Thousands Mourn Fairfax Detective, 'Our Protector'

By Paul Duggan and Tom Jackman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, May 14, 2006

As thousands gathered yesterday to salute slain Fairfax County police Detective Vicky O. Armel, perhaps no scene spoke more poignantly than the one that unfolded near the crime scene. There, a boy and a girl, 7 and 4, emerged from a limousine to look at the hundreds of flowers left on a police cruiser in honor of the mother who will not see them grow up.

This was after about 4,500 people had attended Armel's funeral at McLean Bible Church -- one of the largest police funerals in memory in the Washington area -- a service for the first Fairfax officer in the department's 66-year history to be killed while on duty by an assailant.

This was after the procession of about 700 vehicles, led by 160 police motorcycles in two columns, had left the church, crawling at 20 mph, bound for Bright View Cemetery in Fauquier County, 50 miles away.

Twenty miles into the route, hundreds of onlookers stood quietly watching outside Fairfax's Sully District police station, where Armel, 40, was shot to death Monday. There, three limousines near the front of the procession rolled to a stop. Members of Armel's family stepped out, among them her young son and daughter -- the boy in khaki pants and a light-blue shirt, his blond bangs falling just above his eyes; the girl, a strawberry blonde, in a black dress and white blouse.

"My goodness," whispered an elderly woman in the crowd, "those poor children."

Earlier, at the church, Fairfax Police Chief David M. Rohrer told mourners that the slaying is "seared into our collective departmental and community consciousness," that "the Armel family, our police department, our community -- we have all been transformed by the events of Monday, May 8, 2006. This was a seminal event in our times."

That event came when Michael W. Kennedy, 18, who lived nearby, opened fire with an assault rifle in a parking lot of the Sully station in western Fairfax, sparking a fierce gun battle with police. Armel was killed, and another officer, Michael E. Garbarino, 53, was critically wounded and remains hospitalized. Kennedy, who was carrying seven guns and squeezed off 70 rounds, was killed by other officers.

Rohrer and others memorialized Armel as a strong, vibrant woman, a dedicated officer and a devoted wife and mother. Her husband, also a police officer, and their two children sat in the front pew of a 2,400-seat auditorium. Thousands more were in large viewing rooms elsewhere in the church. Officers from as far away as Ohio, Pittsburgh and New York City attended the funeral.

By coincidence, this year's candlelight vigil at the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial, which annually draws thousands of officers from across the country to Washington to honor those killed in the line of duty, was last night. Some of the officers traveled to the Vienna church to pay their respects to Armel and the Fairfax police force.

Last night, the names of 155 officers killed on duty in 2005 and newly inscribed on the memorial's marble wall were read at the vigil.

Next May, Armel's will join the roster.

"A community is a family, too," Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly told mourners at the church. "Vicky Armel was our protector. . . . She had the courage and willingness, and felt a duty, to protect it with her life."

In the early morning hours before the 11 a.m. service was to begin, the reverent choreography of a police funeral already was playing out.

Hundreds of officers, many of them members of honor guards, began arriving at McLean Bible from across the region, filling the parking decks of the massive church and lining the access roads around it with their vehicles. They came in shiny patrol cars, on polished police motorcycles, in unmarked Ford Crown Victorias with blue lights flashing in the grilles.

They waited in the warm air, standing and chatting in clusters, the morning sun reflecting off their gold and silver badges and the buttons of their dress uniforms. They buffed their leather shoes and gun belts and ran lint-rollers along the sleeves of their jackets. They practiced snapping to attention with their flags, the gleaming visors of their police hats low on their brows, their expressions somber and still.

"Cops are pretty tough," Fairfax police spokeswoman Mary Ann Jennings said outside the church. "They hold things inside a lot. . . . And they take a lot of comfort in a big funeral like this, with all the protocol. This is one time where it's okay if an officer breaks down. If ever there were a time for it, this is it."

As a silver-and-black hearse bearing Armel's U.S. flag-draped coffin pulled to the front of the church, thousands of officers stood at attention and saluted, filling almost every inch of space near the doors and on parking decks and walkways above.

Armel, who was born in Northern Virginia, had three sisters, said her pastor, the Rev. Mark Jenkins. She was pegged early on as creative and independent-minded, he said. She was not raised in a church, he said, and, for a long time, she was skeptical of devout Christians.

Then Jenkins played a tape recording of Armel, made in his church last year on Easter Sunday. A large portrait of Armel, smiling into the camera, was shown on the video screens as her voice came from the loudspeakers.

"My name is Vicky Armel," she said, "and if you told me last year that I'd be standing in front of hundreds of people talking about Jesus Christ, I'd say: 'You're crazy. Go to the insane asylum.' " She added: "My idea of a Christian was the little old ladies that came into the jail and the inmates took advantage of them. I didn't want to be like them."

But she had found God, she declared.

And then came a photo montage. The mourners saw her as a little girl riding a pony . . . sitting on Santa's knee later . . . kissing her husband on their wedding day . . . scuba diving . . . proudly holding her first baby . . . in a hospital bed with her second child . . . a happy family.

Three hours after the funeral service began, her coffin was carried back to the hearse, and the procession began its long journey to the cemetery, passing the Sully station on Stonecroft Boulevard and the patrol car decked with flowers on the way. It took an hour for the procession to roll by.

On a strip of grass across the road, onlookers pressed hands to their mouths as they watched, their eyes moist. A teenage girl turned away, sobbing, and hugged a friend. A middle-aged man in a leather Harley-Davidson vest stood at military attention, a flag in one hand, the other holding a salute, his lips quivering.

"It means everything to us," Officer Mark Ours, a friend of the slain detective's, said of the crowd outside the station. He watched the procession with his wife and two young sons. "It makes me feel good that we can all stand by each other this way."

His older son, Zack, a fifth-grader, said that he knows his father's job is dangerous and that it worries him sometimes. "He lost a pretty good friend that he worked with," the boy said. "I just thought I should come with him to pay a little respect."

Gary and Stephanie Harris had brought their daughters, Mackenzie, 3, and Brittany, 6. "The little one doesn't understand the whole thing, but Brittany understands," their father said. "We tried to explain that the lady had kids like them, and now they don't have a mother."

Stephanie Harris said: "We tried to explain to Brittany that the officer was doing her job and this terrible thing happened. And she understands that. She appreciates that this person is not coming back. But she doesn't understand why it happened."

That part the parents could not explain.

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