On a frigid night, much like the one a year ago when Officer Christopher Matlosz was murdered, they gathered. Hundreds of people, bearing candles and bearing witness to the memory of a man who was loving and funny, a prankster and a dedicated police officer, and much beloved and missed by those left behind.
“Every time the clock strikes 3:17, we stop and think of Chris,” said Lakewood Patrolman Junior (Edgardo) Vega, who was best friends with Matlosz.
Matlosz, who wore badge No. 317, was gunned down on Jan. 14, 2011, while sitting in his car shortly after the start of his shift.
The Manchester resident is the first police officer in Ocean County shot and killed while on duty. “People post pictures on Facebook of clocks showing 3:17, to let others know they’re thinking about him.”
“Chris touched many lives and saved many lives,” said West Long Branch Patrolman Jeff Hanlon, who was close friends with Matlosz when both worked for the Englishtown police department. “Chris was totally committed to making a difference.”
The crowd that filled the plaza behind Lakewood’s police headquarters included representatives of every police department in Ocean County as well as residents of Lakewood and surrounding towns. An American flag hung between two Lakewood firetrucks parked on the street at the far end of the plaza away from the dais, where the officer’s family – mother Jane Coliao, brother Adam Matlosz and fiancée Kelly Walsifer – stood with friends and members of Lakewood’s police department to address the crowd.
"It broke my heart that something like this could happen in the town I grew up in and that I love," said Lorraine Dulamore, a fourth-generation Lakewood resident. "I had to come out and show my support."
The vigil took place with a heavy police presence, with members of the New Jersey Transit police carrying rifles keeping careful watch over the attendees and the surroundings. of Jahmell Crockham, the Lakewood resident accused of shooting Matlosz, is scheduled to begin on Tuesday. Reports at the time of the murder said Matlosz stopped his car to speak with a young black male on August Street, in a neighborhood where there had been a number of drive-by shootings, and after a few minutes of conversation, the young man stepped back from the car and shot Matlosz three times. Crockham was arrested three days later in Camden. A number of witnesses are expected to testify that Crockham was the shooter.
“Chris’ end of watch came at 4:07 p.m. at what many call the intersection of good and evil,” Hanlon said. “Many think evil won that night, but in the end, his death has brought the good out. He has helped bring together law enforcement and the community.”
Matlosz, who attended Howell High School, worked for several departments before landing his dream job in Lakewood in 2006.
"He truly loved Lakewood," Przewoznick said. "The legacy of Chris lives on in all of us."
“It’s been a hard year,” said Walsifer, as she thanked the attendees for coming out to show their support. “I don’t think anyone will ever overcome this tragedy. I know I won’t.”
The memory of Matlosz keeps her going, she said. “I tell myself he’s alive in me every day.”
“I didn’t sleep at all last night,” said Gary Przewoznick, a Lakewood patrolman and president of PBA Local 71, who organized the vigil. “I was thinking about today and hoping there would be a good number of people who came tonight. And I was thinking about Chris.
“The last time I saw him he had just changed his shift,” Przewoznick said, noting that Matlosz had worked the midnight shift for his entire Lakewood career and had just changed to evenings. “I was surprised to see him,” and Matlosz replied with a typical smart remark and the smile that everyone remembers.
“That was the last time I saw that smile,” Przewoznick said.
That smile and his joking nature keep his friends and family going, Vega said, recounting a time where Matlosz encountered a drunken man in the parking lot of police headquarters. The man told Matlosz he needed a ride home, and Matlosz said, sure, he’d see to it that the man got home … and promptly seated him the back of another officer’s patrol car as that officer was about to go out on patrol. The officer left the lot and drove around for several minutes with the man seated in his back seat.
“Suddenly he looked up in his rearview mirror and saw this man sitting there,” Vega said. “He came back to the department to find all of us laughing, especially Chris.”
Matlosz then took the drunken man home, Vega said, laughing.
The vigil began with a procession of motorcycle riders and police cars from various departments around the county and state, and included a full contingent of the Shillelagh Pipes and Drums that played Amazing Grace.
Lakewood Police Chief Robert Lawson made presentations to Matlosz’s mother, brother and to Walsifer, and the ceremony included the unveiling of a bronze plaque of Matlosz to be placed on the department’s memorial wall. The wall also includes a bronze plaque honoring Officer William Preslar, who was killed in a car accident while he was on duty.
“The memorial wall is a way we make sure our guys remember to be extra safe,” Przewoznick said.
With Crockham’s trial in the near future, it’s certain those most affected by Matlosz’s death will continue to deal with a great deal of pain and grief. But Hanlon urged those in attendance to begin to move on.
“Chris would want us to wipe away the tears, clear our throats and refocus on the goal,” Hanlon said. “Chris was the epitome of what a law enforcement officer should be.”
“Hold your candles high, so Chris can see them sitting in his patrol car in heaven,” Przewoznick urged the crowd, as a closing prayer was given.
“Cherish your families, and let them know you love them every day,” Vega said.
“Life is short. Live every day as if it’s your last,” Walsifer said, then echoed Vega’s reminder to tell loved ones they’re loved.
“Chris, I know you can hear me,” she said through tears. “I love you and I miss you more than words can say.”