TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - It has been twenty years since a fiery crash on I-10 in Tucson took the life of Arizona Department of Public Safety Officer Juan Cruz.
Officer Cruz was sitting in his cruiser near Miracle Mile, investigating a DUI crash, when he was hit from behind by a 21-year-old drunk driver. He succumbed to his injuries sustained in the crash on December 9, 1998.
With a small wreath, members of the Southern DUI Task Force gathered for a short service on the steps of the DPS Headquarters on Tucson Boulevard Friday evening.
Trooper Michael Blute said it’s not abnormal for the group, made up of law enforcement officers across Pima County, to gather for a meal before heading out on DUI enforcement duty on Friday nights. But this meal, had a special meaning.
“You look at the news, wrong-way driving, collisions, fatalities and the reason why we’re here. We’re honoring a trooper that was killed because he was blocking the roadway, investigating a DUI and killed by a drunk driver," said Trooper Blute. '"So, I mean, there’s no other more important than that to get these people of the road.”
For the last 19 years, Officer Cruz’s family has made dinner for the Southern DUI task force, around the date of his death. His daughter Marissa Cruz-Long, one of five of Officer Cruz’s children, said she takes the day off to cook in the tradition.
“I know they have long shifts and I know they are going to be out there in the cold," said Cruz-Long. “It’s comforting because this is something we used to like to do for our dad, so to be able to do it for someone else’s loved ones, especially these officers who are out doing a really dangerous job. It makes us really happy.”
For Cruz-Long, her heavy heart turns into a happy one knowing her father’s fellow officers will head out to keep the streets safe with full stomachs.
Through the sadness this holiday season, Cruz-Long continues to share a strong message to the community.
“Do not drink and drive,” said Cruz-Long. “It’s devastating when you take somebody else’s loved one because you selfishly made the decision to drink and drive. There’s no reason to.”
Cruz-Long said the family always spends December 9th decorating the Christmas tree, in memory of the man they often called ‘Father Christmas.’ She said they are also planning a get together Sunday to sing carols and enjoy the holiday season, in his honor.
There was never a trial for the woman who hit and killed Officer Cruz. His family agreed to a plea bargain and she was sentenced eleven years for manslaughter.
The driver was released and completed her parole in January of 2011.