California highway patrol officers honored at the White House

02/20/2013 3:33 PM

03/14/2013 2:44 PM

Vice President Joe Biden and Attorney General Eric Holder on Wednesday presented two California Highway Patrol officers the nation’s highest civilian valor award for their heroism in a deadly 2010 Fresno County shootout.

In a sometimes emotional ceremony, officers Sean Haller and Rafael Rivera received the Public Safety Officer Medal of Valor. Both men had survived a hail of bullets while attempting to save another law enforcement officer shot during the Feb. 25, 2010 siege in the rural town of Minkler.

“We owe you a debt we can never repay you,” Biden told Haller, Rivera and other medal winners. “You’re the heart, you’re the soul, you’re the spine of the nation.”

Wearing their CHP uniforms, Haller and Rivera took turns standing at attention while Biden hung the medals around their necks and gave them each a companionable slap on their right shoulders. Holder handed each a framed certificate and, one after another, they posed for an official picture.

“It’s just an extreme honor, though it’s definitely bittersweet, because we lost two good officers that day,” Haller said afterward

Haller and Rivera were among 14 living recipients of the Medal of Valor to receive their awards Wednesday at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, immediately adjacent to the White House. The awards covered actions in the years 2009 through 2011. Another four recipients were honored posthumously. All the recipients were stalwart in the face of danger.

One Arkansas Game and Fish Commission officer used his truck to ram a van holding two men engaged in a lethal firefight with police. Two Virginia Beach firefighters pulled a baby and the baby’s 73-year-old great-grandmother from a burning second-floor apartment. Two Pennsylvania State Police troopers chased a kidnapper at high speeds for 40 miles before finally rescuing the abducted 9-year-old boy. But one of the troopers was shot and killed in the effort.

“I marvel at what makes them tick,” Biden said. “I marvel at what makes them tick.”

Haller, 39, is a Selma, Calif. native and 10-year veteran of the highway patrol. He and Rivera, who could not be reached following the event, both still work in the Fresno area.

“These Medal of Valor recipients have fearlessly responded to desperate cries for help and have courageously risked their own lives to secure innocent victims, protect fellow officers, and end deadly assaults,” Holder said.

Haller and Rivera were on duty Feb. 25 when Fresno County Sheriff’s Office deputies attempted to serve a search warrant at the Minkler mobile home of Ricky Liles, an out-of-work former security officer. The 51-year-old Liles, living with his wife in the tiny town about six miles east of Sanger, was a suspect in a series of at least 11 arsons. He was also suspected in a series of shootings, including one in which a 69-year-old woman was injured.

According to a subsequent 110-page investigation of the incident, deputies announced themselves that morning at Liles’ mobile home and at first heard no response. Fresno County Detective Sgt. Joel Wahlenmaier then battered his way into a cluttered room. While attempting to force his way through another door, he was shot.

More than 100 state, local and federal law enforcement officers then swarmed to the scene, engaging Liles in a firefight that lasted more than an hour. Reedley police officer Javier Bejar was shot during one fusillade, prompting radio calls of “officer down.”

Rivera then ran over to try to pull Bejar out of danger. Liles began shooting at him, prompting Haller to move into the line of fire and provide cover while Rivera could pull Bejar away.

Bejar and Wahlenmaier both died, as did Liles, who shot himself.

“It was the first time I fired my service weapon in the line of duty,” Haller said, “and I haven’t fired it since, though I’ve had some close calls.”

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