A Hughes 500 helicopter circled over the Costa Mesa Police Department on Friday, sprinkling red and white rose petals in honor of the 25th anniversary of a mid-air collision that killed officers James Dave Ketchum and John W. "Mike" Libolt.
About 100 people attended the event, which included a photo slideshow of the officers' lives and a special toast to their memory with Orange Crush soda. (A civilian passenger, Jeffrey Pollard, also died in the crash.)
On the evening of March 10, 1987, Libolt and Ketchum, 15-year police veterans, were killed while helping ground units pursue Vincent William Acosta, 19, a suspected car thief who led officers on a high-speed chase through Orange County.
Their Eagle II helicopter was getting ready to transfer the pursuit to Newport Beach as the chase crossed the city line. But during the transfer, they collided with a Newport Beach police copter.
"It was a strange evening," said retired Costa Mesa police Sgt. Bill Bechtel, who had just taken over as helicopter sergeant. "We didn't know what happened as we lost radio communication with the Eagle and the Newport Beach helicopter. Then we just saw a flash of light in the sky."
According to police, the Eagle crashed near UC Irvine, killing Ketchum and Libolt -- the first Costa Mesa police officers to die in the line of duty -- and their passenger, Jeffrey Pollard, a flight instructor. The Newport Beach helicopter made an emergency landing. Its officers were not injured.
Costa Mesa police Chaplain Dave Brooks said Ketchum and Libolt were exceptional officers and the anniversary of their deaths was a difficult pill to swallow.
"It was a true tragedy in all of our lives," Brooks said. "Whether it's 25 or 55 years, these men will never be forgotten."
At Friday's ceremony, attendees sipped Orange Crush as a tribute to the men, who were once photographed drinking the beverage in their helicopter.
Officer Dave Ketchum
Before he was a pilot, Ketchum was a detective and an excellent interrogator, Brooks said. He was a low-key type of guy who always followed procedures and had a long list of passions.
"His loves were his wife, Meg, daughters, Hilary and Penny, fishing, the outdoors," Brooks said. "He climbed Mt. Whitney alone because no one could keep up with him."
Ketchum would have loved to be a cowboy, Brooks added.
"He was born about 100 years too late," Brooks joked. "He did love everything about police work and was an excellent cop and pilot. He enjoyed being able to see everything from the helicopter."
Officer Mike Libolt
Libolt was the most talented police officer Costa Mesa had, Bechtel said.
"He was athletic, intelligent and handsome," he said. "He was going to be married and had two kids."
In his free time, Libolt dabbled in modeling, was on the department's tug of war team during the police Olympics and was referred to as "The Silver Fox" because of his looks and grey hair.
"He was an excellent pilot," Bechtel said. "We miss them so, so much and I hope we never, never forget them."
Because Acosta's actions indirectly led to the air crash, he was convicted of three counts of second-degree murder and sentenced to 45 years to life in prison. According to news reports, his conviction was later overturned by an appellate court that ruled Acosta was guilty of despicable behavior but not the fatal helicopter crash.