CHAMPAIGN — Family members and colleagues of a Champaign police officer killed on duty a year ago say their trip this week to the nation’s capital to honor him is stirring a mishmash of emotions.
Chris Oberheim’s name is one of hundreds that will be added this week to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Washington, D.C., in a ceremony that will take place just days before the anniversary of the 44-year-old officer’s death.
“Excited but anxious,” said his widow, Amber, of her feelings and those of her four daughters who will be with her during National Police Week in Washington, which started Wednesday and runs through May 17.
The week is chock full of activities including a bicycle-tour ride-in Wednesday, a candlelight vigil Thursday on the National Mall, a conference and Washington Nationals baseball game on Saturday, a wreath-laying and stand-watch services Sunday at the memorial in Judiciary Square and another conference on Monday.
At the expense of the city, Oberheim’s immediate family flew to Washington early Wednesday morning with Champaign police Detective Steve Vogel, who has acted as their liaison from the Concerns of Police Survivors organization, a group with which Vogel has been affiliated for seven years. He serves as a team leader from Illinois.
Volunteers for the national organization work with police departments and surviving families in the immediate aftermath of a death in the line of duty.
“We take the burden off the police department and assist the department in working with the family making sure the funeral is what the family wants,” Vogel said.
Their duties are as wide-ranging as finding and setting up venues for funerals, organizing processions, parking cars and helping surviving family members apply for benefits.
Although Vogel knew and talked to Officer Oberheim, the two were not close because they had different duties. Vogel was a school resource officer before being assigned to investigations, while Officer Oberheim was on the street.
“I knew nothing about Amber and the girls until that day, and now they are kind of like my own family,” said Vogel, 39, who is married with children.
“Steve’s been a great resource and great support. He was the one that drove us everywhere for the first 109 days and really never left our side,” Amber Oberheim said. “We’re excited to have him with us and to show us the ropes.”
Vogel worked for the Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Police for four years before coming to Champaign in 2013. He’s made several trips to the memorial, which opened in October 1991, and said he’s “excited and kind of sad” about this trip.
“It’s a somber time, but time to celebrate Chris,” said Vogel, who added that seeing the names of fallen officers etched into walls on his first trip to the memorial in 2010 was a “humbling experience.”
“It knocked you back and made you think, ‘Sometimes, we take this job for granted.’ It checks you back into reality. This can happen,” he said of the potential for loss of life.
That visit sparked his interest in wanting to get more involved in the survivors organization, which he did in 2015. Not only has he helped raise money, he’s helped several families whose loved ones have died on duty across Illinois since then.
Vogel’s experience with the annual services and getting around D.C. should be of great comfort to the Oberheims, who intend to enjoy their week even if it’s difficult.
“The Oberheims always have fun. It doesn’t matter where we are,” said Amber Oberheim, about to complete a full year without her best friend.
She’s not analyzing how she and her girls, ages 22, 19 and twins who are 14, will react to what they will experience.
“What happens happens,” she said. “If we have those moments, it just means that we are very human.
“This month is hitting me a little harder than I anticipated. I’m going into this a little apprehensive but at the same time knowing it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
Several other members of Officer Oberheim’s family — his mother, siblings and some of their spouses and children — will also be present to see his name added to one of the panels that features the names of more than 23,000 police officers killed in the line of duty in the U.S.
Included in the Champaign contingent will be Officer Jeff Creel, 51, who returned fire and killed Darion Lafayette, 24, on May 19, 2021, after Mr. Lafayette shot him three times in addition to shooting Officer Oberheim.
Creel, a 21-year-veteran of the department, is on "limited duty" status, having returned to work May 4.
Vogel said Creel “hates being in the limelight.” He was given a Medal of Valor and a Purple Heart from his department for his actions.
“He’s a hero to the Oberheims. I know that for a fact, but he doesn’t see it that way,” Vogel said.
Also going on the trip are interim Champaign police Chief Tom Petrilli; department honor-guard members Lt. Greg Manzana and Detective Art Miller; and officers Dave McLearin and Chris Aikman, friends of Officer Oberheim who also worked with him at the Decatur Police Department before each made his way to Champaign.
The officers and the Oberheim family are staying at the same hotel as about 200 other police and families of officers from Illinois who lost loved ones in 2021, so the Oberheims anticipate running into other survivors and friends they have met in the past year at different tributes.
Aikman, a Champaign officer since 2008, said he and Officer Oberheim frequently were assigned to the same or overlapping shifts.
“We used the code 10-25 (meet in person) a lot to sit in a parking lot when there was a lull to talk about whatever call or something our kids were doing or softball,” he said. “Chris was the stud when it came to softball. One year, I felt like I was called up to the big leagues when I was asked to play on his father-in-law’s team.”
Having never been to the law-enforcement memorial, Aikman, 40, said he was “compelled to go” to honor his friend.
“Chris was a reserved person, pretty quiet. I’m not sure anyone on our department knew him really well, not even me,” he said. “I was offered the opportunity to attend because of our history and long friendship. I feel the strong urge to go so I can honor his years of service and the ultimate price he paid to protect others. I just want to be there to support his family.”
Aikman said he’s not certain how he’s going to feel during the next several days, which will be an emotional mix of sadness and fun.
“I want to see his name on the wall. I want to take a rubbing,” Aikman said. “I never thought I would ever personally know anybody killed in the line of duty. But here it is.”