Autumn Reyka stood before the overflowing crowd at Palm Beach State College and spoke about how she shared her powerful message with her classmates, the newest crop of law enforcement graduates.
“I know I’ve shared with a few of you what it’s like to be a daughter of a fallen officer,” she said. “Do everything in your power not to be the reason your loved ones are waking up to a knock on the door in the middle of the night and you’re not standing behind it.”
Autumn, 24, a newly sworn-in Palm Beach Sheriff’s deputy, is the daughter of Broward Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Chris Reyka, who was killed in the line of duty nine years ago. As the class executive officer, she was one of two cadets selected to address their peers at Thursday’s graduation.
Last October, Sean Reyka, Autumn’s brother and a Broward Sheriff’s deputy, was nearly killed when a driver of a Mercedes-Benz tried to run him down.
On Thursday, Sean was on stage to present Autumn with her graduation certificate.
But soon after the tears, the hugs, the celebrating – and, yes, the start of the many prayers from loved ones – a cold reality came into focus: Five Dallas law enforcement officers were executed by a sniper intent on killing cops. The ambush took place Thursday night at a peaceful demonstration organized to protest the police-involved shootings of two black men last week.
“I don’t know what makes these people think if I shoot a cop that will solve the problem,” Sean Reyka said.
For six months, 34 students at Palm Beach State’s Criminal Justice Institute ages 20 to 45 endured law enforcement’s version of boot camp: physical and mental training designed to break you down, build you up and identify who has the chops to protect and serve.
After watching her husband’s graduation ceremony more than 25 years ago, Kim Reyka now has now seen two of her four children follow his career. But times are different from that day in 1990 when Chris began working with the Pompano Beach Police Department, which nine years later was absorbed by the Broward Sheriff’s Office.
The respect for law enforcement appears to be at an all-time low after several times in recent years when civilians killed by officers have prompted federal investigations and led to unrest. At its worst, the bad guys have targeted police. But nothing had come close to Thursday night’s attack, the deadliest on U.S. law enforcement since Sept. 11, 2001.
“I’m very proud of my children although it would have been my last choice for them to be in law enforcement,” Kim Reyka said Friday. “Law enforcement has always been a dangerous profession. There is less respect from some of the bad guys.”
How does she cope?
“A lot of prayer. I trust their decision and I want them to choose the career they want for their happiness.”
The Reykas are more than neighbors to my wife, Renee, and me. They are family. We have shared countless memories in our 18 years in the same Wellington community. We have vacationed together, celebrated weddings, births, graduations – and mourned the devastating loss of Chris.
The walks for awareness, motorcycle rides, news conferences, tributes and pleas to the community to help solve Chris’ murder are etched in our minds. And even though nearly a decade has passed, it is difficult to say anybody truly finds closure when something so awful hits so close to home.
On Aug. 10, 2007, Chris, a 17-year law enforcement veteran, was ambushed behind a Pompano Beach Walgreens, shot five times before having a chance to draw his weapon. Chris, 51, was pronounced dead at North Broward Medical Center.
Three years ago, the family learned about new evidence that a man killed in a police shootout one month after Chris was murdered was involved. And although the case remains open, it was a breakthrough.
More from Autumn Reyka’s speech to her classmates.
“Have your head on a swivel and watch your six. You have to remain professional no matter what people think of you. … Don’t lose sight of who you are when you don the uniform.”
Brother and sister Sean and Autumn have landed in the same career, but their paths took different turns.
Sean was in the Marines when his dad was killed. He was stationed in Pensacola with no intention of becoming a police officer. That changed when his five-year contract expired and he opted not to reenlist.
“I never wanted to be a 9 to 5 worker,” he said. “And this was a job that shared many of the qualities the military shares.” One month after returning home he entered the academy.
Autumn always envisioned following her father and never was swayed, not when Chris would attempt to discourage his children from entering the profession and not when her dad was killed. She was convinced that this was her calling when she landed a job as a Palm Beach Sheriff’s Office dispatcher.
After all, two weeks before Chris entered the academy, he started a job in dispatch for the Pompano Beach Police Department.
On Thursday, Sean Reyka held his sister’s graduation certificate as Autumn, dressed in her Class A uniform, approached from the opposite end of the stage. Sean’s mind must have raced, wondering how two children forced to live through the life-altering experience of losing a parent to such a senseless criminal act would chose to follow that parent into the same profession.
And being the overprotective big brother, Sean would have stood shoulder-to-shoulder with his dad when it came to advising his sister.
“It’s dangerous,” Sean said. “I’m very proud of her, but I’m still scared for her. It’s one thing for me to be out there, but when it’s another family member it’s not something I want for somebody I care about.”
For Autumn’s part, Thursday’s ceremony was the beginning of a new chapter, she told her classmates.
“Remember why you are doing what you’re doing, why you woke up at Zero Dark Thirty and put on that uniform.”
About the writer
Tom D’Angelo has been a reporter for The Palm Beach Post since 1981. In 1997, he and his wife, Renee, were among the first to move into their Wellington neighborhood. Among their new neighbors were Chris and Kim Reyka and their four young children. The two families have shared memories and milestones, along with coping with the death of Chris, who was killed in the line of duty in 2007. On Thursday, Tom and Renee joined Kim and her family in celebrating Autumn’s graduation from the Palm Beach State College Criminal Justice Institute and the start of her career with the Palm Beach Sheriff’s Office.