Penny Howell Reeves was 28 years old on Nov. 3, 1986, when her husband, Deputy Sheriff Frank Howell, didn’t come home from work.
The Tarrant County peace officer had noticed a suspicious vehicle that day parked behind the Veterans of Foreign Wars building in south Fort Worth, according to the county. He walked up to the car, occupied by multiple people, and one of them wrestled away his service weapon. The person shot the 38-year-old deputy dead as he was calling for backup.
The killing set off what was considered one of the largest manhunts in Tarrant County history, ending a decade later with the arrest of the suspect in Mexico, where he was convicted. Reeves, now 63 and living in Fort Worth, remembers the death was hard to process and so were the years she spent waiting for justice.
Her life has continued on as more time has passed — she got remarried and her son, Jason Howell, who was 3 when his father was killed, has had three daughters of his own.
But as Reeves inspected the county’s new law enforcement memorial on Friday, moments after it was unveiled in front of the 1895 Courthouse, the emotions she felt all those years ago came rushing back.
She found her husband’s name, engraved into a pink ring of granite alongside 15 others. She held her 13-year-old granddaughter as she wiped the tears away from her face.
“I am so grateful after 34 years there’s a memorial for him,” Reeves said. “It was a very tragic time in our life, and this just means the world to us to have this. It really does.”
Frank, she said, was a “gentle giant” who loved serving people, but was authoritative enough to demand respect. He was the “perfect balance of both worlds,” she said.
Jason grew up hearing stories of his father, and telling his daughters about him.
“It’s nice to see something in stone,” Jason said. “It’s a lot of joy for us to be able to bring the family and see that.”
The 16 names on the memorial are those of Tarrant County officers killed in the line of duty, as far back as the first death in 1861 and as recent as 1986. The names grace the granite circle that surrounds a Texas Star with a bronze Tarrant County seal in the middle. There are white flowers growing around the star.
Tarrant County officials, including Judge Glen Whitley and District Attorney Sharen Wilson, debuted the monument on Friday in a ceremony with dozens of uniformed officers standing at attention and family members of fallen officers sitting on benches. The mood was one of somber respect.
The event, as Wilson described in her speech, represented a moment many have been waiting for.
“It is vital that we always remember and honor those in law enforcement who gave their lives to protect our Tarrant County residents,” Wilson said. “Their families, friends, co-workers and loved ones will never forget them. Neither will we.”
Former District Attorney Tim Curry and former Fort Worth commissioner J.D. Johnson, who represented precinct 4, co-founded the effort to establish a memorial more than 20 years ago, the county said in a news release. More recently, Johnson has served on the law enforcement memorial committee with Wilson, Whitley and Tarrant County Sheriff Bill Waybourn.
County workers sent in ideas for the memorial, and the committee chose the submission of Janice Pledger, an employee in the domestic relations office. Michael Bennett, a Fort Worth-based architect, worked off of her concept to design the monument.
It cost $180,000 to construct the memorial, a total that was raised through donations.
The first Tarrant County officer to be killed in the line of duty was Sheriff John B. York on Aug. 24, 1861. It was “not very far” from where the courthouse and the memorial sit today, Waybourn told the crowd.
“When something significant happens, we mark that spot or we have a memorial to these people who have come before us, and that’s what we are doing here today,” Waybourn said. “We are creating history.”
Ervin Hauk, 68, of Keller, is a distant relative of York — the sheriff was the son of his first cousin, six generations removed. His mother told him about the connection around 2008, and the next year, after he retired, he became consumed with looking up his genealogy.
He feels proud of York, he said, though he only has one picture of him, and he’s not even positive it’s him.
The memorial is a way to honor his life.
“It’s pretty impressive to see it finally come to fruition, to finally happen,” Hauk said.