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Foundation honors deputy killed on duty

July 19, 2002|by ANDREW SCHOTZ

martinsburg@herald-mail.com

When Lyle Catlett was Berkeley County's sheriff in the 1970s, he used to give half-sticks of gum to children.

Jacqueline Burkett remembers her son, John Burkett III, repeatedly swallowing the gum he received.

One day, when John was 2 years old, he managed to keep the gum in his mouth. He proudly told the sheriff, who rewarded young John with a star badge.

John Burkett III went on to become a Berkeley County deputy sheriff, wearing that same star badge when he started his job.

Jacqueline Burkett told that story Thursday after a brief ceremony honoring her son, who was killed in a car accident while on duty Jan. 31, 2001.

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John Burkett III, 28, of Falling Waters, W.Va., and a fellow deputy, Joseph Miller, were bringing a prisoner from Pennsylvania to West Virginia that day. On Interstate 81 in Franklin County, Pa., their police cruiser was struck head-on by a car going north in the southbound lanes.

John Burkett III, a 1990 Hedgesville High School graduate, had been with the sheriff's department for about a year. The fatal trip was the first time he had helped transfer an inmate.

It also marked the first time a Berkeley County deputy sheriff was killed while on duty.

On Thursday, the Correctional Peace Officers Foundation Inc., a charitable organization based in Sacramento, Calif., presented a plaque to John Burkett III's parents - John Jr. and Jacqueline - and the Berkeley County Sheriff's Department.

The plaque mentions Deputy Burkett and the day he died while doing his job. "We are family," the plaque says.

The foundation's motto is "Taking Care of Our Own," said Ray Wagoner, the organization's volunteer representative for West Virginia.

Wagoner drove to the ceremony from his home in Mineral Wells, W.Va., near Parkersburg.

Unlike last year's funeral service at Hedgesville High School, where more than 400 police officers gathered, Thursday's ceremony at the sheriff's department was short and casual. Afterward, several deputies and detectives stood outside with Sheriff Randy Smith, Wagoner and the Burketts as their picture was taken.

They posed in front of a memorial headstone dedicated to Burkett. The stone, which says "All Gave Some, Some Gave All," was donated last summer by Hammaker Memorials of Martinsburg, Chief Deputy Kenneth Lemaster said.

The plaque from the Correctional Peace Officers Foundation was dated June 14, when the organization held its annual tribute to officers killed by incarcerated criminals or while working with them.

The Burketts attended that event in Tampa, Fla. Wagoner was one of their escorts.

On May 15, in Washington, D.C., President Bush spoke at another event honoring peace officers who had died. The Burketts attended that, too.

Families of other fallen officers "can empathize with you a great deal better," John Burkett Jr. said. "(Some people) say, 'I know what you're going through,' but they really don't."

"We're really thankful for the recognition he's gotten," Jacqueline Burkett said.

Thursday's presentation was nice, "but it is difficult - at least, it is for me ..." John Burkett Jr. said. "It never really gets easier. (Time) puts a little distance, but that's all I can say."

"It's sad for me to see all the deputies," Jacqueline Burkett said.

The couple has stayed in close touch with members of the department.

Jacqueline Burkett said her son, who lived at home with his parents, had a good sense of humor and knew for many years that he wanted to be a police officer. During one game of cops and robbers, he tied his sister - a "criminal" that day - to a clothesline.

Asked what she missed the most about her son, Jacqueline Burkett said, "Probably the dinner table."

She said, "The day of the accident, he called me at 10 to 3" - shortly before the crash. "He asked, 'What's for dinner?'

"He said, 'Put it in the oven for me because I want to work out at Gold's Gym.'"

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