It’s been nine years since Richard Kercho retired from the Houston Fire Department, but it remains a big part of his life.
So the Shepherd Forest resident sprang to action when another member of the fire department – who he did not know but considered a brother nonetheless – lost his life in the line of duty.
Kercho said he and neighbor John Ortiz, an active firefighter with HFD, constructed a memorial for arson investigator Lemuel Bruce early this week in the median at the intersection of West 18th Street and Seamist Drive near the Timbergrove Manor and Lazybrook neighborhoods. That’s where Bruce, 44, was shot to death early Oct. 16 during an altercation with a suspected arsonist who also died.
The memorial for Bruce, who is survived by a wife and two children ages 12 and 8, is decorated with firefighter silhouettes, candles, crosses, flowers, American flags and red, white and blue balloons. There also are two poster boards where members of the community, fire department and Bruce’s family have written personalized notes of remembrance.
“It’s pretty rough knowing that they’re going to be without their loved one, their dad,” Kercho said. “It’s tough.”
A funeral for Bruce, who at one point served at Houston Fire Station No. 6 on Washington Avenue, was scheduled for 11 a.m. Thursday at Lakewood Church. On the morning he died, Houston Fire Chief Sam Pena called it a “terrible incident” and said it was the first time in HFD history that an arson investigator was killed in the line of duty.
According to the Houston Police Department, Bruce was among multiple arson investigators conducting surveillance in the Heights area and looking for a gray or silver Hyundai Sonata allegedly linked to a series of recent fires in the area. Bruce told his fellow investigators he had spotted such a vehicle “driving at a high rate of speed with the headlights off on West 18th Street near T.C. Jester Boulevard,” according to HPD.
Police said Bruce followed the gray vehicle while advising fellow arson investigators of his location. Upon arriving at the scene, the other investigators found that Bruce and arson suspect Joshua De La Cerda had been shot, according to HPD.
Pena said Bruce suffered multiple gunshot wounds to the upper chest and head, was transported to a hospital by responding paramedics from fire station No. 62 in Timbergrove Manor and later died at the hospital. HPD said De La Cerda, 30, was found dead at the scene with an “apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound.”
“The investigation is continuing,” HPD said.
There has been a series of fires in the area recently, starting early Oct. 4, when Molotov cocktails were thrown onto two residential properties on the same street in Lazybrook, according to HPD. There have been subsequent incidents in the Heights, Oak Forest and Acres Homes areas in which vehicles, sheds and trash have been set fire late at night or early in the morning.
Joshua A. Rauch, 28, was arrested Oct. 10 and charged with second-degree arson, according to HFD. Pena said Rauch is accused of starting seven fires early Oct. 7, mostly in the Oak Forest and Acres Homes areas.
“We don’t want to speculate whether the two (suspects) were related,” Pena said.
Other than providing locations of the seven fires allegedly set by Rauch, HFD’s public information office has not answered multiple questions about the recent fires, including when and where they have occurred, which fires were allegedly linked to De La Cerda and whether there are any additional suspects.
Zachery Garay, a resident of nearby Lindale Park who was walking his dog Tuesday in the Heights, said he has been “on edge” about the recent fires. He said he is especially mindful at night and of where his vehicle is parked.
“I don’t know where it sits right now,” he said, referring to the potential threat of more fires. “It’s still kind of crazy that it’s been an issue and been happening randomly.”
A few HFD arson investigators visited the memorial for Bruce on Tuesday afternoon and declined to comment when approached, citing an ongoing investigation. Kercho said the recent death of their co-worker is “still really hard on them.”
The Heights-area community, and the city at large, also is mourning Bruce’s death. Kercho and Ortiz honored his legacy by constructing the handmade memorial at the site where he died.
“It helps with the healing process,” Kercho said.