of the good things that have come out of the tragedy: a fund to support fallen officers’ families, a scholarship for a police academy student, a statue planned for a main street in Corsicana, a friendship with the family of Patrick Zamarripa, another officer who died in the ambush. Zamarripa’s mother and siblings met the Thompsons at memorials after July 7. They went to the high school graduation party of Brent’s son.
“Every time I go somewhere, someone asks me how we’re doing or how my parents are doing,” Lowell Thompson said. “It’s been support and prayers every day since this has happened. It really has.”
At Norma’s Cafe in Oak Cliff, a wall is covered with mementos for Brent, who used to stop by and order bacon and eggs. General manager Pam Spell attached a plaque to his chair. When people sit there, she makes a point of telling them they’re in a “power chair,” and then she tells them about Brent.
Patrick Zamarripa’s daughter, Lyncoln, was just 2 years old at the time of the ambush, too young to understand what happened to her father. She used to ask about him in the beginning.
“She’ll tell you he’s sleeping now,” said Valerie Zamarripa, Patrick’s mother.
The family has attended several memorials, including one in May in Washington, D.C., to honor the ambush victims. Zamarripa’s mother said all she wants to do now is keep his memory alive by talking about him in public settings.
“I’m not doing this to be in the spotlight,” she said. “I’m doing this to keep his name in a positive way. I want to make him proud of me.”
When she tells his story, she describes how her son — nicknamed “Tom Landry” by his grandfather because of his calm, serious demeanor — dreamed of becoming an officer as a young boy. She talks about his eight years in the Navy, which included several tours in Iraq.
But the one person she wants to share his story with the most is still too young to understand it.
“Dada, Dada,” Lyncoln exclaimed, pointing at an image of her father’s face, smiling. It was a picture of a painting of the officers who died in the ambush, a gift from a 911 call-taker from Shreveport.
“That’s what breaks my heart every day — to know she won’t remember or know her daddy in person,” Valerie Zamarripa said. “She’s only going to know him in pictures, articles and what we can share with her.”
Sgt. Michael Smith made a career as a cop helping others. Now in his absence, his widow, Heidi Smith, and her daughters, Victoria and Caroline, are doing the same.
Sometimes it’s meals hand-delivered to Dallas police and fire stations. Other times, it’s consoling the paramedic and rookie cop who were with Smith the night he was shot.
“Being able to help others in their grief process, it gives them strength,” said Marcie St. John, Smith’s former Dallas police partner, who has been at the family’s side since the ambush. She said the family declined to be interviewed at this time.
“The whole helping others actually does help you,” she said.
Friends say the 55-year-old former Army Ranger, who served nearly three decades with the Dallas Police Department, was known for his leadership, gentle strength and work with at-risk youth. One friend called him “a family guy.” He was tall, too, they said — something you wouldn’t know from his official police photograph.
This year would have marked 20 years of marriage for the couple. June was always the month the family typically packed their bags for a vacation together and to celebrate the anniversary.
“May and June have been tough months,” St. John said. “But some days they’re OK. They’re moving forward.”
Heidi remains focused on her daughters and continues to teach fourth grade at Mary Immaculate Catholic School.
“She really has become very strong,” St. John said. “I know Mike would be proud of her.”
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