Over the decades, three officers killed in the line of duty
Recently, across the county, police were taking time to reflect on their fellow brethren who have lost their lives in the line of duty.
In 1962, President John F. Kennedy proclaimed May 15th as National Peace Officers Memorial Day and the calendar week in which May 15 falls, as National Police Week. Established by a joint resolution of Congress in 1962, National Police Week pays special recognition to those law enforcement officers who have lost their lives in the line of duty for the safety and protection of others.
In Orange, there have been three officers with the Orange Police Department who have lost their lives in the line of duty. They are Johnny Godwin, Ed O’Reilly and Danny Gray.
The first officer to be killed in the line of duty in Orange was Police Chief Ed O’Reilly.
O’Reilly was standing outside the Ingram Cafe on May 29, 1935, located on the southwest corner of Fifth and Main Streets, which is now the Lutcher Theater parking lot. He was talking to a friend when Edgar Eskridge, a First Baptist preacher, drove by and shot at the police chief. O’Reilly had just celebrated his 41st birthday a few days before when the buckshot pierced his skull and he died.
The city commission met May 31 to appoint John D. Godwin Jr., 31 years old, as acting police chief. But, less than four months later, he too would be killed in the line of duty.
Godwin was with another officer, George LaFitte, when they received information about two fugitives who had assaulted a cab driver before stealing his cab. At about 9:30 p.m., they spotted what they believed to be the stolen cab. The vehicle was driven by Cylde Dawson and the passenger was B.F. Thompson. The officers stopped the cab on Green Ave. between 3rd and 4th Streets. Lafitte had his shotgun pointed at Thompson while Godwin confronted Dawson. The events what happened next are unclear, but Godwin was shot in the abdomen. Godwin was transferred to the local hospital where he died the following day.
Nearly 40 years passed before another officer lost his life in the line of duty. Captain Danny Gray, 31, became the third police officer killed in the line of duty on June 28, 1974 during an attempted jail escape.
Gray was a 10 year veteran of the department and a graduate of Stark High School in Orange. Ronnie Denton had grown up in Riverside with the Gray brothers and were childhood friends. Years later, upon his return from the Vietnam war, Gray contacted Denton about a job at the Orange Police Department. At the time, the only opening in 1973 was as a dispatcher. Denton was working the graveyard shift when Gray was killed.
But, before the shooting occurred, Gray would accomplish something he had always wanted to do which was to catch a suspect during a robbery.
His wish came true when he was dispatched to a convenience store located at 10th Street and Green Avenue. The robber, Charles Dowden, walked out of the store still wearing his mask. He was stuffing the pistol into his back pocket when he saw the officers. He reached back for the gun, but realized it was too late and he surrendered.
A short time later, Charles Dowden’s brother, Billy Wayne Dowden, would arrive at the jail to break his brother out. It was about 4 a.m. when Billy Wayne Dowden and his accomplice, Clifford Blancett, arrived at the jail. Charles Dowden was upstairs in the jail when the chaos started.
Billy Wayne Dowden, wearing a mask, entered the building while Blancett waited outside. Once inside, Billy Wayne Dowden suddenly burst through the door of the dispatcher’s office demanding the release of his brother. He put a pistol to Denton’s face.
Gray, who was standing near the dispatcher’s window, hit Dowden in the face which knocked him into the hallway. By this time, Blancett had come into the building and struck Gray over the head with a shot gun which caused the gun to break. Dowden attemted to use Gray as a shield to once again enter the small room, according to Denton.
In the mean time, Denton ran back to the area near the stairwell and quickly grabbed and gun and began loading it. Denton looked up and saw the door opening again and began shooting. At the time, Denton didn’t know his fellow officer had been shot.
The next thing Denton knew, Dowden was standing in the hallway at the dispatcher’s window.
Denton had a clear shot of the suspect.
As bullets were fired into the small room, Denton thought of his wife and children. He also thought to himself, “I am not going to live through this.” Even though Denton had looked death in they eye during his time spent in Vietnam during the war, this was much worse since he could look his possible killer in the eye as he fired the gun.
Denton tried to fire the gun again, but all he heard was a click. The gun failed to fire.
Dowden returned fire a total of nine times. The room grew quiet and Denton seized the opportunity to call for help from other officers.
Dowden who was out of bullets, along with Blancett left the scene.
Dowden fled to Louisiana to get help for his injury to his ear which was bleeding. The friend panicked and called police. Dowden fled to his residence in Hartburg where he was apprehended.
Blancett was found hiding in a houseboat in West Orange.
After all the commotion and shooting, Gray lay dead with a bullet to the head. It was a tragic end to an exciting night for Gray.
Denton said he owes his life to Gray and his actions.
“I owe everything to that man,”Denton said.
Denton contemplated leaving law enforcement, but thought that would not be what Gray would have wanted. Denton stayed with OPD until 1976 before working for the Highway Patrol and the Nederland Police Department. Denton is currently an officer with the Bridge City Police Department where he has been for nearly 20 years.
“Danny would have wanted me to stay with this,” Denton said. “As a tribute to him, I’ve stayed.”
Billy Wayne Dowden and Clifford Blancett were indicted on a capital murder charges. After the ballistics report showed the bullet didn’t come from either man’s gun but a fellow officer’s gun, District Attorney, Sharon Bearden briefly scrambled. A new statute at the time allowed the charge to stand because the two men’s actions caused Gray’s death.
Dowden pleaded guilty and received a life sentence. He is currently in the Stiles Unit. His brother, Charles Dowden, is also serving a life sentence on charges of murder and aggravated robbery in the Ellis Unit.
Blancett also went to trial. He refused to plead guilty to murder but would have pleaded guilty to other charges, such as felon in possession of a firearm. However, his sentence was truly a life sentence since he died in prison.
The photographs of the three officers who will killed in the line of duty in Orange, now proudly hang in the lobby of the Orange Police Department to be seen by all visitors. In addition, a conference room at OPD, was named after Gray. They hold retirement parties,blood drives and other events in the room, but never forget their fellow officer who died protecting others.
Danny Gray was killed in June 1974 in the line of duty while attempting to thwart a jail escape and protecting his fellow officers.