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Family, friends hold candlelight vigil for fallen law enforcement officers

by Alex Naughton | May 6, 2023 at 4:00 a.m.
Laura Ruediger hugs Judy Tinnin while handing out electronic candles during the Law Enforcement Candlelight Vigil at the Capitol on Friday night. Electronic candles were used this year instead of actual candles due to the wind.

The names of 11 fallen law enforcement officers were added to the memorial wall at the Missouri State Capitol this year.

To honor them, and all the other names on the wall from years and decades past, Missouri Concerns of Police Survivors (COPS) held a candlelight vigil Friday night at the memorial.

As the sun set and the trees surrounding the memorial wall shook in the wind, dozens of families, friends and fellow law enforcement officers gathered to remember those who have died in the line of duty.

Some were there to honor someone who died 20 years ago. Others were what MO COPS president Kim Roberts called "first-year survivors."

In the background, the dome of the Capitol building glowed blue in solidarity with the fallen.

Roberts led the vigil. She said she hoped those first-year survivors could leave the vigil with hope.

In 2018, Roberts' husband, Greene County Sheriff's Deputy Aaron Roberts, died in a flash flood. She said the loss was hard to wrap her mind around, but she knew she needed to find purpose and reason to hope in the wake of her husband's death.

COPS gave her that purpose and hope, she said.

A St. Charles Police Department chaplain led the crowd in a prayer before the memorial started.

MO COPS put together a video with the names and pictures of the law enforcement officers whose names had been added to the wall.

The families looked on at the projected video. They held hands, hugged and leaned on each other for support. Many wept.

When the video ended, Roberts gave the microphone over to several survivors who shared their stories of loss and grief.

Ashley Chism Collins was the first to speak. Her husband, Matthew Chism, a Cedar County sheriff's deputy, died in the line of duty in 2014.

She said her husband and a suspect shot and killed each other after a traffic stop turned into a pursuit. Their son, Hunter, was 2 at the time.

"I very vividly remember my mother-in-law banging on the windows of my house and on my front door yelling that Matthew had been shot," Collins said. "I opened the front door and in a few moments, her phone rang with news that he had died. I watched her on the ground crying so loud it was mute. I couldn't hear anything."

In the depth of her grief, she found a shining light in the support she received from people who knew and worked with her husband. She said the turnout at the visitation and funeral was the most amazing thing she had ever seen.

Between that support and her faith, Collins said she learned a lot about love and grace in the nine years since Matthew passed. One thing she said she learned is that while everyone who knew her husband lost the same person, he held a different place in all their lives.

Collins told the crowd never to compare their loss and love with others, and to allow space in their hearts for others' experiences.

She also recommended people go to National Police Week in Washington, D.C.

"It's an amazing experience. I hate why we were there and here, but we're here. Side note for Washington, D.C.: It requires more money and walking than what you think," Collins said, getting some laughs from the somber crowd.

Collins also stressed the importance of taking care of yourself after losing a loved one in law enforcement.

For her and her mother-in-law, she said, a lot of their grief got pushed to the side as they fought to balance their lives with Matthew Chism's loss.

Collins said she struggled to keep up with supporting her son, her late husband's parents and her own responsibilities.

"It's a lot," Collins said. "Especially your first year, it's a lot and you have to take care of yourself. Reach out, find your safe person -- a counselor, a therapist, a preacher, just somebody. You've got to take care of yourself. Don't put that off on the back burner."

Miller County Sheriff Louie Gregoire was the last survivor to speak at the vigil.

In 2017, Gregoire hired Deputy Casey Shoemate. One year later, Gregoire was standing on the side of the road looking at the aftermath of the crash that took Shoemate's life.

"On April 20, 2018, I got a call from one of my corporals. I couldn't make out what he was saying. All he would say was, 'He's gone.' I was trying to get out of him who, and he finally got out Casey," Gregoire said. "I drove to the scene. Casey had hit another vehicle head-on. He was killed instantly."

He said Shoemate was a family man who loved his kids and parents. That fateful day, he said, he didn't have answers for anyone.

Gregoire said he was fortunate to live near to the National COPS, so he called. Quickly, they came to Miller County and supported the department before and after the funeral.

After four survivors shared their stories, Roberts took back the microphone. Her final message was that the survivors are not alone. She encouraged survivors of several years to support those first-year survivors.

Ending with another prayer, the vigil ended. Some stayed behind to tearfully look at their loved ones' names on the wall, others went to the church down the street for an after-vigil meal.

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