Slain officer was former Philadelphia minister's nephew
Tuesday, December 31, 2013 12:00 AM
TUPELO - Among winter's leafless trees, mournful notes from bagpipes sounded as dozens of U.S. flags flew in Memorial Park Cemetery on Friday, where Tupelo Police Sgt. Kevin "Gale" Stauffer's widow wept and waited to receive her own flag, folded in a triangle, a memorial to her husband's heroism and another reminder her two young children would grow up without their father.
Dozens of uniformed police officers line the sidewalk at attention as the casket bearing the body of slain Tupelo Police Sgt. Kevin “Gale” Stauffer leaves First United Methodist Church in Tupelo on Friday. Stauffer was the nephew of of United Methodist Bishop William T. McAlilly, who served First United Methodist Church of Philadelphia from 1990 to 1994. – Photo by Thomas Wells/Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal
Just moments earlier in the day, Beth Stauffer watched her high school sweetheart's casket hoisted above front pews in First United Methodist Church sanctuary, taking his body away, just as a criminal's deadly gunshot took his life away four days earlier.
Tupelo police found suspected bank robbers on South Gloster Street on Monday after an armed man in a ski mask left BancorpSouth's Gloster Creek Village branch. Halted by a Crosstown train, one gunman exited his vehicle and fired close-range shots at Tupelo police officers Stauffer, 38, and Joseph Maher, 27, killing one and critically wounding the other.
"We know that this death is not God's will," Bishop William T. McAlilly, Stauffer's uncle and a former pastor of First United Methodist Church of Philadelphia from 1990 to 1994, told the estimated 1,000 funeral attendees, almost half watching a live broadcast in another area of the church. An estimated 2,000 attended Thursday's visitation.
McAlilly, a bishop of the United Methodist Church, stood in front of the church sanctuary and demanded family, friends and others in attendance to not misunderstand the tragic events of this week.
"We do know God's heart breaks every time evil oversteps boundaries," he said.
Beth Stauffer and her daughter, Dixie Breckenridge Stauffer, 6, listened as they sat surrounded by family. Stauffer's son, Kevin "Skip" Gale Stauffer III, 2, waited in the church nursery.
McAlilly took funeral attendees back to Monday, hours before the fatal shooting, when his nephew's fellow officer and best friend, Clay Hassell, gave Stauffer an early Christmas gift, a book of American heroes. A shared characteristic among heroes in the book - they put themselves at risk for the benefit of others.
"In every way, Gale was the embodiment of an American hero and patriot," his uncle said.
A decorated Army National Guard soldier for a decade, Stauffer served 14 months in Baghdad, Iraq.
He returned to family in Mississippi and earned a bachelor's degree from Ole Miss in criminal justice before becoming an officer with the Tupelo Police Department. A Louisiana native, Stauffer and his family have lived in Tupelo for years. His mom, Debbie Brangenberg, has led Downtown Tupelo Main Street for about two decades.
A man in an orange tie sitting up front in the church Friday morning volunteered at the Elvis Presley festival with Stauffer. He recalled always seeing the family man in good humor, ready to tell a joke. Leaning against the wall toward the back of the sanctuary hall, Northern District Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley attended to show support for Stauffer's family. Presley knows firsthand the dangers of law enforcement. His uncle, former Lee County Sheriff Harold Ray Presley, was shot and killed while chasing a kidnapping suspect in 2001.
Dozens of uniformed officers from throughout the state, Alabama, Tennessee and elsewhere attended the service. Standing nearby, FBI Special Agent Daniel McMullen, who is leading the investigation related to Stauffer's death, paid his respects before returning to efforts to bring anyone responsible to justice.
Tupelo Police Chief Bart Aguirre, Lee County Sheriff Jim Johnson and other current and former elected officials peppered the pews.
Martha Lewis Curlee, a retired Tupelo elementary school teacher and longtime friend of Brangenberg, commented just before the service began how so many of Stauffer's family members have some connection to public service or ministry.
"They're all servants," she said. "Every one of them have a servant's heart."
Curlee's children and Stauffer played together growing up.
In his eulogy, McAlilly warned family and other loved ones to fight any urge to resent or otherwise become bitter. Instead, he encouraged them to find love, compassion and forgiveness.
"Our real temptation is to allow the hate of the perpetrator to get the best of us," he said.
He also turned to a higher power, saying the sorrow would become bearable in time but would never go away.
"But when it's bearable, we'll know the Lamb of the Lord is with us," he said.
Hundreds in law enforcement joined family and friends at the cemetery, including Jackson Police Department patrolwoman and public information officer Colendula Green, who recalled tragedy in her own department earlier this year when an officer was fatally shot and another died after being hit by a car while removing debris from a road.
"It's very important to support our brothers and sisters in blue, especially in situations like this," Green said.
Rick Jones with the Columbus Police Department said Friday's funeral was his fourth to attend for a fellow officer.
"We're all a close-knit community," he said. "Sometimes we make the ultimate sacrifice."
Before most left the gravesite to give Stauffer's family privacy, emergency dispatchers recited the Lord's Prayer and thanked the officer for his service and the countless lives he influenced.
"Job well done, Sgt. Gale Stauffer," the dispatcher said.
Sunday, FBI Special Agent in Charge for Mississippi Daniel McMullen announced a robber killed Saturday in Phoenix, Ariz., is the same man who robbed the Tupelo bank Dec. 23 and later shot the two officers along South Gloster Street.
Investigators believe the same man - 40-year-old Mario Edward Garnett of Oklahoma City, who was sentenced to federal prison in 2011 for threatening President Obama - robbed a man earlier on Dec. 23 in the lobby of an Atlanta bank he also attempted to rob.
McMullen said FBI investigators got a court order to inspect Garnett's cellphone records, which showed him in Atlanta, Tupelo and Phoenix at the time of each crime.