DUNNIGAN — Five years ago, Yolo County sheriff’s deputies fanned out across this area’s farm fields and eucalyptus groves, searching for the man who took the life of one of their own.
Many of those same officers returned to Dunnigan on Friday, this time to witness the dedication of a freeway rest area in honor of their fallen brother, Deputy Jose Antonio “Tony” Diaz.
“It brings back the memories of that night, like it was yesterday,” said Deputy Jose Pineda, who was one of the first officers on the scene after Diaz, 37, was shot while pursuing suspected drunken driver Marco Topete on the night of June 15, 2008 — Father’s Day.
Topete abandoned his car, his infant daughter still inside, on a rural road and fired a semiautomatic rifle at Diaz from the shadows of a nearby house. Though mortally wounded, Diaz, himself a father of three daughters, watched over the baby while broadcasting Topete’s description over his police radio.
“You’re never going to forget. It’s just etched in my mind,” said Pineda, who helped carry Diaz away from the shooting scene moments before he died. But the deputy says he still patrols the Dunnigan area, because “I still have a job to do.”
Family, friends and fellow officers say Diaz was equally dedicated to his job, and that was what they recalled Friday — what would have been the slain deputy’s 43rd birthday — as truck drivers, vacationers and commuters sped past on Interstate 5.
“He ran toward harm’s way and paid the ultimate price,” Sheriff Ed Prieto said. Five years later, the roadside memorial serves as a reminder “of the sacrifice that Tony gave while doing something he loved — protecting our community.”
Moments later, Prieto, Assemblywoman Mariko Yamada, Yolo County Supervisor Duane Chamberlain and Diaz’s sister Lupe Diaz unveiled a sign declaring the area the “Deputy Tony Diaz Memorial Rest Area.” An identical sign stands on the rest area’s southbound side, not far from where Topete was apprehended the morning after the shooting.
Both signs were funded by private donations raised by Diaz’s friends, relatives and colleagues.
While bittersweet, the unveilings brought a sense of pride to Diaz’s family, including parents Rafael and Carolina Diaz, who traveled from Dixon for Friday’s ceremony.
“To lose a son is one of the biggest things,” Carolina Diaz said in Spanish, her words translated by granddaughter Yalina Prado. “It’s going to make me happy to pass by here to see the man my son became.”
Yamada, who wote the legislation authorizing the memorial, recalled her friendship with Diaz that dated back to 1999, when both began working for Yolo County — he in information technology, she with the Board of Supervisors office.
Every time a computer would malfunction, “there Tony would be,” Yamada said. Soon, she became aware of his dream of becoming a law-enforcement officer, a goal Diaz would realize in 2004.
“We sort of lived through that whole process with him, as he studied and took his exams and made progress toward becoming a Yolo County sheriff’s deputy,” Yamada said. “We were always cheering him on as pursued his quest to become a peace officer.”
Yolo County District Attorney Jeff Reisig, who prosecuted the Topete case, noted that Diaz was the second of two local law-enforcement officers to be killed in the line of duty in a short span of time, with Diaz’s death occurring just three days after the killer of California Highway Patrol Officer Andy Stevens was sentenced to death.
“The whole thing for me has been profound sadness about Tony’s death, and the impact it had on the entire community,” Reisig said. “I just hope we don’t have to deal with this again.”
— Reach Lauren Keene at email@example.com or 530-747-8048. Follow her on Twitter at @laurenkeene