‘Extra gut punch’ no more: Children of fallen police officers like Sgt. Damon Gutzwiller will now get financial compensation

Sgt. Damon Gutzwiller's widow, Faviola Del Real, speaks during Steven Carrillo's sentencing hearing.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

California Senate Bill 850 updates language to guarantee financial support for children of first responders who are killed in the line of duty, even if the parents aren’t married. The son and daughter of Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Sgt. Damon Gutzwiller and Faviola Del Real, along with the children of Santa Cruz Police Detective Elizabeth Butler, who was killed in 2013, will now be eligible to receive state compensation.

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Faviola Del Real’s eyes could not hide the pain as she spoke.

The partner of Sgt. Damon Gutzwiller, the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s officer tragically gunned down by Steven Carrillo in June 2020, sobbed while reading her gut-wrenching statement before Carrillo and a packed courtroom attending his sentencing last week.

She told of how in the immediate aftermath the couple’s then-2-year-old son, Carter, would constantly ask the widow, eight months pregnant with their daughter, when daddy was coming home from work.

Gutzwiller’s death, only the second ever involving a county sheriff, perpetrated by a former military member intent on killing law enforcement officers, rocked this small, close-knit community.

But the situation was made all the more painful for a grieving law enforcement world based on what else it knew: Because of a little-known legal technicality, Gutzwiller’s just-blossoming family hasn’t been receiving vital financial support.

According to what critics termed an “antiquated law,” because Gutzwiller and Del Real were not married, Carter and his sister could not receive financial benefits from the state.

“A few outdated words were creating an extra gut punch to this family,” said retired officer Mike Pruger, an advocate who remains involved with issues like this one.

Pruger, Santa Cruz County Sheriff Jim Hart and others jumped into swift action. That included Hart’s daughter, Samantha, a local attorney who specializes in the legalese of trusts and estates.

A plea to state Sen. John Laird that a quick update to the state’s Special Death Benefit allowance was needed led to the drafting of Senate Bill 850. Laird helped usher it through the Senate and Assembly, and Gov. Gavin Newsom signed it into law late Monday.

SB 850 will ensure that families of fallen officers receive their full survival benefits regardless of family structure, and a law enforcement source said the payout per child is in the “hundreds of thousands of dollars.” The bill, which takes effect Jan. 1, will apply to eligible survivors of deceased state safety, peace officers/firefighters, industrial or patrol members and local safety members who died because of a work-related injury or illness.

Santa Cruz County Sheriff Jim Hart at Steven Carrillo's sentencing
Santa Cruz County Sheriff Jim Hart was among the members of the law enforcement community in the courtroom Friday.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“I am thankful for Gov. Newsom, Sen. Laird, and the legislature for correcting this antiquated law,” Hart said in a statement. “Families come in all forms and children of fallen first responders will now receive equal benefits regardless of their parents’ marital status.”

According to CalPERS, there are currently three families with a total of six children that will receive the benefits they are due as a result of SB 850’s passage.

Thanks to tweaked language in the revision that made it retroactive, that will include the two sons of Santa Cruz Police Detective Elizabeth Butler, who was gunned down while conducting an investigation at a home on North Branciforte Avenue in February 2013 along with Sgt. Loran “Butch” Baker. At the time of her death, Butler, 38, wasn’t married to longtime partner Peter Wu.

In a statement from Laird’s office, the senator lauded the updated acknowledgment of the modern family.

It’s “a powerful recognition of the diverse families and loved ones that support those who devote their lives to protecting our communities,” said Laird. “All families, regardless of their makeup, deserve support in their time of need.”

For a Santa Cruz law enforcement community still mourning and shaken more than two years after Gutzwiller’s death, it represents a significant righting of a wrong.

“I think about Sgt. Gutzwiller every day and I wish we lived in a world where we didn’t have to advocate for families of murdered peace officers,” Hart said. “However, the reality is that law enforcement is an inherently dangerous profession, and we need to support and hold close those families whose loved one made the ultimate sacrifice.”

Fundraising continues for a memorial to Gutzwiller at Willowbrook Park in Aptos, the neighborhood in which he first owned a home and the park he would frequent with his dog, Shasta. More than $250,000 has already been raised in a joint effort among individuals, businesses and organizations, County Park Friends and the Santa Cruz County Deputy Sheriffs’ Association.

According to a promotion for a benefit show being put on at Michael’s On Main by Mira Goto, Bonny June and Steve Seskin on Sept. 16, the memorial “will be a place for his wife, two children, friends & the community to visit, and to ensure Damon’s sacrifice is never forgotten.”