Unity Tour makes honoring the fallen an extraordinary celebration
Stories by Mitchell Krugel, Esther Gonzales, Brittany Krugel and Debbie Rosen
Photography by Ed Carattini Jr.
A never-ending stream of blue-line flags, thumbs up, riders chomping on cigars and so many smiles accentuated the arrival of the 2022 Police Unity Tour. As more than 2,000 law enforcement officers from around the country and survivors of fallen officers made their way around the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial, people filling the perimeter reached out to offer these heroes a never-ending pat on the back.
Cheers for the riders may have been louder in years past, but at the first full ride since before the pandemic, they were never more intense, never more meaningful. They were never deterred or daunted to get here at the end of four relentless days of never stopping to honor the sisters and brothers lost in the line of duty.
And when they hit the finish at the Memorial, the names on the wall seemed to come alive. Unity Tour Founder Pat Montuore made sure to have his board members face the riders as he commented at the post-ride ceremony.
“I asked them to face you because you represent the best of policing that I have ever seen in my entire life.” Montuore, the retired Florham Park chief, remarked. “You are true heroes.”
The ride concluded with the Unity Tour presenting a check for $2 million to Memorial CEO Marsha Toronto. The NJ State PBA supplemented that total as usual with President Pat Colligan handing a $25,000 check to the Memorial committee on behalf of members.
Clearly, there were so many factors that made the 2022 Police Unity Tour a true joy ride.
Retired Edison Local 75 member finds strength to come back to the Tour
Word that the Unity Tour was making its final approach toward the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial stirred the thousands waiting to get into position to view the arrival. Many of them wanted to be up front to make sure riders would see the signs they had made to congratulate their mothers and fathers, husbands and wives and survivors who had made the ride.
One banner in particular had a message of inspirational survival. The format of a blue line flag on this banner featured three bicycles running across the blue line, along with a flexed bicep and the outline of the state of New Jersey.
And on two lines:
Standing on F Street where riders entered the Memorial, two women held up this banner to greet retired Edison Local 75 member Jerry Sisolak. His enduring the four-day ride and making it to the Memorial was a celebration of life — including his own.
More than two years earlier, Sisolak was battling throat cancer. He said that at one point he was on his deathbed. But in May 2020, Sisolak finished his treatment.
“Yes, getting back to doing the Unity Tour was kind of putting the exclamation point on recovery,” Sisolak confirmed. “One year in, in the middle of treatment, you try to put laser focus on something like getting back on my feet. And I’m thinking, ‘Alright, if I could just get back to do the Tour.”
Sisolak is 62. He served with Edison for almost 27 years. So he has considerable experience battling and going above and beyond. But you never know how much fortitude you have until an ultimate challenge like cancer comes your way.
As a result, he never backed down from the fight. And it seems that riding the Unity Tour, as he had done in 2018 and 2019, became the light to help him through the fight.
“It was a long process, and it wasn’t a decision made overnight,” he explained. “Initially, I was going to ride when I got back on my feet. I was going to enjoy every minute of the Unity Tour.”
Stephanie Samuels was one of the women holding up the sign as the Tour came into the Memorial. After the arrival, she stood by Sisolak’s side, just as she had done throughout the fight.
NJSPBA members might know Samuels. She used to work with Cop 2 Cop and is the president and founder of COPLINE, a confidential lifeline officers can call that is answered by retired police officers.
Sisolak gave huge props to Samuels for helping him get through the fight and make it to this point. When he decided to come back and give the Tour another try, he started training on his road bike. But he switched to a single-gear bike, which is tantamount to getting from New Jersey to Washington, D.C. at 40 miles per hour.
And he never fell behind. The 19 members from the Local 75 team riding with him kept pushing Sisolak, just like members of the Local did when he was fighting through cancer.
“They guided me and encouraged me to no end,” Sisolak praised. “When I decided to do this, I wanted to try an accomplishment that would be second to none. And to enjoy every minute of it. Last year I was just walking, and this year I completed the Unity Tour. It’s a great thing.”
An unbreakable bond
Verona Local 72 member Joe Clark used to watch his father, retired North Caldwell Chief Joe Clark gear up for the Police Unity Tour. Every year, for 16 years, he anticipated the moment he would join his father.
This year, the wait was over. They finally had the chance to ride together side by side.
“It’s great,” said Chief Clark as he talked about riding alongside his son. “Joe was 10 years old when we first did it, and now he’s here with me on a bicycle, so it’s pretty neat.”
As they rode into the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial, Chief Clark glanced at his cellphone to look at a photo of him and his son. And although Joe had visited the Memorial multiple times in the past, participating in the Tour showed him a new perspective.
