Cop Tales are true stories as told by law enforcement officers from all over the country. The stories are told in the first person. The actual officer’s initials follow each story.

Air crashes

The recent tragic helicopter crash reminded me of some of the incidents I worked. When I was a sergeant with the California Highway Patrol in a small desert community, I had to travel through a mountain range to cover our entire jurisdiction. On what appeared to be a sunny day, an airplane flew through the mountain range straight into a thick area of fog without any warning. The plane crashed right into the side of the mountain.

I just happened to be driving through the area when I looked up and saw the fire and smoke. I pulled over, notified dispatch and took the long, treacherous walk to the top of the mountain. When I arrived, I could see two badly burned bodies through the flames and smoke. There was nothing I could do to save them.

About a year later, I received a call of a plane into the side of the mountain. It was identical to the first one. Once again, I had to walk all the way up the hill just to see if there was anything I could do to save them. Once again, there was nothing I could do for them.

As a highly respected sheriff’s commander once told me, “The mind can’t forget what the eyes have seen.” I see their bodies every time I hear about an airplane or helicopter crash.

Of course, it made it a lot worse in 2016, when two Marine Corps helicopters crashed into each other killing all 12 Marines, including my nephew.


Far better to give than to receive

I worked the last five years as a public affairs officer at a Highway Patrol office. Of all the positions and jobs I ever performed, being the CHiPs for Kids coordinator was the best one I ever had. I loved receiving all those gifts from caring people in the community and being able to give them to so many needy children.

I was even given the great honor to fill in for Santa Claus one year. I arrived in a Highway Patrol cruiser, and passed out toys to all the kids at a Children’s Hospital. I’ll never forget the tears in the eyes of a little boy who had cancer. I know I had more tears in my eyes than he did. In fact, there were four Highway Patrol officers with me that day, and I know we all left with tears in our eyes.


Finding a murderer in a haystack

I was patrolling a rural section of the interstate for the Highway Patrol on the Wednesday night before Thanksgiving, which is the busiest traffic day of the year. Traffic was bumper to bumper. Dispatch then advised to be on the lookout for a reckless driver who had been reported by a concerned citizen. A description of the vehicle was given, but we all knew it would be like finding a needle in a haystack. Traffic was thick, and the freeway did not have any street lights.

A few minutes later, another motorist called to report the same reckless driver. The second caller provided the license plate, which indicated the driver was wanted for murder. The car belonged to the murder victim. With only about five officers covering more than 60 miles of freeway and thousands of cars on the road, it was not going to be easy to locate the vehicle. Remarkably, a few minutes later, one of our officers advised that he was behind the suspect vehicle and was waiting for backup units to arrive before initiating a stop.

I was about 15 miles away, so I hit my lights and siren and raced north in the center median as fast as I dared. Other backup units beat me there as the suspect pulled into a rest area and stopped. As he did, the other officers activated their emergency lights and ordered the suspect out at gunpoint. He was taken into custody without incident. The murder weapon, a gun, was still in the car.

During the trial, the suspect refused counsel and represented himself. Of course, that didn’t work out too well for him. To this day, I am surprised that nobody ever called to complain about a patrol car kicking up dust and gravel as it raced by them in the center divider.


Brian Smith served four years in the U.S. Marine Corps, and retired as an assistant chief with the California Highway Patrol. He resides in Bakersfield. If you have a personal “Cop Tale” to share, please contact Smith at

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