Whether Darnell Calhoun was doling out brisket at the barbecue restaurant of his beloved family, teaching children about God or patrolling Lake Elsinore, he lived to serve.
Calhoun knew the dangers of the latter, said longtime friend and retired Riverside County sheriff’s Lt. Danny Young.
“Yet he willingly went out daily to serve mankind,” Young said. “In fact, he put service above self as the motto reads on the side of the patrol car.”
Some 2,000 people gathered at Abundant Living Family Church in Rancho Cucamonga on Saturday, Jan. 21, to pay tribute to the life of Calhoun, 30, who was slain Jan. 13 as he arrived at a domestic violence call in the community of Lakeland Village.
The two-hour service followed a 50-mile procession from a Murrieta mortuary that saw hundreds line streets and 15 Freeway overpasses to pay their respects. Along the freeway, Express Lanes signs read “Honoring a hero Deputy Calhoun.”
Sonia Zuber, 53, was in place in Murrieta by 7:30 a.m., awaiting the procession.
“We feel for the family and all the deputies,” Zuber said. “It’s nice to see how the community comes together.”
The casket arrived at the church on a clear, chilly morning with the soaring, snow-capped Cucamonga Peak serving as a backdrop.
The stage featured photos of Calhoun in uniform for Riverside County and the San Diego Police Department, where he worked from 2019 to February 2022. Flower arrangements showed his sheriff’s badge number, 6097, and his number with the San Diego department, 6901. Many from the San Diego police force officers from around California and out of state inside the church and in white chairs in overflow seating outside, where they watched on a giant screen.
“There are vast emotions in this room, from sorrow to anger and everything that’s in between,” Abundant Living Founding Pastor Diego Mesa said. “I probably reckon we would not feel so indifferent if we would get a glimpse today of Officer Calhoun in the presence of God worshipping God. We might even be a little more envious and jealous if we saw him in the presence of God.”
A recurring theme Saturday was the many ways that Calhoun displayed devotion.
“As long as I’ve known Darnell,” said Kenny Keahey, who was Calhoun’s youth pastor, “he was always on duty. A job is what is done for hire. But a duty contains a sense of moral and legal and spiritual obligation. It is something that you believe that you must do. Duty is how you live your life on and off the job. There is a conviction that grips the heart. Darnell had a duty to fulfill, and he lived his life in fulfillment of that duty. He was always on duty as a loving husband and father. He was always on duty as a loving friend and servant and as a leader in the community and the church.”
Born in Pomona, Calhoun grew up in Murrieta, where he was homeschooled and his parents run a restaurant. Calhoun himself had worked at Calhoun’s Texas Family Barbeque. Earlier this week, vigils outside the sheriff’s station in Lake Elsinore — where he was stationed — and in a Murrieta park honored him, and mourners left flowers, candles and messages at the restaurant.
Calhoun loved football. The program handed out at the service featured a photo of him in a Philadelphia Eagles jersey.
San Diego Police Chief David Nisleit said that, when Calhoun introduced himself to the department’s command staff, “Everything said was (about) family.”
Nisleit shared that “a common phrase I always heard about Darnell was ‘servant, servant heart.’ “
Erick Cobb, Calhoun’s pastor at Covenant Grace Church in Menifee, recalled a recent two-hour lunch with Calhoun, who taught third- and fifth-graders at the church and served as a youth leader.
“Darnell loved being Vanessa’s husband,” he said. “Darnell loved being a dad. That’s all he wanted.”
Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco said Calhoun told him he joined the department to cut his work commute time from Lake Elsinore to spend more time with his family. Calhoun is survived by parents Lonnie and Renee, wife Vanessa, children Russell and Troy, a coming addition to his family, baby Malcolm, and two brothers. He also had a large extended family.
“With that answer, I knew we had hired a good one,” said Bianco, who praised Calhoun as strong, kind and compassionate. “He loved his job and he understood it was his calling to help people.”
Bianco had the grim task Saturday — for the second time in 15 days — of delivering a eulogy for a deputy who had been shot to death in the line of duty. On Dec. 29, Isaiah Cordero, 32, a graduate of Cajon High in San Bernardino, was slain by a wanted felon during a traffic stop in Jurupa Valley.
“Our law enforcement family did not have the time to process or come to grips with the loss of Isaiah when we were forced to deal with the unthinkable realization that we had lost Darnell,” Bianco said.
Concluding his remarks, Bianco turned to Calhoun’s widow and said, “While you and the boys have lost Darnell, you have 4,000 aunts and uncles at your beck and call.”
Nisleit said that Calhoun’s family could add “another 2,000 aunts and uncles.”
“Even though Darnell’s time with the San Diego Police Department was short, it was actually huge,” the chief said. “He made us a better city, he made us a better department, he made us better officers every single day watching his lead and how he dealt with people.”
The service included a short video of former NBA star Shaquille O’Neal offering condolences before a montage of photos from Calhoun’s life and career was shown on a video screen.
After guests left the church, Calhoun’s casket was brought outside as bagpipes played. As the flag-draped casket emerged, 10 helicopters flew over. One peeled off in the missing-man formation.
Corona’s Bob Newman, who also went to the Jan. 6 service for Cordero, was among the many police chiefs attending the memorial.
“To have two (deputy slayings) so close, I’m concerned for the police and the sheriff but also I’m concerned for our community,” Newman said before the service.
“And why? Why is this happening?” asked Newman, who said answers are difficult to come by.
“You can’t ask rational questions about irrational behavior.”
Staff writer Monserrat Solis contributed to this report.