“I’ve been down here plenty of times for this,” Joe reflected. “But riding is different. It was an experience. It definitely was.”
When Chief Clark first participated, he met the family of Officer Matthew Rittenhouse from Harriman, Tennessee, the fallen brother for whom he rode. And the bond he formed with Rittenhouse’s family members only continued to strengthen over the years.
The Rittenhouse family first met Joe when he was only 10 years old, and they have often attended significant events with the Clark family, like Joe’s high school graduation. And this year, they saw him again, riding with Chief Clark in honor of Officer Rittenhouse, who was killed in the line of duty in 2004.
“They’re my family now, and Mr. Rittenhouse is like a father to me,” Chief Clark said. “The camaraderie is everything, but that one connection I made my first year kept me going back for more.”
All in the family
On a grassy knoll by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial wall, a group of riders cooled down after just finishing the Police Unity Tour. Actually, “group” does not best describe them. More like “family.”
Where are you all from?
Eatontown. Local 305 members.
Division of Criminal Justice Detectives. Local 383.
Monmouth County Sheriff’s Office. Local 314.
Federal Agents. Local 121.
“Over the years, everybody who wants to do it, this is the group we have,” explained retired Local 314 member James Fay, the informal organizer of this team this year, who was riding the Tour for the 18th time. “Some people have come back to do it. Some people are new to it. It’s great because everybody’s picking each other up during the ride.”
This group, this team, this family has embraced everyone over the years. Joining for the 11th time this year was Christine Petzold. Her brother David, an investigator with the Upper Saucon Township Police Department in Pennsylvania, was lost in the line of duty in 2006.
Christine met two of the group’s riders in 2010, the year before she made her first Tour. They did not know her, but now she calls them her big brothers.
“They’ve kind of adopted me a long time ago and they fill a void, part of that void, that my brother left,” she confided. “They have stayed in touch with me. They take care of me. They’re awesome.”
Barb Apanites also met the officers from this team when she made her first ride five years ago. Her father, Detective John Apanites, worked narcotics for the Cleveland Police Department and was killed in the line of duty in 1969 when he was 27 years old. Barb was about a year old at the time.
When Barb first rode, she found herself to be the only person from Cleveland on the Tour. The group adopted her as well.
“They’re like a family. They understand what’s going on,” Barb said. “So it’s like a way to connect with my father.”
Sock and awe
Even though the line of riders rolled into the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial forming a long blue blur, it was hard not to notice part of the Unity Tour uniform that Paterson Local 1 members Joel and Ozzie Torres and James DiPiazza wore.
They each sported socks with stars and stripes and pictures of their beloved captain, John Phelan. Phelan passed away from complications due to COVID on March 7, 2021. He was renowned in the city for his longtime service, which included responding on 9/11 at the World Trade Center site. His wife Lourdes is a Paterson deputy captain.
So as a tribute, the three Local 1 members had the socks specially made. They also wore his name on the back of their Unity Tour jerseys.
“We rode for all the officers throughout the times and for our captain, as well and everybody else,” said DiPiazza, who made the Tour for the first time. “It was a very emotional experience. You can’t describe it, but it’’ very rewarding when you get here.”
The three members formed the bulk of the team representing Paterson this year. Their connection dates back to 2005 when they went through the academy together.
“We got thought it together, just like we did in the academy,” Joel commented.
Joel’s older brother, Ozzie, noted that in addition to honoring Captain Phelan, they also came as a tribute to Local 1 member Francesco Scorpo, who was lost to COVID in April 2020. They made sure to take a moment to gather where Scorpo’s name is inscribed on the wall at the Memorial to remember their brother.
Even though they made the Tour to honor recently fallen brothers, they felt the power of the Tour and anticipated coming back to do it again and again.
“There are no words for the whole Tour itself, with the presence and everyone around us,” Ozzie added. “It’s emotional, and it’s just a blessing to be here.”
Never forgetting your first
The Unity Tour always comes with challenges, even for those officers who have been riding for several years. But the biggest challenge seems to come from riding in honor of a loved one lost in the line of duty.
Somerville Local 147 State Delegate Vito Spadea made the Tour for the eighth time, each year remembering the four officers Local 147 has lost along every mile of the route.
One of those officers is Matthew Melchionda, a friend of Spadea’s who was lost in 2006.
“[His was] the very first funeral that I attended as a law enforcement officer,” Spadea said. “I’ve become friendly with the family and his mom. I text her all the time, and we always try to support her. It’s just one of those things, letting her know that the biggest thing is that her son’s name never dies.”
