Even after a man repeatedly plunged a knife into his stomach, leaving the D.C. officer critically injured and bleeding, Oscar Pedrozo fought his way back to his Columbia Heights beat. Five years after the attack, it seemed that he had made a full recovery.
He had returned to his patrols along 14th Street NW, a constant presence on foot, bicycle and Segway. He had enthusiastically tackled even irksome nuisance complaints, earning him accolades from residents and his bosses.
But then Pedrozo died Aug. 25 after falling ill at his Silver Spring home. Family members say he thought he had bronchitis, until he collapsed with severe stomach pains and suffered two heart attacks in an emergency room.
Now Pedrozo’s family is faced with the unexpected death of a 37-year-old husband, father and son; the force is contending with the loss of a well-regarded officer and former Marine; and the community he patrolled is missing a familiar presence.
Grieving relatives, police commanders and the District’s mayor now await word from Maryland’s medical examiner on whether Pedrozo’s death can be linked to complications from the April 20, 2007, stabbing.
The ruling, expected in four to six weeks, has implications beyond whether another name will be etched onto memorial walls. It also has possible ramifications for the man convicted in the attack and for the benefits the family will receive — all of which is on the minds of those left behind.
“Oh my God, I just want to know,” said his 68-year-old mother, Candida Estela Pedrozo, who emigrated from Paraguay in 1969, her eyes filling with tears during a recent visit with her daughter-in-law. “I hope soon. Until then, we can’t sleep.”
Pedrozo’s wife, Lorena, said that since he was a young boy growing up in Virginia, “he said he wanted to be a police officer. He said he wanted to help people. I always begged him not to do it. I was scared. But it’s what he wanted. He said nothing is going to happen to him.”
If his death is ruled a homicide, Oscar Pedrozo would be the 116th D.C. officer to have died in the line of duty since the department was formed in 1861 and the first to have been killed as a result of violence since 2004. The five officers who have died since then were killed in car accidents or succumbed to duty-related illnesses or heart attacks.
Prosecutors say a finding of homicide could bring a murder charge against the attacker, who is serving an eight-year sentence for aggravated assault while armed. It also makes the Pedrozo family eligible for a significant boost in benefits — a possible $50,000 lump sum payment and the officer’s full salary paid to his wife each month.
“If it does turn out the death is duty related, we will do everything we possibly can to make sure his family gets all the benefits they deserve,” said Pedro Ribeiro, spokesman for D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), who knew the officer and attended his funeral. “And we’ll be able to keep the attacker locked up for a long, long time.”
If Pedrozo died of natural causes, his widow gets about 40 percent of her husband’s salary. The attacker, Jose Villalta, 34, who lived in Columbia Heights not far from where the stabbing occurred, is scheduled to leave a medium-security federal prison in Petersburg, Va., in June 2014.
For now, Pedrozo’s mother drives most days from her home in Northern Virginia to Silver Spring to help with chores and the children, three boys and a girl ages 2 through 12. The youngest, Yeriel, has no idea that his father is gone; 7-year-old Brianna repeats, “I miss Papi”; the oldest, Oscar, found his father on the floor and called 911.
One corner of the house has been turned into a shrine, a table covered with photos of Pedrozo graduating from McLean High School in 1992, as a new Marine that year, as a groom in 1999 and as a rookie police officer in 2006.
After leaving the Marines in 1999 — he was based at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina and served briefly in Japan — he worked with his new wife answering phones at the Federal Emergency Management Agency and with computers at the World Bank. But years behind a desk didn’t suit Pedrozo, and he joined the D.C. police, graduating from the academy on March 3, 2006, with honors in marksmanship.
Assigned to Columbia Heights, he embraced his job,returning home each night with stories about domestic assaults, drunks and miscreants. Pedrozo’s wife said he professed love both for the job and the people he met.
He purposely sought assignments that didn’t require a patrol car, and one of his first supervisors, Inspector Angel Medina, said he first thought Pedrozo didn’t have a driver’s license. Instead, Lorena Pedrozo said, “he wanted to be close to people.”
On the night of Aug. 20, 2007, Oscar Pedrozo was off duty when he joined fellow officers at Solo’s restaurant on 14th Street in Columbia Heights to pay tribute to a colleague who had died nine days earlier in a traffic accident.
Police said Pedrozo saw a man hit someone over the head with a bottle and helped the bouncer throw the attacker out. A few minutes later, police said, the man argued with Pedrozo and then stabbed him. A security guard and another witness chased down two suspects, and one of them, Villalta, was charged and convicted in the attack.
Pedrozo spent the next 18 months recovering from his injuries.
Candida Estela and Lorena Pedrozo sat through every day of Villalta’s trial in D.C. Superior Court and scoffed at the end result. “Eight years is nothing,” the mother said.
Oscar Pedrozo healed and went back to the police force, rejecting an offer for a desk job. “ ‘Why do you want to go back?’ ” Lorena Pedrozo said she pleaded. “ ‘Don’t go, for your child.’ But he said ‘no.’ He said, ‘I want to be a policeman.’ And now we lost him.”
Oscar Pedrozo’s latest ailments began, his mother and wife said, on a rainy night on Aug. 18, when they met at a restaurant in Columbia Heights. The next day, the officer had a cold, which grew worse as the days went on. He became quiet, didn’t eat and complained of pains similar to the hernia he had after the stabbing. The diagnosis, from doctors and clinics, was bronchitis.
By Aug. 24, he was feeling better, and his mother and wife headed to Ocean City with some of the kids, leaving the oldest son behind with his father. The next day, Pedrozo collapsed, fell down a set of stairs and died a few hours later.
D.C. Police Cmdr. Jacob Kishter, who ran the 3rd District station where Pedrozo had been assigned, said he liked the officer’s discipline, which came from military training. “The one word to describe him was service,” said Kishter, who spoke at the funeral Mass at St. Camillus Catholic Church in Silver Spring. An overflow crowd of 500 mourners packed the pews.
Pedrozo’s former boss, Medina, called him his “go-to guy.”
“I could say, ‘Go through this alley, because I’m getting complaints about people there,’ ” Medina said, “and the only thing I’d hear back was from residents who said, ‘Thank you.’ ”
Cecilia Jones, president of the Northwest Columbia Heights Community Association, recalled how Pedrozo handled the simple tasks. When a neighbor’s car was broken into, she said, he stayed with the owner until an insurance agent arrived to make sure a proper report was taken.
“We are very happy he was in our neighborhood,” she said.
Now Pedrozo is interred in Silver Spring’s Gate of Heaven Cemetery as his family waits for word on how he died, and how he will be remembered.