It was Easter Sunday when Seattle Police Officer Thomas Roberts was walking his beat near 18th and Jefferson on First Hill.
Roberts met up with another officer walking the adjoining beat, when he heard footsteps and saw two men. The officers approached for questioning.
“One of the men pulled out a pistol and shot officer Roberts twice. Then there was a gun battle with the other officer and the bad guy ran way and was never caught,”said Seattle Police Officer Mike Severance.
The year was 1898 and Roberts was one of the first Seattle Police Officers killed in the line of duty.
For over a century it seemed his story would be lost to history, as he lay in an unmarked grave at Lake View Cemetery on Seattle’s Capitol Hill.
Thursday, 116 years later, Severance made sure Officer Roberts’ memory was preserved, with a ceremony including the department’s top brass and honor guard.
“The officers deserve to have an appropriately marked grave. They gave their lives serving their community,” said Severance.
The quest began five years ago when Severance started a campaign to mark every place where a Seattle Police officer has died with a memorial plaque.
“The idea first came to me when a friend of mine, Officer Dale Eggers, was murdered back in 1985. At that time, I remember after his funeral thinking that the sites should be marked somehow. I didn’t pursue it and I think I should have,” he said. “I started thinking about it again when I was driving back to Seattle after attending the funeral for four Lakewood Police officers – that’s where this project started.”
While researching all 58 sites, Severance discovered that three police officers were laid to rest, with no markings, at Lake View and Evergreen Washelli Memorial Park on Aurora Avenue.
Chief Kathleen O’Toole says Officer Severance contacted family members scattered across the country.
“Officer Roberts’ family was unaware until we contacted them that he’d made the ultimate sacrifice,” she said. “They now feel that, in some small way, they’re a part of the Seattle PD family.”
Donations made services and two long overdue headstones possible.
At the ceremony, Brian Johnston, President of the Washington Law Enforcement Memorial Foundation, recited the inscription on the Law Enforcement Memorial Wall in Olympia: “Their duty is to serve. Our duty is to remember.”
There are more than 300 names on that wall. “We only ask that you remember. Remember that they served, remember their sacrifices and remember and honor their history,” Johnston said.
Chief O’Toole said Thursday’s ceremony was thanks to the dedication of Officer Severance.
“You know, he’s not looking for any credit, but he deserves a lot of credit. Not only to do this, but also as the champion to get medals for the families of those in the Seattle PD who have died in the line of duty,” said O’Toole. “It’s just not the officers that we need to acknowledge, we need to acknowledge the families as well.”
For Officer Severance, Thursday’s ceremony brings a sense of closure.
“These are the last two and it’s been confirmed that the other Seattle officers have marked graves,” he said. “I’m not ashamed to admit my eyes watered up more than once. It’s emotional, especially for families.”
Severance still hopes the Seattle City Council will approve his proposal to place memorial signs where police officers lost their lives in the line of duty. The plan would use no taxpayer dollars.
“I just want people to think about remembering the officers that serve their community and gave up their lives in service to their communities. They deserve to be remembered and, love us or hate us, just think what it would be like if you called 911 and nobody answered the phone,” said Severance.
Chief O’Toole said that the deaths of officers may immediately grab news headlines, but “we have to be sure that as the days, and the months, and the years pass, that we don’t forget.”