Co-workers, friends say Watson worthy of high praise

Posted: Sunday, December 28, 2003

Kenai Patrol Officer John Watson died trying to do what he did best: looking out for others.

He often spent time parked near schools, watching out for speeders and keeping a watchful eye out for the kids. He wasn't shy about writing tickets, but he wasn't out to get anyone either. Instead, those who knew the 43-year-old Watson best say he was simply a good guy trying to help out the community he loved, a "teddy bear" of a cop who just wanted to do some good.

"I can't say enough good things about that boy," said longtime friend Ken Cissell of Kenai. "He was one of those great big old baby-faced teddy bears. He just had a way about him."

Cissell, who was his neighbor when Watson originally joined the police force, talked about his good friend Saturday, two days after Watson died after responding to a welfare check on a Kenai citizen.

He painted a picture of a loyal, friendly man who wasn't afraid to have a good time; a man who enjoyed the outdoors, family, friends and riding his Harley-Davidson motorcycle.

In fact, Cissell said Watson was looking forward to his retirement so he could cut loose and go on a cross-country motorcycle tour.

"He was starting to plan a trip to the Lower-48 on that Harley to just check out the world and see what he could find out," Cissell said.

Watson was an avid hunter, and Cissell said he remembers one time when his friend's watchful eye helped him bag a big buck deer in Kodiak.

After climbing up a ridge, the pair spotted a deer, and Cissell was about to take a shot. But instead of shooting at the deer, his rifle misfired, and the deer began trotting off.

"John just stepped up and as calm as you please and down (the deer) went," he said. "We got three deer in three days."

On that same trip, Watson and Cissell got into some rough water while trying to return to Kodiak.

"We were rocking and rolling. It was a wild show," he said.

Cissell gave Watson a pair of glasses to help deflect the spray off the whipping ocean. They made it back to shore safely but not after a harrowing few hours on the water.

"I kissed the ground," Cissell recalls, but it didn't appear as if Watson was badly shaken by the ordeal. Then he handed Cissell his glasses back.

"They were in a wad. He was hanging on for dear life and ended up crunching them a bit," he laughed.

Watson was just 19 months from reaching his retirement when he died. As the longest-serving member of the force, his loss has hit the tight-knit Kenai police force hard.

Police Chief Chuck Kopp said Saturday that officers are handling Watson's death "moment by moment."

"The wound is not curable. The death of John leaves a huge scar on all of our hearts, and that will always be with us.

"We know that John would definitely want us to be strong and courageous and move on and do our jobs well. ... And we will do that."

Officers, in fact, got no break from their work even after discovering their trusted co-worker and friend was dead. In the hours immediately following his death, Kenai officers responded to two domestic violence calls and a tire slashing, Kopp said.

Kenai Lt. Kim Wannamaker said Friday that continuing their work is essential to preserving the memory of a man who was proud of his work.

"John was a professional," he said. "He was a kind and sincere man. He took pride in his work and prided himself on monitoring school zone traffic."

That was because he understood the goals of traffic safety, Kopp said.

"He knew it was not to be a killjoy, but to keep us safe," he said.

Watson not only enjoyed his traffic enforcement duties, but he excelled at investigations and was a skilled interviewer, Kopp said.

In addition to working through their grief and continuing to keep the peace, law enforcement personnel also are tending to their fallen comrade. Ever since Watson died, troopers have been taking turns at his side in a traditional "Honor Watch," keeping a silent vigil for their departed friend, Kopp said. Police from other peninsula departments are expected to take turns this week.

Watson had a large family that included his wife, Kathy, daughter, Renetta, and six stepchildren, Justin Rust, Ron Rust Jr., David Rust, Michael Rust, Daniel Rust and Chelaine Rust. He was active with youth groups and helped Boy Scouts earn merit badges by teaching them finger-printing techniques.

He also was a "man of great faith," Kopp said. "He took a lot of solace and peace in his faith."

Watson's pastor, David Higgin-botham of Kenai Christian Church, said Watson was baptized in March 2002. He remembers Watson as a man who gave his life over to the idea of serving his fellow man.

"I would describe John's life and death as the true demonstration of Christianhood," Higginbotham said.

People who knew him say Watson didn't use his position to intimidate or bully people. They say he was the kind of cop who would tell the truth, speak plainly and go about his business.

"John never came across as a man who had authority," Cissell said. "He just wanted to help people out."

"It's not going to be the same place without him."

Watson's personnel file is filled with commendations and letters of appreciation. One common theme that runs through them is Watson's ability to calm those in stressful situations, Kopp said.

Watson made a big impression on not only his friends, but those he contacted during his police work, as well. Kenai's Joy Baceley first met Watson 12 years ago, back when she was "a little troublemaker." She said she credits the big, kindhearted officer with helping her get her life turned around.

"He helped me through a lot," Baceley said. "He was a sweetheart, and he'd do anything to help you."

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