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Soul searcher

When the Hurst police cruiser pulled him over, Rick Metcalf remembered that he'd never replaced the license plate after it fell off the flatbed trailer he was towing. Metcalf wasn't concerned about a ticket, though. A towering bear of a man with a full beard, he doesn't get upset about much of anything.

"Boy, they were ready to bust my chops," Metcalf says.
Then the officers, coming from behind Metcalf's Chevy pickup, glanced at what was lying in the bed of the trailer--a six-foot-long slab of Georgia granite with this inscription:

We the people of the state of Texas acknowledge and thank Trooper Aubrey Lee Moore for the great sacrifice he made to keep the public safe. His efforts will stand the test of time. May God rest his soul.

"It was like throwing butter in the furnace," the 42-year-old Metcalf says with a deep laugh. Metcalf explained to the Hurst officers that he was in town to place two monuments for state Department of Public Safety troopers who died in the line of duty. The one in the trailer was for a highway patrolman who was killed in 1932. "They couldn't have been nicer," Metcalf recalls. "They said, 'It's a great thing. Keep up the good work.'

"Having just lost comrades in this area, I hope seeing the stone brought them some comfort," he says.

Since 1993, Metcalf, who lives in Lago Vista, has made it his mission to travel the state, placing granite monuments in memory of Texas Rangers and state troopers who were killed in the line of duty. Of the 72 troopers and rangers killed since 1910, Moore is the 30th for whom Metcalf has erected a monument.

His is a curious, one-man crusade that took root in 1991, when state trooper Carlos Warren stopped Metcalf for speeding on Texas Highway 71 southeast of Austin.

Metcalf, a heavy equipment mechanic, was struggling to build a house for his family at the time--but construction was going slowly because money was scarce. "I was thinking of my problems--not paying attention. I was as guilty as could be," Metcalf remembers. "I told him, 'Oh God, I can't afford this ticket.' Things were going rough for me--and somehow he knew this.

"He was telling me how it was a nice thing that I was trying to do for my family. Then he sent me on my way. Even shook my hand.

"It was only a short time later that I saw his face on the news. The word 'No' came out of me long and slow."

Warren had been shot three times in the back after surprising three men who had kidnapped a teenager. "That great lesson he taught me on the side of the road has changed my way of thinking about police officers," Metcalf says.

Metcalf didn't act on his lesson for years. "I'd been praying for him since it happened," Metcalf says. He visited the site of the trooper's shooting and prayed at a simple white cross Warren's wife had placed--like so many others along Texas roads commemorating vehicular death.

"It took a while for me to figure out what to do," he says. One day, three years after Warren fell, without informing anyone or getting permission from the DPS, the Texas Department of Transportation, or local authorities, Metcalf bought a slab of granite, had it engraved, and hauled it out to the scene of Warren's shooting in his pickup. He erected it next to the white cross. "I just felt like I owed him something."

Inspired--divinely, he believes--Metcalf looked up the names of other DPS troopers who had died on the job. He began driving the roads of Texas, unabashedly grilling state troopers, survivors, witnesses, and newspaper reporters for the exact site of local troopers' deaths so he knew precisely where to place his monuments.

"Everybody who had asked permission to do something like this was turned down--because there just wasn't any policy on it," Metcalf says. "So, I just snuck around. I got 13 out before they caught me.

"They told me I might go to jail. My stomach was in knots," he remembers of that first call from DPS. But when word of Metcalf's work reached the highest officials in DPS and TDOT, they not only showed clemency, they encouraged him. (In truth, troopers and highway workers had been informally helping him all along--signs, barriers, and landscaping appeared at many of the sites.) Now he has a letter of commendation from the governor and, most importantly, a letter from DPS to TDOT approving his work.

When Metcalf first tells you of his "hobby" of erecting monuments to slain troopers, he has the distinct ring of a cracked pot: a guy in terrible health driving the highways of Texas in a pickup with a huge tombstone in the back, enlisting the help of friends and strangers to pour concrete and set it--all because a cop didn't give him a ticket.  

