Dillon Vakoff was so realistic about the dangers of the law enforcement career he loved so much that he made a pact with his mom.
The military veteran said that if he died, he would go out as a "heroic lion."
To his family's horror, that promise was kept last Sunday, when the young officer was shot and killed while responding to a domestic violence call that had gotten out of control in Arvada.
At an emotional two-and-a-half-hour funeral service in Lafayette Friday, Arvada Police Chief Link Strate said that the 27-year-old officer died a warrior who "placed himself between the gunman and men, women and children."
Vakoff's commander, Paul Carroll, assured the distraught members of Arvada Police Team 6 – who were Vakoff's closest colleagues and his pallbearers – that his death, despite desperate attempts to save him, was not their fault.
"He knew his last breaths on this earth were in the arms of his heroes," Carroll said.
”No one tells you how that phone call hits you like a train," said Vakoff's girlfriend, Megan Esslinger, also an Arvada Police officer.
"I got that phone call at 2:40 in the morning.”
Esslinger's voice held strong as she described their relationship.
They loved to dance together, she said.
But it's a special dance – to music only they could hear.
"He would always want to dance with me even if there was no music. At the zoo, in the street, at the baseball game," she said.
Esslinger and Vakoff lived together and had big plans. She received a tightly folded American flag at the end of the service, as did his mother, Lisa. The entire family had a quiet moment with his coffin before the services began.
Hundreds of people, many of them police officers from near and far, paid tribute to the young Arvada officer – he was only 27 – who had dreamed of joining the SWAT team.
Hours earlier, police cars from around the state and the country descended on Lafayette for Vakoff's memorial services, their lights blinking in a long procession of a sad, but now all too familiar, ritual. All told, nearly 600 personnel from about 85 agencies, including departments from Empire, Durango, Montrose, Ault and Custer County paid their respects.
The mourners also learned a little bit more about Vakoff. A military supervisor said Vakoff, who was in the Air Force, served in the Middle East, launching strike missions against ISIS as an active Air Force member. And he went to Guam, volunteering through typhoons as an emergency personnel. He had been selected as top sergeant from 800 others.
Vakoff had been with Arvada Police for three years with an eye on being a SWAT officer, but, Carroll joked, had a secret wish to be a firefighter instead.
He was a romantic and a goof, his friends said. The neighborhood where Vakoff was killed was his regular beat, according to neighbors, who said that he was always smiling and ready to help in whatever way he could.
The service was not all melancholy. There were plenty of jokes about Vakoff's propensity to over-use his meat smoker and then send endless photos of his culinary creations. A running theme mentioned by his buddies was the tiny workout shorts he wore.
"A piece of fabric which was shorter than a normal man should wear," said Joe Galvez, with whom Vakoff trained at the Police Academy.
In an unusual move, Vakoff's family called for the service to be open to the public, who heard that his death robbed not just the Arvada police force of an officer. His mother has now lost both of her sons – Vakoff’s older brother died before him.
The service began at 10 a.m. at Flatirons Community Church – it was the third service for a slain police officer at the church in 17 months.
Of those three, two were with Arvada. In June 2021, Gorden Beesley, a School Resource Officer who was killed – in an "ambush," according to his police chief – in Olde Town Arvada, was laid to rest.
Inside the huge chapel, the hundreds of law enforcement officers, who came from as far away as Utah and as close as Lakewood, took their seats. On a central stage were flowers draped with Vakoff's mottos: "So others may live" and "Go Get Some."
Vakoff's family, including his mother in a dark blue dress and shiny silver shoes, had a quiet moment with his flag-draped casket.
The man suspected of killing him, 31-year-old-Sonny Armanza, is in the Jefferson County jail facing eight charges including first degree murder of a peace officer, attempt to commit murder in the first degree, possession of a weapon by a previous offender and two counts of child abuse.
As people walked quietly single file out of the church, the mother of one young Arvada police officer who often worked with Vakoff paused to remember him.
"Dillon had an incredible life. Our son spoke so highly of him," said Deb Koakley. Her biggest fear, Koakley said, is the thought of a police car in front of her house to deliver bad news.
"People are so critical of the police. It wasn't that way when we were kids," she said.
"We're here to show support for the Arvada Police Department," explained Colorado Springs Sergeant Mike Velmo as he walked out of the ceremony and into the sun. And just as he said it, an urgent radio call instructed him to head down south for a shooting at I25 and Bijou.