When Sgt. Marty Katz came to the aid of his fellow deputy, Sgt. Chris Reyka, he saw the bullet wounds and knew he was too late.
Katz remembers that night 10 years ago, remembers someone saying that the last thing that goes before you die is your hearing. So he got down on the asphalt and whispered into his friend’s ear.
“I was saying things like, ‘It’s going to be OK. We’ll help you. Don’t worry, we’ll get you to the hospital.’”
“I knew he was in critical condition and prayed he heard my words.”
A decade has passed since Katz and Reyka were Broward County Sheriff’s officers on the night shift in Pompano Beach. Ten years of graduations, weddings, grandchildren born. Ten years since Kim Reyka, his wife of 22 years, lost “the protector of my heart who was my partner and best friend.”
Reyka, a 17-year law enforcement veteran who lived in Wellington, was known to be vigilant about checking license tags for stolen cars. That’s exactly what he was doing in the early morning on Aug. 10, 2007. He’d spotted a car, learned the tags were stolen then came across it in a Walgreens parking lot.
After he spotted that car, he was ambushed and shot five times. He later died at North Broward Medical Center.
Reyka was 51.
After years of tracking down leads and interviewing witnesses, investigators identified as a person of interest a man killed in a police shootout one month after Reyka was killed. Although it was a breakthrough, the case remains open.
It’s one of the few unsolved cases in the country of a police officer being killed.
For the 10th anniversary of Reyka’s death, The Palm Beach Post caught up with several people whose lives have been profoundly affected by this event, including his wife and four children.
Here’s what they remember and how they’re doing now:
‘I continue what we started’
Kim, Chris and their four children moved to Wellington in 1998. This was the home they would cherish as their children grew, finished schooling and began their careers.
The home in which Kim believed she and Chris would “grow old,” become empty nesters.
But it all changed by one horrific act.
“The loss of Chris is felt on a daily basis,” said Kim, who lives in the same Wellington home. “Some days the loss is felt as graduations, weddings, grandchildren, holidays and Eagle Scout achievement are embraced without Chris’ presence. Other days the loss is the feeling from a shared memory or the loss of new memories that will never be.”
The sadness, frustration, confusion and anger is “everlasting,” she said. “I wasn’t supposed to be the only parent and grandparent. But somehow no matter how hard the role is alone, the reward overshadows the effort and allows me to feel the connectedness with Chris as I did when he was here and that brings me joy as I continue what we started.”
With four grandchildren, Kim’s family has doubled since losing her husband. She feels a responsibility to remain strong and carry on his legacy.
“Despite the circumstances, a feeling of hope somehow prevails,” she said, “possibly from a strong faith, family and sense of community.”
He wasn’t there to walk her down the aisle
Ashley Steele, 31, was entering her senior year at the University of Florida when her father died. Five months later she started an internship in Broward County and her route took her along Powerline Road past the Walgreens where Chris Reyka was killed.
Ashley said it was therapeutic.
“I would stop there,” she said. “They had a memorial set up and people had put so much stuff there. So I would stop every now and then to see that people cared.”
That May, she graduated with a degree in health sciences before going on to receive her bachelor’s degree in an accelerated nursing program. Ashley worked as an emergency room nurse while studying for her master’s and became a board-certified nurse practitioner. She soon will be starting a job as a nurse practitioner in the emergency room.
In 2011, Ashley married Anthony Steele. They have two daughters. During their ceremony, Chris’ image was attached to a candle that sat on the alter.
“I miss picking up the phone just to talk to him,” Ashley said. “Getting married and him not there to walk me down the aisle, having kids, him not seeing his grandkids.
“Not having him just to visit or even something simple as helping with house projects has left a large void in my life.”
Emulating him on the beat and as a father
Sean, 30, was in the Marines and stationed in Pensacola when his dad was killed. He had no intention of becoming a police officer until his contract expired and he opted not to re-enlist.
Sean’s goal then was to follow in his dad’s footsteps. He graduated from the Broward Police Academy in 2012 and immediately started with the Broward Sheriff’s Office. He now patrols the same streets as Chris Reyka did in Pompano Beach and is the senior deputy on his shift.
“A day doesn’t go by without thinking about him, and I find that I most miss him when it comes to raising my son,” said Sean, who has a 7-year-old, Christopher. “He was the best father anyone could have asked for, and I try to emulate him while raising my own son.
“It saddens me that he isn’t here to watch his grandchildren grow up, to give them the steady and wise guidance he gave his own children. I count myself lucky to have had him as a father to begin with, even if for only a short amount of time.”
‘I thank him for creating a strength within me’
From the time Chris Reyka was killed, Autumn vowed to follow her father’s career path.
“Losing my father at 15 was undoubtedly the most tragic event I could ever fathomed having to face,” Autumn said. “But I find solace in knowing that he would be proud of where I am today, and I thank him for creating a strength within me that I don’t know I would’ve discovered if it weren’t for his sudden loss.”