But no one who meets Metcalf doubts his sincerity. Spouting praise for God and state troopers--"they do a tough job on lonely highways and die protecting the public"--he buries cynicism deeper than his granite stones.

He showed up at the Hurst DPS headquarters unannounced last week on a stormy Thursday that left many area roads flooded and snarled. By the next day, troopers had helped him locate the site where Texas Ranger Bobby Paul Doherty was killed in 1978, and had offered a place to set the monument to Moore. "I appreciate what he's doing," says Trooper David Luedke, who researched the troopers' deaths for Metcalf. "It's important that they're not forgotten."

The DPS help is nice, says Metcalf, but it's the hand of God that's been smoothing the road ahead. Since an industrial accident in 1975, his health has been failing--"I'm dyin'," he explains deadpan. Blood clots and thrombosis put him on permanent disability in 1985. He lives off his check, yet he sold his house, in part, to jump-start the monument project. He bought the first 10 stones, and two more were donated. Then he found a monument company in Rockdale that would provide and cut the monuments at cost, $270. "Granite all the way from Georgia--and they stop whatever they're doing to finish and engrave the monuments for me," he says in awe. Now, the Troopers Memorial Fund he set up brings in most of the money for the materials.

But God apparently doesn't like to make things too easy. Metcalf has his work cut out for him in placing many of the monuments. Last week, after some diligent searching in miserable weather, he found the exact place near Argyle where a drug dealer's gunfire cut down Texas Ranger Doherty on February 20, 1978.

"It was raining and sleeting, and we had a tornado not far away--sounded like a bunch of freight trains," Metcalf says. "But I said a little prayer, and the rain slowed to a mist until we set the stone. Then started right up again--nice as you please."

(In positioning the monument, he noticed that a nearby wooded lot would make a nice park to give Doherty's memorial perpetual solitude, and he plans to approach the owner for its donation.)

But sometimes, with the passage of time, it's difficult to find the precise site of a trooper's death--people's memories fade, and, in cases like that of Aubrey Moore, a lonely stretch of highway becomes a congested urban residential neighborhood as progress scrapes away roads and history.

Moore, a highway patrolman for just six months, had topped a hill on the Fort Worth-Dallas Pike west of Arlington at about 7:40 a.m. on April 16, 1931, and slammed into the side of a car pulling out of a filling station. (The majority of DPS officers who have died on duty were killed in traffic accidents.) The accident was reported as being 400 yards west of Death Crossing. Metcalf soon learned that not only did Death Crossing no longer exist, but no one was sure exactly what had become of the Fort Worth-Dallas Pike. Local DPS troopers know it didn't evolve into Interstate 30 or 20, but they're only reasonably confident that it's what is now Spur 303 in Arlington.

Lacking an exact location, and because the area is now packed tightly with houses and apartments, Metcalf was forced to put the monument at the nearest DPS headquarters. The site on Loop 820 seems a wonderful place for the five-foot-high block of granite--people on the service road and everyone leaving the DPS headquarters will see it--yet the placement anguishes Metcalf.

"I hate doing this," he says. "I like to put 'em exactly where they fell. I like to pray for them there. They often died so quickly and violently that they didn't have a chance to make peace with God. Being a spiritual person, I believe their souls still linger there. I think this sends them home."

With the dedication of Moore's monument, Metcalf announced that he will begin placing monuments for all the peace officers killed in Texas. "We'll begin with the most recent ones--that's where the most pain is--and work back in time."

He's not even sure how many peace officers have been slain in the line of duty in the state. Hundreds? Thousands? Metcalf laughs as he directs the winch swinging Moore's slab from the trailer. "Doesn't matter--I just don't care. When I started this, it looked like too much to be done. Now, I've set 30, and I expect to be done [with DPS troopers] in a year. If we keep at it, we can get it done.  


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