Three Arizona police officers pass away due to COVID in one week

Three Arizona police officers lost to COVID-19 in one week
Posted at 7:49 PM, Aug 11, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-12 15:05:55-04

PHOENIX — As Arizona's COVID-19 cases continue to climb, the law enforcement community is reeling following the deaths of three officers in less than a week.

All three of the fathers served their communities for decades.

Officer Mathew Hefter worked the front desk at Phoenix police headquarters for years, but it did not define him.

He was a family man, he was a father, and really in the community. I've seen how personally he got involved with helping people and how serious he took it," said Sgt. Vincent Cole, who worked on the front desk with Officer Hefter.

Officer Hefter was a man of many passions. He was an actor, a martial artist, an aspiring author, and months away from retirement.

"Everyone was super excited for him," said one colleague, who asked to remain anonymous. "I think that he was just ready to live. He saw a few people that he worked with retire and he was excited to be able to join that life."

Instead of celebrating his retirement in a few months, colleagues are mourning and planning to celebrate his life.

Hefter died this weekend following a weeks-long battle with the delta variant.

"I couldn't believe how fast he succumbed to it," said Leslie Finkle, a former colleague, and close friend. "I was heartbroken for him and his family. He had such a love of life. He was very much a spiritual man, and you could see it in how he spoke."

"I knew that he was sick because he posted that he had COVID on Facebook," said one colleague. "He said it was a beast and he really wanted people to be vaccinated."

It is an important message given the vaccine hesitancy that exists in law enforcement. As of August 11, 34% of the roughly 4,000 Phoenix Police Department employees have reported to the city that they are vaccinated.

A city spokesperson also telling ABC15 that 21% of the employees have already been infected with the virus.

"They are going into situations where they may have hands-on an individual that may or may not have COVID," said Angela Harolle, CEO of the 100 Club. "So they're receiving constant exposure."

Harolle and the 100 Club work to supports officers' families after a tragedy. This past week she has been in touch with three families.

"If we lost them all in one critical incident, there would be so much attention to this. But unfortunately, COVID is somewhat of a silent killer," she said.

Lt. Nick Sessions was an Army veteran before becoming a cop. He joined the Bullhead City Police Department in 1999 and went on to hold countless titles and leadership titles.

His son, Aaron, left to serve with the Air Force just three days before his Dad passed away on August 6.

"He had a huge heart. He and his wife were really big in the community," said Chief Robert Trebes, holding back the emotion. "You knew Nick was in the room. And just the way he would joke around and made you laugh. He was just fun to be around."

Days before Lt. Sessions passed, Glendale Officer Lonnie Durhamtook his final breath with his wife and brother by his side. His brother was also a detective with Glendale PD, and they followed in the footsteps of their father. Durham, like the other two, leaves behind children.

ABC15 also learned vaccine hesitancy is not unique to police first responders.

Phoenix firefighters and paramedics have an even lower reported vaccination rate, with just 31% telling the city they had gotten the shot(s).

It is important to note that while there is a $75 incentive for reporting, employees are not required. Also, even more fire employees already have antibodies, with 31% having already recovered from the virus.

MCSO, meanwhile, estimates that 37% of their deputies are vaccinated and reports 25% have already had the virus.