Autumn, 25, is a deputy for the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office. She, too, has a 7-year-old son named Christopher who lives with her.
“I will forever miss being the child that was always suckered into giving him foot massages because everyone else ran and hid,” she said. “I will never forget the sound of his freight train snores. Yet despite all the memories, the biggest void in my world is not being able to be ‘Daddy’s Girl’ for a little while longer.
“Every now and then I wonder if he can see just how much his family has grown. If he can see how much his grandchildren light up his wife’s life. It’s been tough not being able to share birthdays, holidays, weddings and the like with him; but I imagine he’s looking down, smiling his big, goofy smile that will forever be etched in my mind and heart until I see him again one day.”
‘My moral compass’: Would he be proud of me?
Spencer was just 13 when his dad was killed. He was home sleeping when the knock at the door came around 3 a.m. and his mother and sisters decided not to wake him. They would tell him in the morning.
Since, Spencer has graduated from high school and then the University of Florida with a degree in computer science. He received his confirmation, became an Eagle Scout and started his first job as a software engineer.
“It’s as if the fabric of my life has been changed without me fully realizing it,” said Spencer, 23. “I occasionally look back at events whether it was my graduation, my first car, or my 21st birthday and think, ‘What if he was there for those things?’ Ten years later, I still think about him often but I’ve come to accept that he is no longer here. But that also comes with the responsibility of constantly asking myself, ‘Would he be proud of my actions and where I am?’ And this constantly shapes my decisions, and acts as my moral compass.”
Tip line still linked to detective’s personal phone
Curcio, 58, joined the Broward Sheriff’s Office in 2009 as a detective after working 29 years with the Fort Lauderdale Police Department. He was assigned Chris Reyka’s case in 2010. He has followed up on the more than 3,150 tips that now fill 70 boxes and close to 100 books.
For several years, Curcio spent every Friday night in the Walgreens parking lot where Reyka was shot reading documents about the case.
“There’s no logical reason why I would do it,” he said. “I would just do it. Whether you want to say it was for inspiration or whatever, I just did it.”
A tip line remains connected to Curcio’s personal cell phone and still rings at all hours. He followed up on two tips this week.
“This case has been taken on by the entire community,” Curcio said. “You work this case you can never drive in traffic again without looking for the white car. I don’t care if I’m 90 years old, when I pull up to a traffic light if there’s a Crown Victoria or a Mercury Marquis in the intersection, I’m going to be thinking about Chris and this case.”
Curcio’s spirits are raised each time he sees Reyka’s son Sean.
“You got to see him come from the Marine Corps, a fresh faced little rookie following in his dad’s footsteps,” he said. “All the kids have done great, but for a kid to choose not only to follow in his dad’s footsteps but to follow in the same city his dad worked in and cared about, you got to smile. That’s something I’m sure Chris is proud of. We all are proud of him. When I get out there, I’m happy as can be to see him out there.”
‘I knew it was time for me to move on’
Katz and Chris Reyka were sergeants on the midnight shift in Pompano Beach. Each night they would meet around 1:30 a.m. to discuss how the evening was progressing and plan for the rest of the shift. On Aug. 10, 2007, they planned to meet at a Dunkin Donuts in the northeast section of the city. Katz arrived early. Then he heard the call.
“In my 34-year law enforcement career, I had never seen so many officers respond to a scene so quickly,” Katz said. “I had been on the sites of other officers killed in the line of duty. This scene was different. This was my friend.”
Katz had been thinking about retirement, and Chris Reyka’s death left no doubt. That night would be the last time he wore a BSO uniform on duty.
The only other time he donned that uniform was for Reyka’s funeral.
“I called my wife at the first opportunity and informed her that tonight would be my last night,” he said. “I knew it was time for me to move on.”
Katz, 65, and his wife, Marla, now live in Kingston, N.H.
‘No more talk about when we were young and invincible’
Cal Carlstrom, 61, met Chris Reyka in the Marines. They remained close after Chris returned to Florida after his two-year stint and years later when Carlstrom returned to his hometown of Elizabeth, N.J., and enrolled at Montclair State.
Carlstrom spoke with Reyka about two weeks before his death. “He talked about wishing work was run more regimented and organized as our time together at Marine Barracks Washington D.C. and Camp David had been.”
Carlstrom and his family had planned a trip to Disney World for later that summer and were going to surprise Chris and Kim Reyka with a visit.
“That early morning phone call changed things forever,” Carlstrom said. “No more e-mails, no more Christmas card pictures with the family, no more dinners, no more talk about the way things were when we were young and invincible. No more talk about our futures. I miss him, but am glad I got to have him and his family as close friends.”
‘My mother’s best friend was taken far too soon’
Cummings, 29, is Chris Reyka’s nephew and god son. He remembers the family outings that Chris and Kim Reyka organized with his parents, Chris’ sister, Marcie, and her husband, Russell, and the life lessons he learned from his uncle.
