WESTLAKE VILLAGE, Calif. (AP) — The sheriff’s sergeant who gave his life saving others during a mass shooting last week was remembered warmly Thursday as a deeply religious man devoted to family who could be counted on to never hesitate a moment to put his own life on the line if it meant helping others.
Several thousand people, including hundreds of law enforcement officers from throughout California, packed the Calvary Community Church in Westlake Village for the emotional, 90-minute service honoring the life of Ron Helus.
The 54-year-old sheriff’s sergeant was shot to death during a Nov. 7 gunfight with a man who was raking a popular Southern California country bar with bullets when Helus ran in to try to stop him.
The gunman killed 12 people before shooting himself to death. But authorities say Helus — the first officer into the bar — saved numerous others by immediately exchanging gunfire with the shooter, giving patrons and employees time to flee.
Among Thursday’s mourners was musician Billy Ray Cyrus who said he told the family before the service, “I’m probably going to have to change the definition of hero. From now on it can just be a picture of Ron Helus.”
Then, accompanying himself on guitar, Cyrus dedicated his song “Some Gave All” to Helus, singing the words, “Some stood through for the red, white and blue. And some had to fall. And if you ever think of me, think of all your liberties. And recall, some gave all.”
The emotional message left the audience in stunned silence until Pastor Steven Day said, “If you’d like to, you can thank him,” and the crowd erupted in applause. The audience had also given Helus a standing ovation at the beginning of the service.
Mourners included hundreds of officers from police agencies across the state who stood solemnly outside the church hall as the 54-year-old sheriff’s sergeant’s flag-draped coffin was wheeled inside. Each offered a crisp salute as it passed by, then joined hundreds of other mourners inside.
Still more people, including many who had never met Helus, stood outside in the parking lot or lined nearby streets. Others lingered by a huge makeshift memorial featuring flowers, messages and stuffed animals.
“I heard he was a hero. He went in there in the line of duty to try and save people and deal with a crazed man,” said Peter Orr of Malibu, who has been staying in a nearby hotel with his dog since his home burned down in one of California’s ongoing wildfires. He took off work Thursday to pay his respects.
Inside the church, Day told stories passed on to him by Helus’ friends, family and co-workers.
They described an avid fisherman, hiker and dirt biker rider who loved his family, God and fly fishing and sharing nature with his 24-year-old son, Jordan. A niece, Lauren Smith recalled how Helus helped teach her to drive, letting her get behind the wheel of his brand new truck and, after she accidentally smashed a side mirror parking it, told her, “Let’s just keep this our secret.”
Although the 29-year veteran of the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department took on some of the agency’s toughest assignments, working in SWAT, narcotics and investigations, friends said he could often show a playful side as well.
Sometimes, Day said, he’d pull someone over for a minor traffic violation and explain to them what they’d done wrong.
“Then, with his pad in his hand and his pen, he’d say ‘OK, you tell me a good joke and I won’t write you a ticket.’ “
Other times he’d approach young men with powerful sports cars and tell them not to worry, this avid dirt biker just wanted to look under the hoods and check out their engines. His real reason, Day explained, was to give them a chance to get to know a sheriff’s deputy.
Day also read letters from family members, including one who wrote, “If you called him a hero he’d probably laugh at you and say he was doing his job.”
His wife, Karen, called him her personal hero.
“You were my husband and best friend. You were always the one who made me laugh and who protected me from all that tried to harm me,” she wrote.
The two had met in a college anatomy class when Helus helped her dissect a cat. He would ask her to marry him a few years later when they dined at a popular restaurant in Thousand Oaks called Charlie Brown’s.
That restaurant has since transitioned into a country bar called the Borderline Bar and Grill, the place packed with young people on last week’s “college night” when a gunman opened fire and Helus ran in to save them.
“I know that when God saw you enter heaven he said, ‘Well done, faithful servant,’ ” Karen Helus told her husband.