Officer Melchionda was killed in an automobile accident while responding to assist undercover detectives conducting a traffic stop. The detectives, who were assigned to the Auto Larceny Unit, were preparing to stop a suspicious vehicle and requested a marked patrol car.
It’s been more than 15 years, but Spadea can still remember it like yesterday. And that memory is never more alive than when riding the Tour. Every year, pedaling into the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial rekindles the memories.
“Every time I come in, it feels like the first time,” Spadea said.
The dream team
Leaning on each other through the hills and elements enabled Ewing Township Local 111 team members to endure the Police Unity Tour. When one fell behind during the four-day journey, another team member would urge them to keep going.
“We work as a team,” Local 111 member Irving Bruno said. “Everywhere we see that somebody needs help, we encourage them to pedal and keep pushing, that it’s almost over and the end is here. And we survived.”
The Local 111 team included eight members. Some, like Bruno, had participated many times before. And others, like Trenton Local 11 member Jorge Mejia, who rode with the Mercer County contingent, participated for the first time.
Mejia rode alongside his fiancé, Local 111 member Brittney Fornarotto, who motivated him to ride his year. He truly felt how overwhelming the experience is.
“This is just…” said Mejia as his voice trailed off and tears welled in his eyes. “I really feel that knot in my throat. Like, wow.”
After seeing Mejia embrace the Tour, Fornarotto beamed with pride.
“I’m not going to lie, I didn’t think he would actually enjoy it,” Fornarotto admitted. “So, I’m super-excited. This is humbling. And once you really experience the community of this, you can’t not do it.”
The thousands of supporters cheering for riders when they reached the finish line also reminded Bruno all over again of why he had participated in the Police Unity Tour for 14 years.
“After all the pains and suffering you go through the first three days, you just live for this day, right here,” Bruno reflected. “And seeing everybody coming out as a team and all the survivors here, it’s just overwhelming.”
Feeling the love
Darren McConnell and Kristin Altimari rode together, side by side, representing Red Bank Local 39 as part of the 40 members from Monmouth County. Along their 300-mile route, the team witnessed the vast amount of support from residents in the community standing along the curbs of sidewalks cheering and applauding as riders passed by.
And it was that encouragement that continued to motivate McConnell and Altimari to press forward until they reached the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial.
“I just love all of the support from everybody,” Altimari said. “And the emotion, the atmosphere and that we get to do this together.”
Emotions flooded over McConnell the moment he entered the Memorial.
“The crowd is almost overwhelming,” McConnell said. “This is the best day. The most emotional day.”
That sight of thousands of survivors and officers standing together to honor the memories and legacies of their fallen brothers and sisters inspired Altimari.
“There’s so much love,” Altimari added. “Love from the regular community that’s here. Love from everybody who’s come from all over the state and all over the country, just to all be together. And I just love that we get to do this.”
Ride like the wind
The cold wind rushed past Lawrence Township Local 119 member Chris DiMeglio as he began the ride from New York City to Washington, D.C. for 2022 National Police Week. But the strong winds DiMeglio faced throughout the four-day Police Unity Tour ride seemed insignificant when arrived at the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial on May 12.
Thousands waited at the entrance for the 2,000-plus riders to make their pass through the Memorial. Cheers and applause erupted as the blue line of riders appeared.
In his nine years of making the Tour, it was the biggest crowd DiMeglio had ever seen. He was blown away by the sight, immediately forgetting the challenges of the four-day ride he had endured.
“It’s something I’ve missed,” DiMeglio said. “It definitely tears at the heart when you come through here.”
Despite the cold winds that seemed to follow him from New York City, each ride reminds DiMeglio all over again of why he rides.
“I just enjoy giving back and riding for those who died,” DiMeglio said. “I know it’s cliché, but it’s very meaningful to ride for them.”
And after yet another tough ride, DiMeglio plans to participate again in the Police Unity Tour next year before he retires.
“It was incredible this year,” DiMeglio added. “I’m just glad I got to do this.”
A burst of energy
The rush of riding the Police Unity Tour had Maplewood Local 44 member Diana Gil full of energy even after four days and cycling more than 300 miles.
“It’s one of the best car chases in the world,” Gil said of the Tour after she completed it for the second time.
There aren’t many endeavors that can bring the exhilaration of the job outside the job like participating in the Unity Tour. And the way it can become a team pursuit — when riding with members from your agency or friends from another — certainly adds to that feeling.
Gil rode with members of United States Customs Local 324. And knowing the team was together for that experience, motivating each other every mile of the way, added to the fun.
“The whole team was staying by each other, pushing each other,” Gil explained. “And we made it. We’re all one big family.”
Tears welled in Gil’s eyes at the sight of the large crowd that gathered to welcome them into the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial.
