New bill ensures police survivors' benefits for children in nontraditional families

"Families come in all forms and children of fallen responders will now receive equal benefits regardless of their parents' marital status," Sheriff Jim Hart said


By Jessica A. York
Santa Cruz Sentinel

SANTA CRUZ, Calif. — New legislation signed into law Monday will ensure that children in nontraditional families similar to those of fallen Santa Cruz County Sheriff's deputy Sgt. Damon Gutzwiller receive survivors' benefits.

Sen. John Laird, D- Santa Cruz, introduced Senate Bill 850 in January, calling out the circumstances where Gutzwiller's children with longtime partner, Favi Del Real, were not eligible for benefits because their parents had not married. Passage of the bill, effective in the new year, will retroactively benefit three families with a total of six children, Laird's office said, citing California Public Employees' Retirement System data. The bill looks backward to line-of-duty deaths in the state since 2013. Laird, speaking between votes Tuesday in Sacramento, said the timeline was significant for Santa Cruz County.

Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Sgt. Damon Gutzwiller.
Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Sgt. Damon Gutzwiller. (Photo/ODMP)

On Feb. 26, 2013, Santa Cruz police detective Elizabeth Butler and detective Sgt. Loran "Butch" Baker were gunned down while conducting an investigation on North Branciforte Avenue. Butler left behind two young sons with partner Peter Wu, who was left facing the same shortcoming in survivor benefit coverage.

"This is a righteous bill," Laird told the Sentinel.

Commending the bill's passage, Sheriff Jim Hart in a statement described previous law as "antiquated" in not recognizing newer family structures. Until now, state law only ensured that surviving spouses of public safety officers killed in the line of duty would qualify for an additional benefit for the officer's children. However, without a formal surviving spouse designated, no benefits were available to the officer's children. The new legislation that allows the benefit to be paid to the person in custody of the deceased individual's children, should no surviving spouse exist.

"Families come in all forms and children of fallen first responders will now receive equal benefits regardless of their parents' marital status," Hart is quoted in a release. "I think about Sgt. Gutzwiller every day and I wish we lived in a world where we didn't have to advocate for families of murdered peace officers. However, the reality is that law enforcement is an inherently dangerous profession, and we need to support, and hold close those families whose loved one made the ultimate sacrifice."

Laird said he expected the retroactive nature of the bill to be lost in committee revisions, and was happily surprised when it made it to the final bill language. He added that he believed the circumstances outlined in the bill could apply to many peace officer and firefighter families, should they be struck with a similar tragedy.

"I was determined on this bill, just determined," Laird said. "It's one of those that, no matter what reservations people might have had, when they heard the story — they got out of the way and helped move the bill along."

Gutzwiller was fatally shot June 6, 2020, during an ambush firefight in Ben Lomond with Steven Carrillo, an anti-government militia member and former U.S. Air Force staff sergeant stationed at a base in Fairfield. Carrillo was sentenced Friday to life in prison without parole, a punishment Carrillo agreed not to appeal as part of a plea deal.

Del Rio, Gutzwiller's partner of more than a decade and mother to the couple's then 2-year-old son, was pregnant with the family's second child, a daughter born just weeks after her father was killed.

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(c)2022 the Santa Cruz Sentinel (Scotts Valley, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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