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Photos by Devon Kellums
Pontoon Beach | Law enforcement officers of varying ranks and locations met together last week to start their journey of more than 325 miles across the state for the 11th Annual Cycle Across Illinois memorial bike ride.
C.O.P.S., or Concerns of Police Survivors, is a nonprofit organization that began in 1984 to assist families and coworkers of fallen law enforcement officers. The riders gathered July 15 at the Best Western Hotel in Pontoon Beach to prepare for the ride. The ride also serves as a fund raiser and each participant raised $600 or more for the C.O.P.S. organization.
The annual bike ride is not only riding across the state, but an ongoing tribute to those who paid the ultimate price. Memorials for officials killed in the line of duty were held throughout the four-day trek in various locations, including districts and towns where the fallen formerly served.
Detective Matt Kiebles of the Wilmington police department said he and his brother Kurt decided to ride together to show support of the fallen officers and those survived by them.
“We are remembering our fallen officers this week,” Matt said. “We celebrate their lives and remember those who are missed.”
The group was a mixture of current law enforcement and co-workers of the fallen, as well as surviving family members. Sydney Hardesty of Bloomington was only 10 years old when she lost her father, F.B.I. Special Agent Rob Hardesty. She has participated previously in the bike ride, but this year she is joined by her mother and younger sister.
“As in the past, I’m sure we will experience tears, laughs and every emotion throughout this ride,” Sydney said the night before the ride began. “I think this memorial ride is an awesome thing for survivors. For us and those who’ve ridden before, we get to meet new people and honor new survivors. It’s a great organization that has helped us so much and they still continue to help us.”
The cyclists were joined by a support team traveling ahead of them in trucks so they could prepare them for next steps during the long ride.
Lauren Kohlmeier, 22, of Pontiac, Ill., lost her brother Casey Kohlmeier in 2013. Casey was only 29 when he was killed in the line of duty. Lauren said last year the memorial bike ride came through Pontiac to honor her brother and that this inspired her to take part in the ride this year.
“They did a dedication for Casey and after that I decided to join them,” Lauren said. “As a member of the support team, I hang bikes at stops, get drinks and help them rest. We get ready for the riders at their next stop, so we are always one step ahead.”
The ride began July 16 at 6 a.m. in Alton, where riders started the journey with a ceremonial dip of their back tires in the Mississippi River. Several memorial ceremonies were held during the trip for fallen Illinois officers. According to the Officer Down Memorial Page website, 133 police officers died in the line of duty in 2014. Of those, one was from Illinois. Officer James Morrisy from Oak Forest was honored on July 19 in his hometown. Other officers honored during the ride included Sgt. Myron G. Deckard of the Vermillion County Sheriff’s department; Special Agent Virgil Lee Bensyl of the Illinois State Police; and Deputy Sheriff Charles J. Haney of the Livingston County Sheriff’s department.
Around 1 p.m. on July 19, riders arrived in Chicago at Gold Star Families Memorial and Park to complete their long journey. The park was commissioned in 2006 in a five-acre area of Burnham Park just east of Soldier Field. The riders held a special ceremony there and ended the ride with dipping their back tires in Lake Michigan.
The annual cycling event began in 2005 when the Illinois charter of C.O.P.S. was formed. The ride began with only 10 riders and two support trucks. This year, more than 50 riders participated along with many support team members and several trucks.
Among those showing support for the fallen included some of GCPD’s own: Lt. Jenna DeYong and Ofc. Eric Stacy. Prior to the ride, Lt. DeYong had a team of girls whom she is involved with make license plates for the cyclists and name tags for the support personnel. ‘Girls on the Run’ is the name of the organization that helped the bike ride event. Ofc. Stacy also played an important role during the trek as well.
Several Illinois State Policemen also participated in the cycling event including current Illinois State Trooper Jarrod Leckrone, who said he was riding in memory of close family friend, Kyle Deatherage. In 2012, while on patrol as a motorcycle officer, Trooper Deatherage performed a traffic stop on I-55 near Litchfield, Ill. While talking to the person in the vehicle he was struck and killed by a tractor-trailer. Since then, Trooper Deatherage has been honored in many ways for his commitment to service and duty. He was posthumously awarded the department’s Purple Heart Medal and a portion of I-55 has been renamed the Kyle Deatherage Memorial Highway in honor of the fallen officer.
Trooper Leckrone said he grew up with Kyle’s wife Sarah and he was close to the entire family. Leckrone said the C.O.P.S. organization began helping Sarah and her family even before Kyle’s funeral.
“I had never heard of C.O.P.S. until Kyle was killed,” he said. “They were so dedicated to helping the survivors and Sarah told me she didn’t think she could have made it through the first months of grieving without their support.”
The C.O.P.S. Illinois Chapter helps survivors by providing resources to help them rebuild their lives after tragedy. The national organization is governed by a national board of law enforcement survivors. The C.O.P.S. website states, “There is no membership fee to join C.O.P.S., for the price paid is already too high.”
Members include spouses, children, parents, siblings, significant others and affected coworkers of officers killed in the line of duty. Today, C.O.P.S. has over 50 chapters nationwide, assisting more than 30,000 families. Along with fundraising events such as the bike ride, programs are available to members in an effort to help them cope with their losses. These include survivor’s conferences, scholarships, peer support, C.O.P.S. Kids summer camp, childrens’ counseling and special retreats.
More information can be found on the C.O.P.S. website at nationalcops.org. For a listing of all fallen officers nationwide, please visit the Officer Down Memorial Page at odmp.org.