VINTON–Project Blue Light honors and remembers law enforcement officers who have given their lives in service to their profession and their surviving families, and thanks those officers “who continue to work America’s increasingly dangerous streets each and every day of the year.”
This remembrance dates back to 1989 when the C.O.P.S (Concerns of Police Survivors) organization received a letter from Dolly Craig of Philadelphia who said she would be putting blue lights in her window that holiday season to remember her son-in-law Danny Gleason who was killed in the line of duty in 1986. Her daughter had been killed in an automobile accident earlier in 1989. Craig thought that others might like to share her idea of the blue lights. Her gesture has steadily spread across the nation in the years since.
Blue is known as a symbol of peace. The Virginia Chapter of C.O.P.S. asks individuals and families decorating for the holidays to trim their trees and their homes in blue, along with local police stations–or to place at least one blue candle in the window. This year, more than 130 police officers have been killed in the line of duty–59 by gunfire.
Karla Turman, who works in Vinton’s Planning and Zoning Department, is the Regional Trustee for the Virginia C.O.P.S. chapter. She lost her father, Deputy Cliff Dicker, on December 6, 1994, when he was killed while working for the Wythe County Sheriff’s Department.
Deputy Dicker is the only officer to be gunned down in the line of duty in the history of the county. He was murdered by 15-year-old Shawn Wheeler, as he attempted to make an arrest in the home on a juvenile warrant.
Dicker was close friends with Vinton’s former Police Chief Herb Cooley who worked for several years in the Wythe County Sheriff’s Department until just before Dicker was killed.
In his recent biography (“Herb Cooley—The Law Enforcement Career of My Father”), Zach Cooley shared that, “Dad and Cliff were good friends. He would go and get him a cup of coffee at the jail where Cliff would be working first thing every morning before he did anything.” Zach Cooley says it was the saddest day in his father’s career when Dicker was killed. One fellow officer described those days as the “saddest time in the history of the Wythe County Sheriff’s Office.”
The Wythe County law enforcement agency still sponsors the annual Cliff Dicker Memorial Golf Tournament and the Cliff Dicker Memorial Blood Drive in Wytheville in his honor some 22 years later.
Wheeler was charged with capital murder and two firearms charges in the death of Dicker, who was just 58 years old at the time. He shot Deputy Dicker twice with a rifle and then with Dicker’s own service revolver.
The state police investigation determined that Dicker arrived at the juvenile’s home, where he lived with his grandmother around 9:15 in the morning to serve him with a detention order. The youth was accused of auto larceny and petty larceny.
The special agent went on to say that Wheeler’s aunt said he had, “lost his momma when he was 3. His daddy has been dead three, four months. His uncle was killed a year ago.”
During the trial, it was revealed that, “Wheeler had a horrendous upbringing, and shifted from one relative to another in an atmosphere that included substance abuse, guns, and violence.”
On the day of the murder, the boy had been squirrel hunting and was cleaning squirrels at the grandmother’s house. He generally attended classes in an off-campus program for students with special problems, authorities said.
“Dicker was found wearing a protective vest, just a few steps inside the grandmother’s house and was pronounced dead at the scene.”
Chief Cooley described Dicker as “kind, a good officer, and a friend who was liked by everyone.”
Dicker, had been moved to the civil division after suffering a heart attack 18 months before. His duties were to provide court security and to deliver court papers like the detention order.
Court proceedings indicated that Wheeler had had a “string of run-ins with police, and had been served with 12 other detention orders prior to the shooting.”
Dicker had retired from the Air Force after 20 years and had worked for the Sheriff’s Department for about 14 years. He was survived by a wife, two sons, a daughter, two step-daughters, and two grandchildren.
Wheeler was tried as an adult, pleaded “No Contest,” and was sentenced to 42 years in prison.
Wythe County Sheriff Doug King remembered Dicker at the time, as “always so professional in his behavior and appearance.”
He went on to say that Dicker’s killing was “one of the greatest shocks of my life. It was a huge loss to the community and an even bigger loss to the family. He was just a decent and kind man who loved his family.”
Paul Dellinger, journalist for the Roanoke Times, reported that Turman was at work in the Hollins College development office when she learned of her father’s death. The news came from her husband and a policeman. She first thought that something might have happened to her young daughter until she glanced out the window and saw a state police car and realized what must have happened.
The legal proceedings drug on for about two years.
At the time, Turman conjectured Wheeler’s life “might have turned out differently if the legal system had given him more than `’a slap on the hand’’ for the more than a dozen charges he had faced in recent years, and if the social services and education systems had been able to do more.”
So, Project Blue Light asks that we take the time during this holiday season to display some blue decorations to honor those who have risked, and sometimes lost, their lives protecting us all.