A parade of flashing squad cars cruised past the home of a fallen St. Paul police officer, saluting a man most had never met.
His widow was waiting.
Jeanette Sackett, flanked by the four children she raised alone, wiped away tears for the husband who was stolen from her.
“Fifty years ago may be a long time, but it seems like yesterday,” Chief Todd Axtell said Friday afternoon as he presented 50 blue-tipped white roses. “He gave his life for his community.”
James Sackett was felled by a sniper’s bullet on May 22, 1970. The Air Force veteran was 27 years old, had been on the force 18 months, and was on his first day back after the birth of his youngest child when he and his partner were lured to a Selby-Dale area house on a phony medical call about a woman in labor. Suddenly, a .30-caliber bullet struck him in the chest.
For responding officers like Dan Bostrom, that ambush marked a defining moment in their careers. It had been more than a decade since the department’s last line-of-duty death, he said, and it never crossed his mind that they might not make it home.
“It makes you realize just how fragile life really is,” said Bostrom, a retired St. Paul police sergeant and longtime City Council member. “You can do everything right and end up dead. ... Unless you’ve done [this job], you haven’t got a clue.”
Investigators believed the killing was meant as a political statement, part of a turbulent era filled with anger at the government, police and the Vietnam War. But early leads dried up and the case turned cold.
His family waited 36 years for justice.
Ronald Reed and Larry Clark became chief suspects in the murder after spending years behind bars for the unrelated shooting of a Nebraska police officer during a bank robbery in Omaha. They were arrested in 2005 and convicted the following year.
At Reed’s trial, witnesses testified that Reed plotted to kill a white officer in hopes of inspiring the Black Panthers to start a chapter in St. Paul. Racial tensions were high, fueled by the exoneration of a white officer who had recently killed a young black man.
“It happened in 1970 and it happens today,” said Julie Sackett, who was just 18 months old when her father died. “And those tensions still exist.”
Julie and her younger brother have no real memories of their own about their father. But over the years, they formed an image of him through photos and funny stories his buddies told. Their grandfather often took them to an East Side park renamed in Sackett’s honor, where a plaque still stands today.
Annual milestones act as a constant reminder of what they’ve lost. Birthdays. Father’s Days. Holidays. The family often celebrates those occasions with a trip to Fort Snelling National Cemetery.
“I always tell people who have a dad to appreciate every moment,” Julie said. “It’s something you never get back.”
As with most large gatherings, COVID-19 foiled plans for the department’s yearly memorial for fallen officers in Mears Park.
Undeterred, Jeanette, 77, offered to move the tribute to her front lawn. So the family adorned the yard with a shrine to Sackett. Black and white photographs, weathered newspaper clippings and his police hat and badge all sat on display. Behind the mementos waved an American flag.
“I’m not gonna let him be forgotten,” Jeanette said ahead of Friday’s ceremony.
Around noon, a procession of hundreds of current and retired officers drove down the 1600 block of Atlantic Street. When the lead car reached Sackett’s house, his former partner, Glen Kothe, and Axtell emerged with giant bouquets. The department awarded Jeanette a shiny new badge. Jim’s badge. No. 450.
Jeanette gently sobbed as two bagpipes wailed “Amazing Grace” from the street. Her children, all four “J’s” — Jim Jr., Jennifer, Julie and Jerel — gathered behind her. Neighbors sat on porches and lawn chairs to pay their respects.
“I know he’s with me,” his widow said. “I don’t have to wonder.”