Rain streamed down the stained-glass windows at First United Methodist Church here Tuesday as hundreds of family members, friends and law enforcement officers remembered Sgt. Christopher Monica, a funny and generous family man allegedly killed by inmates escaping a prison bus last week.
The gloomy weather fit the mood inside the church, as officers from around the state and country mourned the loss of one of their own.
RELATED: Slain Officer Remembered as Hero
THREE DAYS ON THE RUN: How the Manhunt for Georgia Fugitives Unfolded
A correctional officer who had worked for the state Department of Corrections for eight years, Monica was transporting prisoners last Tuesday morning when two of the inmates got free. The inmates shot and killed Monica and his colleague Curtis Billue then fled from the bus. Monica was 42.
His casket lay draped in an American flag at the front of the chapel, as an overflow of guests spilled out into the hallways of the church.
Monica’s wife Denise and his two daughters, Ashley and Zoey, sat in the front row and listened as coworkers, clergy and family celebrated his life.
“Everyone shares the same story of a man who loved deeply, and shared abundantly, and laughed often – and you know that laugh,” his niece Brooke Lawson said, fighting back tears. “We will miss his jokes and his laugh and his hugs.”
Lawson recalled her family’s favorite memories of her uncle – the runny eggs and biscuits he made for breakfast; how Denise called him “Olaf” because “everybody loves him”; the old sandals he always insisted were still in good enough condition to wear.
Speakers also remembered Monica’s knack for jokes and pranks, his devotion to his family and his dedication to his job at Baldwin State Prison.
He sometimes stayed late to get work done, prison warden Cedric Taylor said; one time, his wife even called and playfully scolded him for staying too long.
Monica was a huge help at the prison. While Baldwin used to have internal issues and struggle to pass audits, “we looked for someone who could take that, embrace it and would own it,” Taylor said. So they let Monica take over some aspects.
The next time they were audited, Taylor said, the prison scored a 100 in the portion Monica led.
The overwhelming presence of law enforcement officers in the crowd Tuesday – almost half the crowd wore their light blue Department of Corrections uniform – was a symbol for how profoundly Monica’s death impacted the police community, speakers said.
Officers, sheriffs and chiefs came from nearby communities like Milledgeville and Putnam County, and from as far away as Nevada, Oregon and Delaware.
“As I thought about how to honor Sgt. Monica, I looked around the room and I saw all the law enforcement,” Department of Corrections Commissioner Greg Dozier said. “The love that Sgt. Christopher Monica shared with both his family and his corrections family is broad and wide.”
The corrections leadership presented Monica’s family with his badge (No. 3220), displayed in a wooden casing.
“That badge, if you look around this room, represents all of us,” Dozier said. “Those of us that wear that badge, this means the world.”
Monica grew up in Chicago not knowing who his father was, before moving to Baldwin County 20 years ago. Despite his setbacks, he worked hard to provide for himself and Denise, the woman who would eventually become his wife.
He met Denise on Yahoo Chat, an online chatroom popular in the days before online dating. After conversing online for more than a year, Denise moved from New York to Georgia with her 13-year-old daughter – having never met him in person. “We thought she was insane,” Lawson said.
Monica fit in well with the family, though, and they began a happy life together, Lawson explained.
“They genuinely enjoyed each other’s company, and their love was – is – unbreakable,” she said.
He became passionately involved in the life of his younger daughter, Zoey; so much so that Zoey’s love for dancing inspired Monica to become a “Dance Dad” and take dancing classes to keep up. He often invited his coworkers at the prison to Zoey’s Nutcracker performances, Lawson said.
“There was never a moment were Chris hesitated for his family,” she said. “He’ll give the shirt off his back.”