After Biloxi police officer Robert McKeithen was ambushed and shot dead at the Biloxi public safety center, stepson Logan Grundel thought fear and hate would grip his family and the community.
Instead, he told more than 1,100 mourners Monday afternoon, he has felt overwhelming love this past week.
Three of the McKeithen children were among those who remembered the 24-year-veteran of the department, whose watch ended May 5, 2019. Darian Atkinson has been charged with capital murder, but his name was not uttered during the hour-long service at First Baptist Church in Biloxi.
Grundel did tell the crowd, “I have no animosity toward the Atkinson family.”
Speakers, including Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, celebrated McKeithen’s life and offered hope to the community he protected and his community of fellow officers, a family in blue united to remember their brother.
Almost the entire Biloxi police force turned out, as did other Coast agencies and law enforcement officers from across the country.
McKeithen was a member of Woolmarket Baptist Church, but the sanctuary there would not hold the crowd. Every seat was needed, with mourners lining the sanctuary walls.
Biloxi Chief John Miller stood stoically with the family during morning visitation. His wife, Vondell Miller, sang “Go Rest High On That Mountain” during the service, accompanied by her brother and sister-in-law.
Miller and his officers have been widely praised for the dignity and quiet strength they have shown since McKeithen fell.
McKeithen seemed the least likely of officers to encounter civilian hostility. He was a helper, a public servant all his adult life. He served in the U.S. Air Force before joining the Biloxi Police Department.
He loved people.
“He would talk to you all day about anything,” stepson Levi Grundel told the crowd. “It didn’t matter who you were, if it was the first time you’d met or the thousandth time.”
He loved puppies. He even had a puppy song he sang one night in his patrol car. He didn’t realize it, but his body camera had somehow flipped on.
His supervisor, Biloxi police Lt. Thomas Goldsworthy, caught the video and repeated McKeithen’s sing-song phrasing for the crowd: “I love my pup, pup, pups, I love my puppity pups.”
After watching the video, Goldsworthy said he sang a few bars to McKeithen, who couldn’t figure out how the heck his boss knew that song. They both had to laugh.
McKeithen always wore a pressed uniform and spit-shined boots, but family and friends said the most notable fixture was the smile on his face. He was living his dream. The 58-year-old was set to retire at year’s end, but he still loved his job.
“Robert was kind and easy to talk to, so we ask ourselves why such a man would be taken so quickly, too soon, and in such a horrible way,” Chief Miller said during his eulogy. Miller asked God why.
He got his answer. Miller told the crowd, “God, and God alone, decides when we leave this earth and no one else. This guy who came up with a gun gets no credit, no credit at all.”
Miller said he will remember the people whom McKeithen helped, the lives he changed, the lives he saved and the good times they had.
“Those things can’t be murdered or destroyed or erased,” Miller said. “They have already happened. They have already been done and they will be part of this world forever.”
“I prefer to believe that Robert is doing the same job today that he was doing last week, only in a much, much better place with a nicer boss and a new squad, where he is referred to as the new guy and not the old man, a place where the shine on his boots never dulls and his uniform is always crisp.”
The final call
A line of blue lights from police cruisers and motorcycles accompanied McKeithen for miles, from the church to the cemetery, under flag salutes and past people who stopped to honor the officer.
The Air Force stood guard for the final stretch up Veterans Avenue to Biloxi National Cemetery. McKeithen was an Air Force veteran.
Police joined the procession from all over the Gulf Coast and the country. Officers Danny Aelazquez and James McCabe represented the New York Police Department.
Officer Jared Mooney traveled from Fall River, Massachusetts. “It’s family no matter what part of the country it is,” he said.
Several officers drove over from Mobile, where two officers died on duty in the last year and a half. Biloxi was there for Mobile both times, said Lt. Rusty Hardeman, and they were there for Biloxi.
The final moments of the burial brought the sorrowful and solemn sounds of taps and “Amazing Grace,” and tears when the Biloxi police dispatcher’s final call for Robert McKeithen 126 was answered by silence.
“You will be greatly missed but never forgotten. Rest in peace sir,” was the dispatcher’s response.
“He was one of the good guys,” said retired assistant police chief Rodney McGilvary, who served with McKeithen for two decades and was his neighbor in Woolmarket.
“This is what you do,” Biloxi Mayor Andrew “FoFo” Gilich said of the honors and ceremony for the officer. Gilich said he has received many calls and emails since McKeithen died, and already another police officer has died on duty in Savannah, Georgia.
“It can happen anywhere,” Gilich said.