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Families of fallen officers from ICE share poignant memories

the ICE honor guard squad
Mr. Pena visiting with family members
Mr. Pena visiting with family members
After National Police Week ceremonies, services, tributes and events in honor of officers who died in the line of duty, most mindsets become readjusted to our present tasks at hand. Not so for family members of fallen officers. Contemplation of their lost loved ones who paid the ultimate sacrifice in service to law enforcement continues year round.

Family members of David Gray Wilhelm, Lorenzo Roberto Gomez, Gary Friedli and Manuel Zurita VII - all fallen officers from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and legacy agency U.S. Customs Service - gifted ICE with glimpses into the lives of their loved ones. The memories of these mothers, fathers, wives, brothers, sisters and daughters are boundless and vivid. They serve to remind us of the sacrifice that family members also make by lending their loved ones to law enforcement.

The depictions below are but a sampling of the recollections that remain in the hearts and minds of the families of those who lived and died protecting our communities and our homeland.

Assistant Special Agent in Charge David Gray Wilhelm.

Agent Wilhelm had been assigned to the Office of Investigations SAC Office in Atlanta when he was ambushed at his residence by a fugitive who escaped from police custody after this criminal had shot and killed a Fulton County Superior Court Judge. David died on March 11, 2005, after 18 years of government service.

Patrick Wilhelm, David's brother who also serves ICE as a special agent, said,

Criminal investigations became, in a positive and constructive way, a passion for David. He enjoyed developing leads, deploying the technology and articulating the facts. He enjoyed the long tedious hours spent with colleagues, from grizzled detectives to polished attorneys. He even enjoyed his defendants, and was often able to connect with them in a way that would better their lives, as well as the case. In fact, David enjoyed interacting with all the various personalities found in this line of work.

I have heard that some defendants wept in prison upon hearing of his death. Others called or visited my parents. The satisfaction David got from his work was inspiring to younger officers and agents, as well as to a younger brother.

Candee Wilhelm says of her late husband, "David had a magnetic personality that drew folks to him. He gained respect by giving respect to others around him." She continued as follows:

David could speak on anyone's level in any situation to make them feel comfortable and gain their complete trust. He was a natural leader due to his strong, confident nature. He made others laugh and liked to pull pranks. Sometimes he called voice mails, disguising his voice and left anonymous silly messages. It wasn't until David's funeral service when one of his "victims" realized it was David, the ultimate prankster, who left the messages.

David was the most well-rounded, well-loved, down to earth person I have ever known. His hobbies didn't include sports. In fact, I had to fill him in on the scores of the big games so he would have a sliver of knowledge just in case he was put on the spot by the guys at work. Outside of work he had a passion for creating and building things with his hands, more often than not, for others. David was that man you would be proud to call your brother your son, your friend, and coworker. He was the guy I adored being married to. He is missed every single day.

Immigration Enforcement Agent Lorenzo Roberto Gomez.

Agent Gomez had been assigned to the Field Office in El Paso, Texas. Agent Gomez succumbed to injuries sustained while participating in a Special Response Team training session in El Paso. He died on Nov. 8, 2003, after eight years of government service.

Christina Gomez says of her late husband, Lorenzo,

He was dedicated to the job. He never even wanted to call in sick because he was afraid to disappoint anyone. He was so proud to wear the uniform, and he was buried in it. He was an amazing person and would have gone far in the agency if he was still alive. He was a very likeable guy who was never in a bad mood.

Savannah Gomez, 13-years-old, says of her father,

My dad was a happy and joking person. He was there when you needed him. He loved to be around family and friends. I remember when he took us out for ice cream. I miss my dad very much and he is with me in my heart. I am very proud of my dad, who is my hero and I will make him proud. My dad taught me to live life to the fullest. There's not a day that goes by that I don't think of him. Even when I go to sleep I dream about him.

U.S. Customs Service Special Agent Gary Friedli.

Agent Friedli was assigned to the Resident Agent in Charge in Douglas, Ariz. Agent Friedli had been en route to investigate a drug smuggling activity when he was involved in a fatal traffic accident. He died on March 4, 1998, after eight and half years of government service.

Parents Jack and Ruth Friedli, brother Roger, sister Juli and other family members remember Gary as "energetic, goal centered and well liked by everyone." Gary's mother Ruth Friedli spoke for the family, saying,

In elementary school, Gary insisted on finishing his homework right after school so he could have the rest of the time to play. After graduation from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, he worked and saved for a nine-week trip to Europe.

He completed his master's degree in international studies at the University of Denver. He travelled to Washington, D.C., knowing only one person with whom he could live temporarily while he hunted for a job in federal government. He worked first with the Treasury Department, then the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network as an intelligence analyst. But Gary wanted a job with some action. When he began working for the U.S. Customs Service, he liked what he was doing. We have many special memories of our Gary. He was our middle child. He was mild mannered and shy. He liked to hike, go camping and read. His favorite subject was history.

One of his favorite things to do was to play with his nephews and nieces. While rolling on the floor with his nephews he would ask: 'Who is the King?' They would say, 'Uncle Gary is the King.' Gary brought a great deal of joy and happiness to our family, and we all miss him so very much.

Dorene Kulpa Friedli, the wife Gary left behind, says that although it's been 12 years since Gary was killed in the line of duty, "It seems like only yesterday that I last saw Gary's smile and felt his large, but gentle presence." She went on to say,

Gary was the epitome of strength, honor and trust. He loved his family and his friends. It was an honor to be his wife. He helped to make every day special for me and my daughter, Alexa, who became his daughter.

Gary's dream of becoming a police officer, combined with his love of history, especially World War II, led him to his career as a federal law enforcement agent serving his country.

My favorite picture of Gary is of him sitting on a gigantic rock during a nature hike looking outward. To me, it looks like he is looking out across time-and looking for the next adventure for us to go on.

U.S. Customs Service Senior Special Agent Manuel Zurita VII.

Agent Zurita was assisting the U.S. Secret Service on a presidential protection detail while President William J. Clinton was in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Agent Zurita's vessel struck a coral reef, and he was severely injured. Agent Zurita died from his injuries on January 6, 1998. He had 12 years of government service.

Maria Zurita, Manuel's sister, still meets many people who knew her brother. She said,

When I worked as a supervisory customs officer at the Miami International Airport, agents would see my name tag and say 'Zurita? I knew Zurita.'

When they found out I was his sister, they would hug me. It was so emotional. Manuel knew so many people who all spoke so highly of him. It made me feel so proud. Twelve years after his death, not a day goes by that somebody doesn't mention his name.

Denisse Zurita describes her father as "very happy…a social butterfly." She continued saying,

Wherever he'd go he met people he knew. He loved his job. He always looked forward to the next day…the next case. He was passionate about his work. He was another person out there helping with drug enforcement and fighting crime. He was always looking for a way to help people. He wasn't selfish. There's no room for that in law enforcement.

My dad was family oriented. On Saturdays we would either clean the house together or go on family outings. My father had so many interests-from computers to woodworking to amateur radios. My dad could do anything. He was my super hero.