“It was very emotional, [I shed] a little bit of tears,” Gil admitted. “But it’s so much fun. It’s one of the best things ever.”
And the best part of the journey for Gil was knowing her team was together for what mattered most: honoring their fallen brothers and sisters.
“The most rewarding part is knowing that we’re here, present and in good health,” Gil added. “We’re doing it for those that we’re remembering, keeping their memory alive and just doing it for the families. I’m happy that we’re all here.”
Making the climb
No amount of training on his Peloton could have prepared New Jersey Transit Police Local 304 President Dan Whartnaby for the terrain and steep inclines of riding to Washington, D.C. But after Whartnaby endured the hills of the Police Unity Tour, it all led to a unexpected finish at the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial.
The sound of cheers and applause met him as he rode in line with the 2,000-plus other participants. Thousands of supporters from across the country welcomed the riders into the Memorial.
“It’s an amazing experience, seeing all the survivors that are here,” Whartnaby said. “And it’s an amazing experience to have people come down from the various departments cheering us on.”
But it’s not just the incredible experience of riding into the Memorial each year that brought Whartnaby back for the fourth time.
“I continue to ride to show support for our brothers and sisters who paid the ultimate sacrifice,” Whartnaby said.
After the Tour was postponed and limited the past few years due to the pandemic, this year’s ride held even more significance for Whartnaby. That reinforced the privilege of being part of National Police Week and how important it is.
“It was a little more special to be able to actually come down to Washington this year,” Whartnaby added. “Everyone in law enforcement should do it at least once in their career.”
Life on Tour
When the 2022 Unity Tour stopped for the day, it was not hard to spot members from Stafford Township Local 297 and Barnegat Township Local 296 riding together with Chapter 10. At each Tour stop, they set up leather couches and a grill they brought in the 32-foot trailer supporting this team and cranked up the tunes.
Certainly, they were the life of the party. But in starting their ride from World Trade Center site for the first time ever, they wanted to have a party to celebrate the lives of those who were lost in the line of duty. And as a result, they formed a team of 18 strong making the ride, including five first-timers.
“When we wanted to start in New York, everyone started jumping in,” reported Local 297 member Chris Smith, who made his sixth Tour in his 20 years on the job and organized the team. “We had a lot of fun, a lot of good stories to tell. It made those hard hills easier, that we were all sticking together.”
Local 296 member Ton Henry, known as “Hank,” explained how riders from nearby towns joined in with this group as the Tour progressed. The camaraderie led to memories, including motivational lines that came up each day to keep everybody going.
“Just joking around and just trying to stay positive,” Hank added. “Because everyone’s grinding and everyone’s winded.”
Some of the lines of impact included:
“In this kitchen, we lick the spoon.”
“Live, love, laugh.”
“We’re going to bring the fruit to the fruit market.”
“How everyone came together for a common goal was just awesome,” Hank said.
Local 297 member Marisa Lawrence seemed to have the time of her life riding for the first time in her 15 years on with this team. She found additional motivation from seeing kids lined up outside schools with their flags waving and cheering on the riders as they passed through towns along the way.
“It’s one of those things that everybody has said you have to do it at least once,” she said. “It’s an awesome group doing it this time, and I really just wanted to jump in and experience it.”
It runs in the family
For the past five years, Essex County Sheriffs Officers & Court Attendants Local 183 member Dylan Gonzalez has watched his father, Newark Officer Rab Gonzalez, gear up for the Police Unity Tour. And Dylan eagerly awaited the day he could join him, to ride side by side into the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial.
This year, Dylan proudly rode with his father, inspired by his commitment to ride 300 miles in honor of the fallen.
“I saw my dad and what he’s gone through all these years,” Dylan said. “And I saw him participate in the Police Unity Tour before I got on. But to actually be by his side to ride and to experience it the whole way, it’s surreal.”
Dylan comes from a long line of law enforcement officers. Not only is his father on the job, but his mother is retired from the Essex County Sheriffs Office. And his brother is on with the Port Authority Police Department.
More sources of inspiration for Dylan are those for whom he rides.
“I knew a few of the guys who died in line of duty,” Dylan said, “one of them being Newark Detective Michael Morgan. And also my boss, [Essex County Undersheriff] Kevin Ryan, who passed away back in 2018.”
When Dylan and Rab reached the memorial, the crowd cheering for them was a reminder of what they love most about the ride.
“If anyone who’s on that wall could change places with us, they would,” Rab said. “We have to just fulfill their dreams and their goals and show their families and their loved ones who are missing them that we’re still here and that we’ll still do this every year for them.”
