FRANKLIN TWP. — He was, as one police officer called him, the epitome of a true warrior.
Yet, here were all these big, burly tough-guy cops, dabbing at the corners of their eyes, sniffling and sobbing, not caring who saw them.
Franklin Township police Sgt. Ippolito “Lee” Gonzalez was fatally shot during a car stop the night of May 6, 1995. He died hours later, on May 7.
That’s an unbelievable 20 years ago.
Of the Franklin Township uniformed officers lined up to pay their respects during a ceremony at the police station Thursday night, only two were on the force when Lee was killed. Two.
And several more had not even been born.
The memory, the honor, the homage lives on, though, if not in the brick walls of the police building, most certainly in the hearts of the men who knew him.
Tim Suter worked with Lee and worked the night of May 6.
“After 20 years, I can still hear the gun shot, see the blood on my hands. My hero was down,” said Suter.
He told several stories about the man he called his hero and is firmly convinced that, when he was later a Paulsboro cop, Lee’s voice — “Be careful. Watch your back!” — saved his life.
Standing in front of the monument for Lee were men who could be called legends of law enforcement, at the very least in Franklin Township: former Franklin police chief Jim Hogan, retired detective lieutenant Bob Rosiello.
Rosiello recalled how he and Lee were big fans of the movie, “Rocky.” Lee called Bob Rocky, Bob called Lee Apollo.
As Rosiello spoke, his voice cracked more than once in front of the crowd of a hundred or so civilians and 25 uniformed officers.
Lee worked for Hogan, but Hogan at the time of Lee’s death was a member of the state parole board. It didn’t matter.
“I still consider them my guys,” Hogan said.
This was a decent turnout for a township hero. His funeral in ’95 was just so big. When the hearse left the church in Vineland, it took a little more than a half hour for the funeral procession to pass one point.
Perhaps in death, Lee has become larger than life. If so, it’s not by much. His friends told incredible stories of Lee’s selflessness, the things he did for the old, the infirm, the poor. He was a pretty large hero when he lived.
And remains one today.