JERSEY CITY, N.J. – A rookie police officer slain in an ambush over the weekend had dreamed of being a cop as a kid and was an eager learner who had recently gotten a tip from his uncle, a retired officer, and put it into action, the uncle said at his funeral Friday.
"He wanted to follow in the footsteps of his Uncle Frank," Frank DeFazio said during the services for Jersey City Officer Melvin Santiago at St. Aloysius Catholic Church.
"It was my honor," he said, addressing the flag-draped casket, "to work alongside you, Officer Santiago."
Hundreds of mourners filled the church and more than a thousand more uniformed officers lined the surrounding streets as the hearse slowly made its way past. Among the mourners were Gov. Chris Christie and former Gov. Jim McGreevey.
The 23-year-old Santiago was killed early Sunday in what authorities have described as an ambush by an armed man who grabbed a security guard's gun at a 24-hour Walgreen's and then waited for police to arrive before he started shooting.
Suspect Lawrence Campbell, who had been wanted by police in a separate murder investigation, was slain in the shootout, after telling a witness to watch the evening news because he was "going to be famous."
DeFazio recalled Friday how, even when Santiago was working at a Target store and didn't own a car, he never missed a birthday party of a relative's baby girl even though it was a two-hour trip each way.
It was at the toddler's birthday party last Saturday, the day before he died, that Santiago told DeFazio he had taken his tip on positioning during a traffic stop and used it on the street.
"He told me, 'Uncle Frank, I did the car stop just like you told me and it blew my partner's mind,'" DeFazio said. DeFazio added that Santiago had scheduled an appointment for Monday morning at a BMW dealer to buy the car he'd always coveted.
The service's other public speaker, Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop, noted that Santiago had requested to work in the city's western section, where much of Jersey City's violent crime is concentrated, so he could watch, learn and "bring pride to the west."
"Melvin understood that being a police officer was dangerous, but that it was the highest calling of service possible," Fulop said.
Santiago was promoted posthumously this week to the rank of detective and awarded the police department's medal of honor.
"He walked quietly through life as a polite, respectful, compassionate man," DeFazio said. "The bullet that stuck Officer Melvin Santiago in the head also struck my heart."
Santiago was one of two New Jersey police officers to die in the line of duty this week. On Thursday, Waldwick Officer Christopher Goodell was killed when a tractor-trailer slammed into the back of his unmarked car as he was monitoring speeders on Route 17.