ORLANDO, Fla. – Thousands of mourners gathered Thursday to honor two men joined in their final moments by an unthinkable tragedy, now lying in a twin set of flag-draped caskets.
The men, Sgt. Sam Howard and Officer Matthew Baxter from the Kissimmee Police Department, were both husbands and fathers who were fatally shot Friday night while patrolling the community they were dedicated to serve.
A joint service was held beginning at 11 a.m. at First Baptist Orlando. Mourners included law enforcement officers from across the country as well as elected officials.
“This is unprecedented for us. I don’t know how many of you have been part of a service where we honor two heroes in the same service but I don’t know if you’ll ever see something more moving, more impactful,” Senior Pastor David Uth said as church staff brought in additional chairs to accommodate the overwhelming crowd.
He called Howard, a 10-year veteran, and Baxter, a 3-year veteran, "heroes that fell together."
Overhead, a projector screen alternated images of the two men smiling with their friends and family with an image of the badge they wore with honor as part of their Kissimmee Police Department uniform.
Kissimmee Police Chief Jeff O'Dell was first to give remarks, speaking proudly of both men and their dedication to the department.
“Today we are here to reflect on the impact of two fallen heroes. Sgt. Sam Howard and Officer Matthew Baxter are now law enforcement angels called to join too many others as they begin their next chapter of service," O'Dell said.
He divulged the similarities he observed between the officers: Both were passionate about bettering lives, both strived to make a difference in the area they served and beyond, both were known for shining smiles that complimented their polished appearances and both were full of love and life.
In Howard's 10 years with the force, he achieved all three of the goals he listed when he applied for the job a decade prior. He served on the SWAT team, worked as a detective and, most recently, was promoted to a leadership role within the agency.
O'Dell recalled a recent meeting where Howard was brimming with excitement, eager to tell the chief about his new team.
“When Sam finally got his opportunity to talk, he gushed about his new squad and his assignment,” O'Dell said.
His first social outing with his new team would have been watching the UFC fight between Conor McGregor and Floyd Mayweather Saturday night.
Baxter was relatively new to the force but had already proved exemplary and O'Dell said he knew Baxter would one day be striving for the top job within the department.
"He was a very driven individual who wanted to reach for the stars the moment he was sworn in. And when I say stars, I mean mine,” O'Dell joked.
Baxter's wife, Sadia, said he had recently started work to obtain his bachelor's degree and had long-term plans of becoming a DEA agent to help fight the growing drug epidemic. He also planned to one day start a mentorship program to counsel troubled young men.
Sadia Baxter is also an officer with Kissimmee Police Department. She and her husband share a life-saving award for their rescue of a man who had tried to commit suicide.
Family, friends and religious leaders spoke on behalf of the fallen officers -- recalling anecdotes of their youth, cracking jokes and sharing the legacies the men left behind.
Howard's brother, Jeffrey Surran, thanked his brother for all the support and wisdom he imparted through the years.
"The last little piece of advice he gave me was a few months ago. He said, 'Do whatever it takes to be happy and protect your family, and family first," Surran said while promising his brother he would do just that.
Officer Michael Bixler brought a memento with him as he recalled a trying time earlier this year where Baxter, whom he met in the police academy, helped him tremendously.
Baxter pulled Bixler aside before the start of a weekend shift and guided him to the parking lot where he gave his friend and colleague a gift-wrapped box. Inside was a small statue of a police officer holding a child's hand.
“Buddy, that's to remind you why you got into this job. Let's go help somebody,” Bixler recalled Baxter as telling him.
There was a thunderous applause and standing ovation as Bixler hoisted the figurine for the crowd to see.
Through the tears and the laughter, there was another message of inspiring change and making sure the community isn't only brought together in the wake of a tragedy. Mourners were reminded to spread love and kindness every opportunity they get.
“My brother’s message is strong, it is strong, and I'm holding every one of you accountable to pushing his message. And if you are not, if you are not, and if you are not ready then you will fall behind. You will fall behind and you will fall with the people who took my brother away from us and I will hold you personally accountable. My brother will not die in vain, his message will live on,” Baxter's sister, Elizabeth Sailors, said while flanked on stage by her siblings.
Baxter, a sharp dresser and devoted family man, is survived by his wife and four daughters. Howard, an Army veteran known for his distinct laugh and fast-talking tendencies, is survived by his wife and teenage daughter.
As the service came to a close, 16 members of the Osceola County Sheriff’s Office color guard folded the American flags that swaddled the matching caskets and presented them to the families of the fallen heroes who watched from the front rows.
The two men were then taken to their final resting place.