After experiencing the Police Unity Tour with his father, Dylan has already made plans to ride next year.
“It’s something that never gets old,” Dylan added. “And I will have the family down here next year to watch me ride in.”
Riding with purpose
Howell Local 228 members John Curtin and Bill Brooks finally found a resting place at the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial and noted what had transpired during their four days on the Police Unity Tour.
They rode with Chapter 37 and started the journey at the World Trade Center site. The next 300-plus miles were filled with the ultimate test of endurance.
“Long nights, good nights, rough mornings,” Curtin related. “But we did what we had to do — we got down here.”
They found their way through the challenge from two officers near and dear to them who made the ultimate sacrifice. The Local 228 members rode for Lakewood Local 71 member Christopher Matlosz, who was lost on Jan. 14, 2011. And their journey also honored U.S. Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick, who died from injuries sustained in the response to the rioters in the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection.
“We want to remember those who paid the ultimate price in our line of work and keep their memories alive,” Brooks said.
Departing from Ground Zero and riding through the Lincoln Tunnel into Jersey City proved to be the ultimate way to start the Tour and a memorable way to begin the tribute to Matlosz, Sicknick and the 37 Port Authority Officers who were lost on 9/11, as Chapter 37 does each year.
“That was a really cool experience to honor all those people, the fallen,” Curtin added.
After completing their mission, Curtin and Brooks seemed to feel the pain of the four days subside and realized how much support they had to make it to D.C.
“Your body adapts to the conditions that are thrown at you,” Brooks said. “And your team kind of carries you along.”
Back on the bike
This year marked the first time in two years that the Police Unity Tour was able to come out in full force.
That’s why this year meant so much to Manchester Township Local 246 State Delegate Artie Cronk. It’s Cronk’s 16th year riding, and he said arriving this year at the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial felt more special than usual.
“Super emotional as always,” noted Cronk, a trustee for Chapter 10 who rode with other members from Ocean County. “It was very nice to see the huge turnout since the last few years we haven’t been able to do it this way.”
Being back in full force this year didn’t come without its challenges.
“A little windy, but we made it through like we always do,” Cronk noted.
Meeting across the river
The Unity Tour is filled with stories that connect brothers and sisters in the most unexpected, and sometimes unfathomable, ways.
Monmouth County Sheriff’s Officers Local 314 member Michael DeLuca related such an experience after completing this year’s Tour.
Participating for the eighth year, DeLuca chose to ride for Sergeant Daniel Sakai of the Oakland Police. Sakai was a SWAT team member lost in 2009 when he attempted to apprehend a suspect who had already killed two other officers earlier that day.
DeLuca chose Sakai because he had created DeLuca’s favorite hero workout. And what happened on the journey to Washington, D.C. made the ride all the more special.
“I actually met his sister on the ferry ride over for Chapter 10,” DeLuca explained. “I looked over and her card read, ‘My bro.’ I said, ‘Was that your partner?’ She goes, ‘That was my brother.’ And her father does support, so I got to meet the father and the sister of the fallen officer I rode for.”
DeLuca and the rest of Local 314 team faced some pretty tough weather on the ride to the Memorial. But they were motivated to push through it.
“Just when you thought you were like, ‘Oh, maybe if we make this turn,’ but the wind shifted with you,” DeLuca added. “But I mean, I was just happy to be part of this great organization and this great brotherhood and sisterhood we have.”
Despite the wind and other challenges, DeLuca says this was the best Unity Tour he’s ever ridden. Sakai’s spirit and the desire to show the world that law enforcement will never waiver kept him going.
“We’re never going to cower before darkness or any type of criminal element,” DeLuca said. “We’re going to stand up and still do our jobs and fight.”
Passaic County Corrections Local 197 members take the Tour
On May 9, Passaic County Corrections Local 197 members gathered at the Hilton Parsippany for the Police Unity Tour send off. Five Local 197 members joined a team of 10 other riders from different departments throughout the county.
Local 197 State Delegate Michael Dalton was amazed by the sight of the team who had prepared months in advance for this very moment.
“Our union’s pretty tight,” Dalton explained. “And I know how much my guys and girls trained to prepare for the ride to Washington. A lot of them bought Peloton bikes to train for months and months to be able to ride. It’s not an easy feat, and it’s impressive to me.”
A crowd of members from across the state and country gathered with the team to cheer them on. And as they left, Dalton knew, they were going to represent the NJSPBA to the best of their ability.
“I feel like anything that our Local can do to represent law enforcement in a positive atmosphere is good,” Dalton remarked. “I mean, the tour goes through multiple states showing the good we do and how we can come together when we all put our minds and work hard at something.”