MERRILLVILLE — As a young police cadet in 1980, Mike Kellems attended a funeral for Neil Thompson, a patrolman with the LaPorte County Sheriff’s Department, who had been killed in the line of duty.
The gravity of the officer’s death weighed heavy with Kellems, now a sheriff’s captain with the same department, he said.
“From there on, I was hooked,” Kellems said Friday after he and a team of bicyclists arrived in Merrillville as part of a 13-day, nearly-1,000-mile ride across Indiana to raise funds and awareness for sacrifices made by Indiana law enforcement.
For the fifth year in a row, Kellems has driven the support truck for the Cops Cycling for Survivors Foundation, Inc. annual bike ride, which raises funds and awareness for sacrifices made by Indiana law enforcement.
The foundation offers scholarships, life-of-duty death benefits and pays for memorials as well as supporting other organizations.
The event is in its 16th year honoring fallen officers and family survivors.
The group of riders rolled into Merrillville from U.S. 30 ahead of schedule at about 4:15 p.m. Friday after biking dozens of miles from Mishawaka that day.
As part of the annual Cops Cycling for Survivor trek, the riders travel to different parts of the state, reading each fallen Indiana officers’ end of watch at sites where each were killed, detailing their careers and deaths.
This year’s ride is honoring Howard County Sheriff’s Deputy Carl Koontz, who died in the line of duty in a shootout on March 20, 2016.
Sgt. Earl Wigfall, a 15-year veteran with the St. Joseph County Police Department, said he was riding the trek for several fallen officers and personal friends, including Mishawaka Police patrolman Bryan Verkler, Mishawaka Police Cpl. John Szuba and South Bend Cpls. Paul Deguch and Nick Polizzotto.
“I’ve lost a couple of fellow officers from nearby departments that I knew. Off-duty friends, you know, people you go fishing with, go to ballgames with, stuff like that,” Wigfall said.
When Wigfall lost Verkler, he said it was an “eye-opener” for him.
“Verkler and I, we were getting ready to go to a Bulls game and that morning, one of my buddies called and said ‘Come down to the hospital, Bryan died,’” Wigfall said. “I know officers can lose their lives at any time but because I knew him, it touched me.”
The fundraiser was originally founded by Indiana State Police Lt. Gary Dudley with help from Gary Martin, chief deputy with the Lake County Sheriff’s Department.
In 2006, Dudley and Martin were both killed while biking the 1,100 miles around Indiana for the fundraiser when a semitrailer slammed into a support truck, which was trailing the riders and then crashed into them.
Gary Martin’s widow, Olga Martin, of Merrillville, was one of about 25 people awaiting the cyclists’ arrival along U.S. 30 on Friday.
“They’re part of our family. It’s a club that you never want to join,” Olga Martin said. “I’d love it if more people would show up to support the riders.”
Wigwall said the ride is a way to show loved ones of fallen officers that they are not forgotten.
“(The bike ride) a small sacrifice compared to what they go through,” Wigwall said.
The group planned to spend the night at the Residence Inn, 8018 Delaware Plaza, before taking off for Kentland at about 7:30 a.m. Saturday and making brief stops at the St. John Police Department and in Lowell for lunch.
Jim Rutkowski, a retired St. Joseph County Police Captain who now works part-time as a prisoner transport, said this is fourth year riding with the Cops Cycling Survivors Foundation group.
It’s impossible to only one ride with the group once, he said.
“You get see these officers from all over the state and you meet these survivors and they come out and they’re so happy to see you. You build these friendships and you just have to go back. It’s hard not to,” Rutkowski said.