“He wanted to be in our lives — as an influence, protector and friend. We were lucky to have his joy, selflessness and commitment to family and God help shape our upbringing,” said Cummings, who lives in New York with his wife, Chiara.
“I’ve been stripped of making new memories with this person I looked up to for as long as I can remember, and I’ve fought countless tears on the days I’m reminded that my mother’s best friend was taken far too soon. I’m not going to see Chris again – but I am a better person because of his care for me as his god son.”
‘Time introduced Sgt. Reyka to me’
MARIA POLO RENNER
Maria Polo Renner never met Chris Reyka, but now has an everlasting connection to him and his family.
Polo Renner is a sergeant assigned as the executive office to the undersheriff at the Broward Sheriff’s Office. A 30-year-veteran at BSO, she was promoted to sergeant in 2007 and assigned to the command post that fielded tips and phone calls immediately after Chris Reyka was shot.
“There were hundreds of deputies and local law enforcement standing by, desperate to help,” she said. “There were local businesses offering to donate breakfast, lunch and dinner for the personnel assigned to the command post who spent countless hours without leaving their post.”
Polo Renner then ran the command post when it was moved from Pompano Beach to the Public Safety Building in Fort Lauderdale. More than 3,000 tips were received during her five years at the post. “I knew I wanted all of my training and experience to be utilized in any way to do the most thorough and best work of my career,” she said.
“Time introduced Sgt. Reyka to me, and he was no longer a stranger,” she said. “Sgt. Reyka was very proactive always looking to keep the community safe. He truly believed in protecting and serving the community.
“I know him now as a person that loved God, his family and country. He was good to people and truly cared about others. Sgt. Reyka inspires me and reminds me that serving our community may cause us to make the ultimate sacrifice, however this need is required and to answer the call is noble. Sgt. Reyka will live as long as we remember him.”
Scouts in Reyka’s troop learn to reach high
Chris Reyka was the scoutmaster for Boy Scout Troop 208 in Wellington when he died. John Begens was his assistant and later became scoutmaster. When it came time for Spencer Reyka to become an Eagle Scout, Begens was leading the troop.
Begens said the scouts rallied around Spencer after his father died. “They tried to help him through it. … and gave him moral support. It was a healing process for everybody.”
The boys have carried on Chris Reyka’s legacy by continuing to work toward the highest rank in the Boy Scouts.
“Chris had a goal, to help Scouts in our troop achieve the rank of Eagle Scout,” said Begens, 59. “This became our focus.”
Since Chris Reyka’s death, 23 have gone on to become Eagle Scouts in Troop 208. With an average of 20 registered Scouts per year, that is more than 4½ times the national average.
“Chris would be proud of this achievement,” Begens said. “The kids absolutely respected him. You are training boys to become young men, and they looked up to him for that. He had great leadership. Chris instilled upon them good morals and development.”
Detective makes the case personal
John Curcio has been the lead detective for the Broward Sheriff’s Office on the Chris Reyka case since 2010, and the tip line still goes directly to his phone.
“I want to talk to the tipsters directly so I kind of became the Reyka Crime Stoppers,” Curcio said. “I’m a control freak on my cases. When you are woken up in the middle of the night to hear from somebody and ask questions about that tip, even if they don’t want to get identified, they may give me something I would lose if I don’t talk to the person directly.”
In 2013, BSO named Shawn Labeet as a person of interest and said they have “compelling evidence” that places Labeet at the scene of the Aug. 10, 2007, slaying.
Labeet had been killed in a shootout with police one month after Reyka was killed.
Though the Labeet connection was a breakthrough, the case remains open and Curcio continues to field calls.
“At the moment Shawn Labeet is still the best suspect but we have not closed out the case,” he said. “Whether we get to that point or not, I don’t know.”
If you have any information on the case call the tip line at 954-880-3950.
Memorial ride for Sgt. Chris Reyka
The 9463 Foundation for Florida’s Fallen Officers will sponsor a memorial ride Thursday, the 10th anniversary of the death of Broward Sheriff’s Sgt. Chris Reyka.
The public is invited to join to remember Reyka of Wellington, who was killed Aug. 10, 2007, investigating a car with stolen tags.
The event starts at 4:30 p.m. at the Walgreens at 960 Powerline Road in Pompano Beach.
After a ceremony, participants will ride/drive to the South Florida National Cemetery at 601 South State Road 7 in Lake Worth for a sunset service. Dinner then will be served at Rose’s Red Barn on State Road 7, just north of the cemetery, and supplied by Mississippi Sweets BBQ.
A donation of $25 will include an anniversary Ride Shirt,Sgt. Chris Reyka & Matthew 5:9 decals, dinner and drinks.
To donate go to http://www.sgtchrisreyka.com/.
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 a few months later 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.