‘It’s still heartbreaking’: Community and family members remember fallen officers

Sadia Baxter sits in prayer Saturday at Kissimmee Police Department headquarters with her three daughters, Sofia, 2, Zarah, 3, and Sariah, 9.

Three-year-old Zarah Baxter thought she was going to see her father Saturday.

That’s impossible.

Two years ago, her father, Kissimmee Police Officer Matthew Baxter, was killed in the line of duty along with Sgt. Richard “Sam” Howard. The two men were on patrol just north of downtown Kissimmee Aug. 18, 2017, when they were fatally shot. Baxter died that night; Howard died the next day.

“It’s been two years since Matthew became an angel, and I can say that it doesn’t get easier,” Sadia Baxter said Saturday at a memorial event for her husband and Howard.

Howard, a 10-year veteran, was 36 and the father of one. Baxter, 27, was the father of three.

“It’s still heartbreaking,” said Sadia, now a single mother of three girls, ages 2, 3 and 9.

Osceola County residents and law enforcement officers joined the Baxters and other family members of the fallen officers at Kissimmee Police Department headquarters to honor the men and their legacies.

“No, their daddy is not here, but you are. I want my girls to know we’re not alone. I pray to see you for many years to come,” said Sadia Baxter, who was sworn in as special agent with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement less than two weeks after her husband was killed. The Baxters met on the job at KPD and were married for three years.

“My husband wasn’t just a man in a uniform. He was one who cared about people on and off duty,” she said.

Wennell Elliott, Howard’s uncle, said he misses his nephew every day and is forever in his debt.

“He changed my life,” said Wennell, who lives in Orlando.

He said Howard helped him get sober and find God.

“I’m living the American dream because of him and all he did was talk to me,” Wennell said. He’s my savior.”

Howard’s mother, Janie Surrah, said she has been heartened by the community support for the family since the shooting. Fundraisers and memorial ceremonies for the men have drawn thousands from around Osceola and the surrounding counties.

“Sam inspired my son to join the academy,” said Paula Samsundar.

Her and Howard’s family have known each other for years, she said.

“It’s a great loss, and not just from here, but all over Central Florida,” Samsundar said. Every time an officer is lost, everyone feels it.”

KPD is still coping with the tragedy, too. It had been more than 30 years since the last Kissimmee police officer was killed on the job. Many marked Kissimmee police cars now display angel wings on each side of the back window with the fallen officers’ badge numbers.

“You all were certainly part of the healing process,” KPD Chief Jeff O’Dell told the crowd Saturday. “Your well wishes have meant everything to the department.”

The gathering was particularly meaningful with the start of the trial of accused killer, Everett Miller, O’Dell said.

Jury selection began Monday and opening arguments are expected on Monday or Tuesday, said Assistant State Attorney M. Ryan Williams.

Miller is facing two counts first-degree murder for shooting Baxter and Howard on the night of Aug. 18, 2017. Prosecutors are pursuing the death penalty, Williams said.

Miller, a Marine Corps veteran, had been involuntarily committed less than a month before the shooting for walking down a Kissimmee street in only his boxer shorts carrying a rifle.

Williams told the News-Gazette Saturday that Miller’s attorneys had not notified prosecutors that they were pursuing an insanity defense.