A ceremony of closure
You’ve probably seen them while biking, running or walking your dog on the bicycle path along the Glenn Highway, three crosses perched in the straggly grass at the side of the trail, one white and stark, another blue and the last one larger, with bright red letters declaring the name Wollam.
The crosses, situated right before the sign indicating one more mile to the Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson exit, mark the site where Anchorage Police Department officer Justin Todd Wollam was killed in the line of duty on July 9, 2001.
Wollam, 28 at the time, was inbound on the Glenn Highway around 4 a.m. and responding to a report of a drunk and reckless driver.
According to Associated Press accounts, Esper had been driving a Chevrolet Blazer, which the police had been tracking but not actively pursuing, for about half an hour prior to the crash.
The Blazer is estimated to have hit speeds of around 85 mph before colliding with Wollam’s patrol car.
The driver, 19-year-old Robert M. Esper, deliberately crossed the median into Wollam’s car and collided head-on, according to police accounts.
Wollam, Esper and and his two teenage passengers, Makayla Lewis, 16, and Heidi Weilbacher, 14, were all killed.
A fourth teen was critically injured but survived.
Last week, APD held a memorial dedication ceremony at the collision site. Amidst the busy sounds of the Glenn Highway traffic, with police car lights flashing and the mountains towering in the background, chaplain Marlan Schoenleben led off with a prayer.
Police chief Mark Mew referred to Wollam as the “tall man from Texas” and said he would never forget the day he was vacationing at the Oregon coast and heard that an officer had been killed.
The memorial ties up old business for all of them, he said, his voice wavering slightly.
“Four people were killed for no apparent reason,” he said.
He mentioned three girls lost to alcohol related accidents in 2013.
“Sometimes I think we’re making progress, and then I think of these girls,” he said.
After short remarks from Wollam’s brother, bagpipes played as Wollam’s family placed single red roses on top of the memorial and wiped tears from their eyes.
The memorial, visible from the bike path, is aesthetically pleasing. Yet, with so much summer green and bicyclists riding past once the ceremony closed, it was an odd juxtaposition of life’s vitality against the ever-present nearness of death.