In private and public vigils, and in their homes or places of business, hundreds are excepted this week to remember a local police officer - a hero and a friend to many - who died nearly one year ago while serving his community.
Christopher Matlosz, the Lakewood Police officer who was killed at age 27 during a Jan. 14, 2011, patrol, will be honored during a Saturday ceremony at that township's police department headquarters at 231 Third St. — now known as Matlosz Way.
They will gather to remember a warm and funny man who was allegedly gunned down by Jahmell Crockam, then 19 years old, whose trial begins next week.
"We wanted to do something special to honor his memory," said Lakewood PBA president Gary Przewoznik. The 7 p.m. vigil will mirror one that was held in that same location just days after Matlosz was killed a year ago. "Once you knew Chris, it felt like you knew him forever. He was a great guy."
Matlosz' fiancee Kelly Walsifer said she "can't believe it's been a year" since the officer, who wore badge number 317, was killed in a shooting.
"To me, the pain never subsided and it hurts just as bad as it did the day he was killed," she said. "I'm honored the PBA and Lakewood Police Department are having a vigil in his honor."
The past year without Matlosz has been difficult for the department, which is no stranger to loss, Przewoznik said. In 2007, Officer William Preslar was killed when he was involved in an on-duty car crash.
Losing Matlosz was different, however. The officer did not die in an accident — he was shot three times while seated in his patrol car, allegedly by Crockam, a Lakewood resident. Authorities searched for two days until the suspect was captured in a Camden apartment by a high-risk entry team.
"It was a little tougher because of the circumstances," Przewoznik said.
On Jan. 17, just about a year after his death, jury selection is scheduled to begin for Crockam's trial, said Michel Paulhus, executive assistant prosecutor for Ocean County. Paulhus said that he is unable to provide any additional comment on the trial, including whether a plea deal was ever discussed.
The community has not forgotten Matlosz, as evidenced by the many honors and remembrances held for him in 2011. Among them, in May to the police memorial monument at the Ocean County Police Academy in Lakewood and at a statewide law enforcement memorial in Ocean Grove. The Lakewood BlueClaws honoring the officer prior to one of their home games in July. This May, Matlosz' name will be added to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Washington, D.C.
"All of those things help get you through," Przewoznik said.
Walsifer has kept her fiancee's memory alive by founding Holding Onto Hope, a nonprofit organization that aims to benefit local children and keep them away from gang activity.
"It's very bittersweet when I do events in his honor," she said.
Walsifer said that the organization is doing "great" and because of donations that have come in from across the country and globe, $5,000 was recently given to an Ocean County K-9 unit.
Though she is taking a break from hosting events to focus on healing, Walsifer said that she plans to begin fundraising again in early summer.
Przewoznik said that he expects a crowd so large on Saturday that the streets of Lakewood surrounding the police station will be shut down.
"We're expecting 500 to 1,000 people," he said. "We've been doing a lot of promotion for it."
So far, locals seem more than willing to show their support. A Facebook event page created for the vigil shows that over 430 people plan to attend. Members of Manchester's police and fire departments will visit Lakewood in a show of solidarity with thier neighboring town.
"We try to send as many officers as we can," said Capt. Lisa Parker. "We're supporting it, both personally and professionally."
Parker said that Matlosz, who lived in Manchester's Pine Lake Park section, was "good friends" with officers on the township's police force.
"It's personal. They knew him," she said.
Matlosz was known for his jokes, said Przewoznik, who could recall receiving late-night text messages from the officer which brightened his mood.
Lakewood police will keep an eye on the Ocean County Superior Court proceedings, Przewoznik said.
"I'm sure that guys are going to be going," he said. "But if we do, we're going to keep a low profile."
In addition to the charge of murdering Matlosz, Crockam, known on the streets as "Sav," and Darius Johnson, of Lakewood, also known as "Money," are charged with the murder of Lakewood resident Justin Williams. Crockam is being held at the Ocean County Jail on $5 million bail.
Walsifer would tell her fiancee, the first police officer in Ocean County killed by gunfire, a few simple words before he left home for patrol — "stay safe, extra safe."
Those words have resonated with police who can face danger at any moment, including the Manchester Police Department, which had that message painted on the wall in its briefing room.
"Something like what happened to Chris should be reminded to every officer," Walsifer said.