Acclaimed Santa Rosa Police Officer Gary Kinser dies at age 73.

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The understated and gentlemanly Gary Kinser was surprised in 1985 when he was selected as the finest police officer in California and second best in the entire nation. But the people who worked with him weren’t.

“He had that unique sixth sense,” said Sal Rosano, who was Santa Rosa’s new police chief when he hired Kinser in 1974. “He would look at a driver, a situation, and just sense that something wasn’t right.”

Kinser died Saturday from pneumonia after a more than a two-year struggle with Alzheimer’s disease. He was 73.

Retired Sonoma County Judge Mark Tansil originally knew Kinser as a police officer and befriended him after Kinser retired from the Santa Rosa Police Department and became a courtroom bailiff.

“He was a cop’s cop in the right sense,” Tansil said.

“He was the epitome of a good public servant. He always did the right thing, and he was good to people.”

The native of Pasadena was in grade school when his parents moved the family to Santa Rosa. Kinser graduated from Montgomery High School in 1963.

Four years later, after the citations generated by his youthful fascination with driving fast torpedoed his ambition to join the California Highway Patrol, he became an officer with the San Mateo Police Department.

He was among the first group of experienced officers hired by Rosano to bolster an understaffed and undertrained Santa Rosa Police Department.

Though Kinser was not the sort to try to impress anyone, his uncanny instincts, his powers of perception and recall, his quiet doggedness and his amiable nature quickly earned him the admiration of his superiors, fellow officers and the community.

“He just had one of those minds,” said Hank Schreeder, who’s now chief of the Santa Rosa Police Department and decades ago worked the streets with Kinser.

“He was old school,” Schreeder said. “He’s one of those guys who you want to put young guys with to show, hey, it can be done.”

Retired Santa Rosa Police Lt. Brad Marsh worked patrol with Kinser and served with him on the department’s first undercover narcotics investigations unit.

“He was one in million; it’s that simple,” Marsh said. “He was one of the most, if not the most respected guy in that Police Department.”

Kinser had been with the Santa Rosa police for 11 years when the American Legion honored him as the state’s “Law Officer of the Year.” The Legion members who honored him told him that he was among 32 officers nominated as national officer of the year, and he came in second.

During his 24 years as a Santa Rosa police officer, Kinser was awarded both the department’s Silver Medal and Medal of Valor.

He was praised for saving his own life and potentially those of others when a career criminal named Wayne Nelson Howe opened fire on him with a pistol during a traffic stop in April 1987.

Kinser was on patrol near the former Kmart store when he grew suspicious upon observing that a man who’d stood alongside a parked 1977 Plymouth with the trunk open glanced at his patrol car, quickly slammed the trunk lid and drove off.

Kinser followed and pulled over the car on Old Redwood Highway.

As he stepped to the driver’s window, the man at the wheel pointed a handgun at him and demanded his revolver.

Kinser leapt to the side and ran to his patrol car. After a brief chase, the driver of the Plymouth jumped out and fired at Kinser.

The officer grabbed his shotgun and gave chase. There was a shootout and suspect Howe was killed.

It was soon discovered that Howe had a 20-year criminal record and was suspected of several armed robberies in San Francisco.

Kinser was 53 when he retired as a patrol officer in 1998. Fellow Santa Rosa police officers were sorry to see him go.

Rodney Sverko, who rose to the rank of commander while serving as the department’s longest tenured officer, said Kinser “was one of the finest street cops” he’d ever witnessed.

“He was a pick-and-shovel type of policeman, and he was also very fair,” Sverko said.

Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch called Kinser “the kind of policeman that everyone should aspire to be.”

Shortly after retiring as a policeman, Kinser and his wife, Janice, loaded up a pickup and spent nine weeks on a cross-country drive.

The retired patrol officer then was hired by the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office and became a bailiff in Tansil’s courtroom. The judge and the deputy became tight friends.

“He was a very smart police officer, and as a bailiff he brought that to bear in the courtroom,” Tansil said.

Kinser worked 12 years as a bailiff and retired at age 65. He then indulged more often in his favorite pastime, golf.

Also in retirement, Kinser savored spending more time with his wife, their three daughters and grandchildren.

Daughter Meredith Jordan of Auburn said he was as remarkable a family man as a lawman.

“He was a strong father and when he spoke we listened because he was a man of few words,” Jordan said.

“He valued people and he wanted to make sure we were all tending to our relationships. He always had integrity, he was a godly man. I was so proud of him.”

In addition to his wife in Santa Rosa and his daughter in Auburn, Kinser is survived by daughters Michelle Ellison of Stockton and Amy Allingham of Santa Rosa; sisters Joy Parker of Rohnert Park, Mary Jo Kinser of Sebastopol and Carol Calahan of Fresno; brother Ken Kinser of Santa Rosa; and nine grandchildren.

Services are at 11 a.m. on Feb. 23 at The Bridge church in Santa Rosa.

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