SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Responding to a call of shots fired three years ago, two California Highway Patrol officers found themselves in a gun battle that took the lives of two law enforcement officers.
Officers Sean Haller and Rafael Rivera received national honors on Wednesday for their actions that day in Fresno County. They were awarded the Medal of Valor, the nation’s highest honor for emergency responders, during a ceremony in Washington.
“I appreciate getting recognized and awarded, but I wish that Javier and Joel could be here,” Rivera said in a telephone interview after the award ceremony, referring to the two slain officers. “They paid the ultimate price.”
On Feb. 25, 2010, Haller and Rivera responded to assist Fresno County Sheriff’s deputies who came under fire while attempting to serve a search warrant in Minkler, about 20 miles east of Fresno. Deputy Joel Wahlenmaier was killed as he tried to enter the mobile home of arson suspect Rick Liles.
Rivera had been heading to another call when he heard about the shooting, while Haller was in the area wrapping up a traffic stop. The two men responded and exchanged gunfire with Liles, followed by a brief cease-fire. After Liles resumed firing, he shot Officer Javier Bejar of the nearby Reedley Police Department.
Haller exchanged shots with the suspect so Rivera could get to the wounded officer and move him to the passenger seat of a pickup truck. Bejar later died of his wounds.
“I knew I wasn’t going to let (Bejar) get shot anymore and I wasn’t going to let Rafael get shot,” said Haller, a 39-year-old who has been with the CHP for more than 10 years. “We did what we were trained for.”
The standoff ended when Liles shot himself. He had told his wife that he would rather die than go to prison.
Rivera and Haller both are still with the CHP and continue to work out of Fresno. Rivera said the two men don’t talk about what happened that day.
“We don’t bring it up, but we know it’s there,” said Rivera, 35, who is approaching his 10-year anniversary with CHP. “It built a bond between us.”
The two patrolmen were among 18 public safety officers honored for the risks to their own safety while protecting others. The medals were presented by Vice President Joe Biden and Attorney General Eric Holder.
Haller and Rivera previously received California’s highest public safety award for their actions.