On October 4, 2007 Sergeant Jason Lhotka of the Mesa County Sheriff's Office tragically died while climbing Mount Kilimanjaro with his mother. Saturday, exactly one year later, his fellow depuites and family members gathered to celebrate his life and to make sure he will always be remembered.
Mesa County Sheriff Stan Hilkey stood outside the home of Sgt. Jason Lhotka, reflecting on the man who he says wore many hats, had an uncanny ability to be in the right place at the right time, and had a huge heart.
"It's been a hard year for all his law enforcement family and his family here as well," said Hilkey.
No one knows that more than Sgt. Lhotka's wife, Elena. She says the past year has been an emotional roller coaster for her and her family, and that it's hard going through things, like their 4-year-old son Nick's first day of pre-school, without him.
"Everyday is a new experience and I know it's going to continue for a long time," said Lhokta.
While all who knew Sgt. Lhotka say it's been a year of grief and sadness, they wanted Saturday to be about anything but.
"We're having a barbeque and getting back together and celebrating Jason's life," said Hilkey.
In addition to serving on the street crimes unit, Sgt. Lhotka was a member of the Mesa County Wild Land Fire Team. Elena recalls how he used to bring the scanner with him everywhere, sometimes hoping a fire would break out, just so he could go fight it. Sheriff Hilkey says that passion is exactly why he wanted to do something special when he got the opportunity to add a new engine to the unit.
"This is engine 126," said Hilkey. "126 was his radio call sign, so we're proud to be able to do that."
Elena says when she and her family found out about the truck, they were overwhelmed.
"I can't put it into words," said Lhotka. "But it's huge, along with everything else the sheriff's department has done for us."
During the celebration, Elena and Sgt. Lhotka's mother Sandra christened the new truck with a bottle of champaign, while Nick wasted no time exploring the machine named for his dad.
"I know he's here with us and he's watching these things," said Lhotka. "And I wish he could be here. I know he'd be so proud."
Elena calls the truck the icing on the cake during a year in which so many inside and outside the sheriff's office have stepped up to help her and her family.
"The entire community, i just can't believe everything they've done," said Lhotka. "I'm so grateful to have a community like this."
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