Retiring sergeant had a blast during his 29-year career at Tustin PD

By Greg Hardesty

It’s fitting that Tustin PD Sgt. Del Pickney’s last day of work was just after the July 4 weekend.

During his 29-year career, the former Marine distinguished himself as a real firecracker of a cop.

For 17 years, either as a trainer or a supervisor, Pickney was involved in the TPD’s FTO (field training officer) program, putting his mentoring stamp on countless officers. One notable trainee was Charles Celano, TPD’s current chief.

“I like to remind him of that from time to time,” Pickney said. “He was a very good trainee. I knew he would do very well.”

Swearing-in photo at Del Pickney’s academy graduation in 1988. Photo courtesy of Del Pickney

More than a decade ago, Pickney, along with Lt. Jeff Blair, founded the Police Softball World Series, which has grown into an international event that to date has raised more than $50,000 for soldiers stationed in Iraq, the Wounded Warriors Foundation and for the families of fallen officers.

A history buff, Pickney earned at the TPD the nickname “The Oracle,” the guy with the answers to everything. He became the agency’s unofficial historian and created a time capsule that is housed in a hollow cavity in the base of a memorial statue for fallen TPD Officer Wally Karp.

“I’m the only one who knows what’s in it,” Pickney says of the time capsule, a little-known part of the 2001 memorial for Karp, who was shot to death while on duty in 1972. Karp, the TPD’s only fallen officer, was 31.

Pickney kneels on a door he knocked through, taking it completely off the hinges, in this photo from the early 1990s. Photo courtesy of Del Pickney

Pickney’s accomplishments — he’s the TPD’s first-ever master sergeant, the creator (and maintainer) of the City gym at the TPD, and he was a catalyst in designing and getting funds raised for the Wally Karp Memorial — go on.

But he has this to say about his nearly three-decade career at the TPD:

“One of my favorite things about police work is getting a front-row seat to some amazing work by professionals. Seeing the dedicated work of our employees never ceases to inspire me.”

***

Pickney during training with his Special Investigations team in the early to mid-1990s. Photo courtesy of Del Pickney

Pickney became intrigued by police work by the TV shows “Adam-12” and “CHiPs” while growing up an only child in Westminster.

He played football at Westminster High but school really wasn’t his thing, so after he graduated he walked into the Westminster PD and told the person at the front counter he wanted to apply to become an officer.

A WPD higher-up told Pickney to get some military experience first and then he would hire him.

Pickney, with the standard undercover goatee and mullet, prepares for the bench press at the Police Olympics during the 1990s. Photo courtesy of Del Pickney

So Pickney headed straight to a recruiting office and joined the Marines.

He served four years, from 1985-88 during peacetime, rising to the rank of corporal and working as an air traffic controller in Okinawa and Yuma, Ariz. That would be his fallback career if the cop thing didn’t work out.

“I was a little sheltered and (the military) was absolutely what I needed,” Pickney said. “It exposed me to different cultures and people, and helped me relate more to people from different backgrounds.”

Pickney starts every day with a (large) coffee at Starbucks. Photo courtesy of Del Pickney

That experience would serve Pickney well when he was hired by the TPD in August 1988.

“The No. 1 thing we all do as police officers is find common ground (with the people we make contact with),” he said. “Once we find common ground, the contact goes much better. And almost always, we’ll find common ground.”

Only about 18 months into his career, Pickney was on patrol when a dispatcher sent him to a most unusual call.

A triple homicide.

This file photo shows Tustin PD Sgt. Del Pickney (left) and Lt. Jeff Blair, who both founded the Police Softball World Series. File photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

“I felt fear,” Pickney recalled. “Not that I was going to be harmed, but that I somehow was going to screw up the call.”

The rookie officer didn’t blow it.

It was Aug. 19, 1990. Pickney rolled up to a Super Shops store where three young male employees had been found bound and shot in the head execution style.

Four days later, Gregory Sturm was arrested for the callous slayings of Russell Williams, 21; Chad Chadwick, 22; and Darrell Esgar, 22. Sturm was a former employee who robbed the store of $1,100 and then killed his former colleagues and friends so there would be no witnesses.

Sturm was convicted of the three murders and is serving a life sentence (he originally was sentenced to death).

“I’ll never forget their names,” said Pickney, who attended all three autopsies — his first.

