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Keeping streets safe with Erik Estrada

Erik Estrada will ride in Bike Night in Martinsburg, W.Va.

Erik Estrada will ride in Bike Night in Martinsburg, W.Va.

August 13, 2009|By CRYSTAL SCHELLE

Erik Estrada still has a special place in his heart for Officer Francis "Ponch" Poncherello, the character he played for six seasons on "CHiPs."

So much so that when his cell phone rings during our interview, it's a familiar tune - the theme from "CHiPs."

"Isn't that trippy, baby?" Estrada says with a laugh before handing the cell phone off to his wife to answer.

This weekend, Estrada will be part of the Martinsburg (W.Va.) Bike Night. He'll climb onto a Harley Davidson motorcycle and ride with the West Virginia Blues Knights Chapter to raise funds for Hospice of the Panhandle.

Since he hung up his "CHiPs" bike helmet in the 1980s, Estrada is now focusing on his other passion: law enforcement. So when he's not doing the occasional acting gig on TV or film, Estrada has been trying to rid a different highway from crime - the Internet.

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As deputy with the Bedford County (Va.) Police Department he belongs to the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Forces and Safe Surfin' Foundation, both of which help to keep children safe from Internet predators.

Estrada, 60, says his duties as deputy include training, investigating, arresting criminals and serving search warrants.

He says working with law enforcement has given him a different satisfaction than acting.

"You're doing something real here," he says. "You're putting those animals in cages where they belong. And hopefully you're saving children from being victimized."

A father of three, ages 23, 21 and 9, Estrada says protecting children is his No. 1 job.

That's why, he says, he has been an advocate about Internet education.

Through Safe Surfin', Estrada says the program can help educate children and adults as well as provide software to schools for free.

Growing up in the rough streets of Spanish Harlem in New York, Estrada thought that his career choice would be law enforcement. But a cute girl in high school diverted his attention and he ended up in drama class.

His film debut came when Estrada was cast as Nicky Cruz, a young gang leader opposite Pat Boone's evangelist in the film "The Cross and the Switchblade." The based-on-true-life tale of redemption is still shown in youth centers and prisons throughout the nation.

Nicky Cruz is Estrada's favorite role, with Ponch coming in second.

After bouncing from one guest-starring part to another, Estrada was given the script for "CHiPs." He didn't think the part was for him.

"But I was just looking for a steady job. The contract was for 13 weeks with the possibility of a series," he says. When he auditioned for the role, Ponch was originally written as an Italian American. When Estrada won the role, he had them change the character's ethnicity to Hispanic American, making him one of the first positive cop roles for Hispanics.

Back then, Estrada didn't realize he was paving the way for other Latinos.

"I was just looking for a way to get my mother out of Harlem," he says. "And I wanted a steady paycheck."

Since Ponch, he has never really been able to shake his love for law enforcement.

In the short-lived reality show "Armed & Famous," Estrada and other celebrities served as deputies for the Muncie (Ind.) Police Department. Although the show was canceled before its complete run, Estrada continues to return to Indiana to maintain his status as a reserve officer for the college town.

He says the only reason he did "Armed & Famous" was to see if he still wanted to be a police officer. His time as a reserve officer led him to his work in Bedford County.

For Estrada, his work in law enforcement is part of his bigger plan to get the federal government to mandate teaching Internet safety in every school.

"I do the law enforcement stuff so I can seen as the real deal, not as a celebrity," he says.

Protecting children is what he wants to continue to focus on.

"That's my legacy," he says.




If you go ...



WHAT: Main Street Martinsburg and West Virginia Blue Knights Chapter V Bike Night

WHEN: 6 to 11 p.m. Saturday

WHERE: Downtown Martinsburg, W.Va.

For ride:

WHEN: Saturday, 2 to 5 p.m. to register

WHERE: Begin at Berkeley Plaza parking lot, off U.S. 11 North at 5 p.m, arrive downtown at 6 p.m.

COST: Fee to ride costs $10

MORE: No downtown parking until 6 p.m.

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