Mike Severance’s quest started with a shotgun blast on April 23, 1985.
That’s the day Seattle Police Officer Dale Eggers was killed after a gunman shot him in the head in a bank robbery on Beacon Hill.
Officer Severance, now a silver-haired, 45-year veteran of the force, remembers thinking at the time that every place an officer is killed should be marked somehow. He didn’t pursue the idea then – “I kick myself now,” he says – but has since devoted himself to ensuring the city memorializes all Seattle police officers killed in the line of duty.
Officer Mike Severance by new gravestone for Officer Thomas Roberts, who died in the line of duty in 1898. — Photo by Det. Pat Michaud
Severance started an ongoing campaign five years ago to mark 58 sites where officers died with a plaque. Earlier this year, he led a successful effort to distribute posthumous medals of honor — that were gathering dust in a safe — to officers’ surviving families.
And, while doing research on the officers, he also discovered that three of them were buried in unmarked graves – two at Capitol Hill’s Lake View Cemetery and one at Evergreen Washelli Memorial Park on Aurora Avenue North. Through donations, Severance was able to finish putting markers on all the graves recently. A memorial service honoring the officers will be held Thursday at Lake View.
Through all this, Severance tracked down and contacted many of the officers’ families, or their descendants.
Louise Christenson, of Seattle, is one of them.
Christenson recalls wondering if there was a problem in her neighborhood when Officer Severance knocked on her door in uniform one evening last year.
She quickly learned Severance was there for a far different reason – to put things right for her family.
As a child, Christenson, who is now 82, would accompany her mother to her grandfather’s grave, identified only by a small, hard to see stone marker, at Evergreen Washelli Memorial Park.
Her grandfather, Officer Charles Legate, died more than 90 years ago, on March 17, 1922 after getting hit in the head with the butt of a gun and shot twice. Christenson said her mother “always kept track of how many years it was since her dad’s death.”
The family was able to locate the grave because they knew it “was between the flag pole and sun dial.”
The new marker Severance arranged to have placed on her grandfather’s grave is “lovely,” she said, adding; “now we won’t have to look for it … It’s big now, you can see it.”
For his part, Severance feels he’s established a personal connection with the fallen officers through his research. He dived into newspaper articles to verify accounts of all the officers’ deaths and along the way corrected several inaccuracies in official records.
“They definitely became more than a name on a wall to me,” Severance said during a recent interview at Lake View Cemetery, demonstrating a seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of some officers.
“Enoch Breece, he’s buried just down the road here on the left side,” Severance said, referring to an SPD officer shot and killed by an escaped convict in 1902.
“He was a true Seattle pioneer,” Severance said. “He was very well to do and very accomplished before he ever became a Seattle cop. He owned 22 lots in the University District which was called Brooklyn back then …”
Severance, who retires next month after a long career that includes stints in homicide, robbery and patrol, said he still wants to see plaques marking the locations of all the officers’ deaths.
He started his campaign for the markers in 2009, after four Lakewood police officers were shot and killed at a coffee shop. The idea is under consideration by the city.
“It’s important that this part of history not be forgotten,” he said noting that there are commemorative walls in Olympia and police headquarters with the names of fallen officers but “They don’t tell you what happened or where it happened.
“I think the where it happened is important,” he said.
A memorial service will be held at Lake View Cemetery, 1554 15th Ave. East, at 10 a.m. this Thursday, July 24, to pay respects to the officers with new gravestones, and all fallen Seattle police officers.