Story by: CHRIS SMITH
Ask people who knew Marylou Armer what they admired most about the Santa Rosa police detective and they’re likely to cite:
The joy she steadfastly radiated.
How she treated victims of domestic violence with genuine respect and caring that assured them their cases were in good hands.
Her homemade lumpia, or Filipino spring rolls.
“She was just a bright light,” said Christine Castillo, chief of Verity, the Santa Rosa-based nonprofit that serves and advocates for survivors of sexual assault and abuse. “The next brilliant star you see in the sky, that will be her.”
Armer, a resident of American Canyon in Napa County, accomplished something uncommon when she stepped up from working as a civilian field evidence technician at the SRPD to being sworn in as a police officer.
Widely praised for the diligence and humanity she displayed as a domestic violence/sexual assault investigator, the 43-year-old Armer died Tuesday from complications of COVID-19. She was the first California police officer lost to the global pandemic.
“This is a tragic event. It hurts,” a grieving, 20-year SRPD colleague and friend, Stephen Bussell, said at a City Hall news conference Wednesday.
Bussell, president of the Santa Rosa Police Officers Association, invited donations to a Fund a Hero account the group and PORAC, the Peace Officers Research Association of California, has created for the benefit of Armer’s family.
Police Chief Ray Navarro said relatives of Armer have asked that for now no information be released about the family.
Navarro said the loss of Armer, regarded by the SRPD as an in-the-line-of-duty death, “has been a very hard hit to our department.”
Navarro said Armer was not only integral to the SRPD but was someone who “always made your day better.
“I just can’t remember a day that I saw her when she didn’t have a smile on her face,” the chief said.
Armer’s surname was Hernandez when she joined the SRPD as a civilian employee in 1999. As a field evidence technician, she would report to the scenes of crimes and traffic collisions to collect fingerprints, measurements and evidence essential to determining who was at fault, what had happened, if charges should be pursued, and against whom.
“If you needed her, she was there,” said career officer Blaine Hunt, who retired from the SRPD in 2004 as a sergeant. He often worked alongside Armer and was forever impressed by her diligence.
“She was just a good person,” Hunt said. “Easy going. She didn’t let things get to her.”
Hunt, who admits to being often in tears since learning of Armer’s death, was among many of her colleagues who were pleased when, after nearly nine years as a field evidence technician, she applied to become a police officer. The department sent her to the police academy.
She took her oath in May 2008 and became a patrol officer. A violent attack on E Street in July 2013 could have ended her career, but she didn’t let it.
Armer and a second officer had arrested a woman on suspicion of drunken driving when a male passenger, Joseph Simmons, 32, lunged at them. Simmons knocked Armer to the ground, then kicked and punched her in the face and head and elsewhere.
She suffered serious injuries but after recovering returned to patrol.
“She was naturally just a hard worker and a fighter,” said Police Capt. John Cregan.
Nearly four years ago, Armer transferred to investigations. Colleagues and superiors said she shone as a detective assigned to the multi-agency Family Justice Center and to investigating crimes of sexual abuse and assault.
“She was genuine. She was real,” said Castillo, of the nonprofit Verity.
“She had a smile that lasted with you forever,” Castillo said. “She was honest. She was sincere. When she worked with clients, she treated them with such dignity and respect, with honor. They left feeling heard, and that their case meant something to her and that she was going to do everything she could.”
Jill Ravitch, the Sonoma County district attorney who oversaw the opening of the Family Justice Center, said Armer’s death is devastating to all who worked with her at the multi-disciplinary service hub for victims of crimes that include domestic and dating violence, sexual assault, stalking, child abuse and elder abuse
“She put a smile on people’s faces and was outstanding in her work,” Ravitch said. The tragedy of Armer’s death, the DA added, demands that everyone “remember all those who continue to work in uniform, and thank them for their work.”
Shortly after police chief Navarro advised SRPD employees of Armer’s death Tuesday, many gathered — at a safe distance from each other — at the department’s headquarters on Sonoma Avenue at Brookwood Avenue. A color guard solemnly lowered the American flag in front of the building to half-staff.
Mourning police employees then moved a few blocks to the west to lower the flag at City Hall. Blue lights shone in tribute to her at Old Courthouse Square.
“We wanted to honor Marylou as much as we could,” Navarro said. He said the department has begun a conversation with the detective’s family about how they might honor her more fully once large assemblies are allowed.