‘A genuine hero’: Community remembers fallen Grand Prairie officer at funeral

It was his dream job, to work as a police officer in the city where he grew up.

Albert Ramirez “A.J.” Castaneda, a Grand Prairie native, served eight years in the U.S. Coast Guard and six as a Tarrant County Sheriff’s Office deputy, but always imagined coming home, according to fellow officers and family members. He got his chance in January 2014, when he graduated from the academy and joined the patrol division. His reputation, as fellow officers have attested in recent days, could be summed up simply — going above and beyond for the community he loved.

In September 2018, Castaneda was recognized with multiple police commendations after he saved a choking child at Asia Times Square by performing CPR. Though the incident blew up on Facebook and made local news, Grand Prairie officers said, it was one of countless similar stories.

Castaneda was known to pick up pizzas on Thursdays for the kids at the Dalworth Community Center, where he spent time himself as a child. He conducted traffic during drop-off and pick-up at a local school, as well as handed out milk during lunch. He volunteered to work extra shifts.

Castaneda, 38, was killed last Friday when he was hit by an out-of-control car as he ran radar on the President George Bush Turnpike.

He was off-duty, police said. He had volunteered to work a selective traffic enforcement program.

“A.J. was taken from us on Friday, June 7 doing what he loved the most — protecting and serving our community ,” Grand Prairie Chief Steve Dye said in front of thousands of people packed into The Potter’s House in Dallas on Thursday for Castaneda’s funeral service. “When I first met A.J., he told me about living his dream and coming back to the city where he grew up ... A.J. was a model police officer with a tireless work ethic who loved coming into work every day.”

That dedication to service, and to going the extra mile to improve quality of life in his community, was the focus of the ceremony attended by family members, friends and hundreds of police officers from across the state.

The funeral was steeped in police tradition — from the officers’ salutes, to the 21-gun salute, to the playing of taps — but focused on a singular life.

Castaneda’s family members sat in the front row of the Potter’s House church, a few feet from a casket draped in an American flag holding his body. There were songs, a slideshow of photos, and speakers who rose one by one to offer stories of a life dedicated to service.

“Even though my brother’s passed, a lot of good can come out of this, with plans to remember him and tell his legacy,” Castaneda’s brother, Daniel Castaneda, said during the service. “I told Chief Dye just last night — I told him, ‘You’d have to hire 10 police officers to replace my brother.’”

Castaneda had a fiancee in Peru, though she was unable to attend because she couldn’t acquire a travel visa. He also had a son who sat in the church on Thursday.

A long list of adjectives were used on Thursday to describe him — from humble, to caring, to hardworking — and one person called him “a genuine hero.” Grand Prairie Officer Thomas Berrettini, who graduated from the same class in the academy as Castaneda, said he also had a sense of humor, giving nicknames on the radio to other officers such as “beast” or “my hero.”

His impact on the community could be seen in the hundreds of community members who gathered in yards and on sidewalks Thursday morning to watch the procession of police vehicles and the hearse from the funeral home to the ceremony at Potter’s House.

Jazmine Jackson-Burt, a member of the Grand Prairie Fire Department, stood with dozens of others outside the town Public Safety Building to see the procession. She was one of several people wearing black T-shirts reading “We Proudly Stand for Officer Castaneda,” which she said she bought from the police department.

Thinking of Castaneda, and the times they interacted with each other due to overlapping cases, she said she remembered his smile above all else.

“He was always smiling when I saw him ... He was always in good spirits,” the 29-year-old said. “That’s just awesome — a person that loved to take care of his community.”

A life of service

Officers on Thursday said they typically had to dig to learn about all of Castaneda’s outside-of-work good deeds. He wasn’t one for attention, they said.

Dye found out about the pizzas on his own several years ago, he said, because “that was A.J. — on his own, no intention of drawing any fanfare.” He learned Castaneda had started giving pizza to around 75 at-risk youth because he had become concerned they could only be eating during school and missing dinner.

Castaneda was similarly humble, Dye said, when he volunteered to assist police in Houston following Hurricane Harvey and even collected items such as food, toys and water to bring to flood victims.

Since Castaneda’s death, Dye said he has heard more stories from community members — such as when he helped wipe down tables at a local restaurant, or when he asked for leftover food to save for others.

“They all tell the same story, folks,” Dye said at the funeral. “The story of a man who was relentless and empathetic in assisting other people.”

Castaneda was part of a class of seven in the academy, Berrettini said, who all became close, hanging out outside of work. While the rest of the group started in patrol but left for other divisions, Castaneda elected to remain as a patrol officer so he could have more time with the community, Berrettini said.

It’s true Castaneda often didn’t bring up his personal acts of kindness, he said. But he said he also was proud to be a Grand Prairie officer and admired other officers, playfully saluting them when he passed them in the halls.

The last time they worked together was recently, when Berrettini volunteered to work a patrol shift. Berrettini remembers getting a text from Castaneda before they went out together.

“A.J. started sending me text messages saying, ‘How did I get so lucky? I think I’m gonna play the lottery tonight,’” he said. “So I started laughing and I was like, ‘A.J., what are you talking about?’ and he tells me… ‘We’re riding two-man on Saturday. I couldn’t be happier.’”

Berrettini was feeling thankful on Thursday, he said, they had that last patrol together.

The ceremony ended with officers carrying his casket outside of the church and into the hearse, taking the time to remove the American flag and present it to the family. As helicopters whirred overhead, the hearse pulled out of the parking lot, accompanied by a long police procession.

Castaneda’s body was heading to its final resting place, Dallas-Fort Worth National Cemetery.

‘We sure are going to miss him’

Deji Akinruli stood outside the Public Safety Building Thursday for the procession with her 8-year-old daughter.

Her daughter, she said, is the reason she knew and admired Castaneda.

The 8-year-old is a student at the International Leadership of Texas school in Grand Prairie, where Castaneda helped direct traffic in the mornings and afternoons, she said. Every day he would make sure all of the kids safely got into their vehicles, she said, while taking time to smile and wave at parents.

Her daughter would also tell her about how he would peek his head into classrooms and ask the teacher if any of their students had been exceptional today, so he could give them a treat.

They are both grieving the loss, she said, trying to show their respect.

In the future, she said they’ll make sure they remember him.

“He was a really great guy and we’re going to miss him,” she said. “We sure are going to miss him.”

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