In this file photo, Tustin PD Sgt. Del Pickney poses with his wife, Michele, at the TPD’s annual awards ceremony at the Marconi Automotive Museum.
File photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

“That one impacted me,” he said of the call.

Two years after he was hired, Pickney began his 17-year stretch as a field training officer/supervisor.

“You think you can leave a mark on the future,” he said, “and that’s what you hope to do.”

As an FTO, Pickney became known for some practical advice: “Stay cool, full and dry” (i.e., park your patrol car in the shade when filling out reports, don’t work on an empty stomach, stay out of the rain) and another phrase, “knowledge is power.”

Said Pickney: “Young officers mostly think about tactics and weapons, but I tried to instill in them that your mind is your strongest weapon….your knowledge of the laws, of the right thing to do, your knowledge about people from different walks of life.”

File photo of Tustin PD Sgt. Del Pickney by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Three years into his career, Pickney was selected to join Special Investigations. On his first case in SI, he and his team seized 25 kilos of cocaine and three cars — an extremely large seizure back then.

Pickney said his six years on the SI team were his favorite, and not just because he got to wear his hair in a mullet while working undercover on vice and narcotics cases.

“You’re able to see police work in a different way — see crime as it’s unfolding,” Pickney said of SI. “And I really loved turning suspects into informants.”

Over his career, Pickney has been awarded Officer of the Month three times, Officer of the Year and in 2000, he received a National Community Service Award in Washington, D.C. for the creation of the Adopt-A-Complex program, now called the Community Officer Program. The program assigns officers to small communities within the City of Tustin. The officers are tasked with getting to know the residents and provide service based on the specific needs of the residents.

In this file photo, TPD Officer Jared Moore participates in a wreath presentation with Sgt. Del Pickney (right) at the agency’s annual memorial ceremony for fallen Officer Wally Karp.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

In 2016, Pickney received a Lifetime Achievement Award.

“You hang around long enough,” Pickney said with a smile, “and you get that.”

He received one lifesaving award. One morning, Pickney was standing in line ordering breakfast when he heard a commotion behind him. A young man was in distress. Pickney performed a Heimlich maneuver and out popped the food.

For several years, Pickney participated in the Police Olympics. A weightlifter and gym rat since his teens, Pickney lifted 365 when he weighed 198.

In this file photo, Sgt. Del Pickney of the Tustin Police Department talks about the March 2015 heart attack he suffered and his experiences coming back to work after his recovery. File photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

A little more than two years ago, while lifting weights, Pickney had the scare of his life.

As usual, he was at the gym at 4:30 a.m. before his Watch Commander shift. But while he pumped iron, he wasn’t feeling it.

After his workout, he collapsed in his office.

Massive heart attack.

Pickney was rushed to the hospital and doctors were able to revive him, but the experience was terrifying.

Tustin PD Sgt. Dell Pickney looks back on his career. His last day was July 5.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Doctors told him he would be out of work recovering for more than a year. But Pickney was back to work in just five weeks. He learned there was a history of heart problems in his family.

Because of that health scare, Pickney became involved in developing TPD’s wellness program. One component of the program is free comprehensive blood work and physical fitness tests to all TPD employees, in a partnership with Santa Ana College.

Pickney, 51, is married. He and his wife of more than 20 years, Michele, a litigation claims supervisor for an insurance company, have two daughters, 17 and 14.

Pickney with his daughter, Ryan, when she was a baby and as a teenager. He has a second teenage daughter. Photo courtesy of Del Pickney

To thank them for the sacrifices they’ve made over the years, and to partially make up for all those missed holidays and other life milestone because of his job, Pickney is taking his family on an 11-day European vacation.

He requested that no big shindig be held in his honor. All he wanted was a professional photo of him with his patrol team, which includes another sergeant, Duane Havourd, and six officers.

The TPD obliged.

After he signed off on his last shift at 6:30 p.m. on July 5, Pickney and his team went to dinner.

Pickney will stay on at the TPD at a part-time master reserve officer. His primarily role will be working on the agency’s social media presence to better engage with the community.

“It would be too hard to walk away cold turkey,” Pickney said.

Pickney’s first and last police portraits, taken 29 years apart. Photos courtesy of Del Pickney

At some point, Pickney may look for full-time employment elsewhere.

For now, it’s about spending time with his loved ones.

“It’s mixed emotions,” Pickney said in an interview a week before his retirement.

“I’m very happy, anxious and sad. There will absolutely be some tears.”