Coming together through tragedy: Dover police, families remember officer and cadet killed in crash

Photos special to the Delaware State News/Gary Emeigh

DOVER — Broken hearts came together and tears openly flowed down the cheeks of those members of the Dover Police Department and their families who gathered outside the police headquarters on Monday night.

There was definitely one common theme to the impromptu ceremony that honored the lives of Dover patrolman Robert E. DaFonte and cadet James D. Watts — that as one big extended family, they would try to help their families overcome a tragedy together.

Mr. DaFonte, a 23-year-old Hartly resident, and Mr. Watts, a 22-year-old from Camden-Wyoming, were killed early Sunday morning in a single-car crash on Hazlettville Road, west of Dover.

The news sent shockwaves through the Dover Police Department and the community.

Deputy Chief Maj. Marvin Mailey, who is the acting Dover police chief, spoke from the steps of the police department to a crowd of hundreds who had gathered underneath a United States flag that was draped between a pair of Dover Fire Department ladder trucks Monday night.

Mr. Mailey spoke above a pair of portraits of the fallen officer and cadet that sat about halfway up the department’s steps near flags that were at half-staff.

“I look out at all of these faces in this crowd of people that came together to show their love,” Mr. Mailey said. “Mr. and Mrs. DaFonte and Mr. and Mrs. Watts, look around you, this is your family. This is your extended family.

“I don’t have anything that will replace the loss of your loved ones and we will miss them. What we need to do for these families is to wrap our arms around them and love them and support them, because they are our family.”

Capt. David Spicer also spoke, saying he knew both Mr. DaFonte and Mr. Watts very well. He said he did a background check on Mr. DaFonte when he applied for a job and “highly recommended him for a position with the Dover police.”

He said he had known Mr. Watts since the cadet was about seven years old and “considered him like a son,” and they went on vacations and fished together.

“These families will always be in our hearts and our thoughts and prayers are with you,” Mr. Spicer said, to the families of Mr. DaFonte and Mr. Watts. “I hope each day gets a little bit easier, but I know it’s going to take some time to heal.”

Patrolman Anthony Smith said he and Mr. DaFonte recently attended a funeral and he was reminded of some words that his best friend, Mr. DaFonte, spoke.

“We were just at a funeral and all he said was, ‘Look at everyone who came out for the officer who got killed,’” Mr. Smith said. “If he could see right now everyone that was out there right now for him it would mean the world to him.”

Mr. Smith said it was ironic that Mr. DaFonte died on Feb. 26, 2017, considering that his badge number was 1726.

“You were taken away from us too soon,” he said. “(Robert) DaFonte was a friend, a brother, a child … and the look of determination on his face just in this photo was just like every day when he came to work, ready to work.”

Mr. Smith, with tears in his eyes, then saluted his best friend.

Dover Mayor Robin R. Christiansen spoke and acknowledged city council’s and the community’s support for the police department in its time of grief.

“We thank the parents for sharing them with us and it won’t get any easier with the pain they have to bear, but we will all come through this stronger and tougher,” the mayor said.

Karen DaFonte, Robert’s mother, called her son and his friend Mr. Watts “a blessing to be with.” Doug Watts, James’ father, thanked everybody from the department for their support.

“I don’t know what I can say other than we need to be strong,” Mr. Mailey said. “We need to stand together.”

The Dover Fire Department’s Pipes and Drums played a stirring rendition of “Amazing Grace” before the ceremony was concluded with a prayer.

A plaque honoring the two men was placed on a utility pole on Monday off Hazlettville Road. It was not immediately clear who had placed it there.

It was placed near the spot where the Jeep crashed after Mr. DaFonte lost control of the vehicle off Hazlettville Road around 4:05 a.m. Sunday as he failed to negotiate a sharp curve.

Needless to say, Master Cpl. Mark Hoffman said, it was a difficult day on Monday at the Dover Police Department at 400 S. Queen Street.

“The mood around the department has been somber to say the least,” said Mr. Hoffman, spokesman for the Dover police. “There’s still a lot of questions as far as the investigation goes.Everybody’s just kind of in shock, waiting for things like funeral arrangements to happen.”

Mr. Hoffman added the support the police have received from the community has been “absolutely tremendous.”

“I can’t say how much that has meant to the families of the officer and cadet and the families of others that are (at the police station),” he said.

Patrolman Demetrius Stevenson said it was tragic and difficult news for Dover officers to wake up to on Sunday.

“It’s tough and it’s going to take a lot of time to get over, I’m sure,” Mr. Stevenson said. “But it’s a beautiful thing with everybody coming together to honor them. We’re going to keep them in our hearts and prayers.

Offering condolences

Mr. DaFonte had been with the department for two years, while Mr. Watts was a six-month member.

At 3 p.m. Monday, the Dover Police Department Facebook page had 1,413 comments offering condolences, with 3,342 shares of the posted announcement.

Dover Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 15 spokesman Master Cpl. David Gist issued a statement that “The Dover FOP is a family and we are here for the DaFonte and Watts family. Our thoughts and prayers are with them.”

A Delaware State Police Facebook post noted, “The men and women of the Delaware State Police offer our sympathies to our brothers and sisters with Dover Police Department and the families of the fallen officers.”

The City of Dover offered “Prayers to the families of Patrolman Robert DaFonte, Cadet James Watts, and their Dover Police Department family. Our sincere sympathy to all.
“Words cannot express this great loss. Please know we are all thinking of all of you and praying for your loss. May they rest in peace.”

The Dover Fire Department also expressed condolences on its Facebook page.

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