Eric Talley ‘Put Christ First’: Boulder Police Officer’s Heroism Rooted in Life of Sacrificial Love

By Roxanne King/National Catholic Register

On the afternoon of March 22, Boulder Police Officer Eric Talley rushed to a King Soopers grocery store where a dispatcher said a shooting was in progress. It was the last call for help the 51-year-old officer would answer, as he was fatally shot soon after sprinting inside.

“He knew people were dying. He was the first officer on the scene and courageously did what he had been trained to do. He saved lives,” Boulder Police Sgt. Adrian Drelles, Talley’s supervisor, said at a March 30 memorial service for his friend at Flatirons Community Church in Lafayette, Colorado, a suburb of Boulder. “From the time Eric entered the store and confronted the suspect, no other civilian was hurt.”

Nine other people were also killed in the mass shooting. A 21-year-old suspect was taken into custody within an hour after the slaying started in the grocery store’s parking lot. Ahmad Al Aliwi Alissa has been charged with 10 counts of first-degree murder and one count of attempted first-degree murder for shooting at a second police officer.

“Be proud of your father, he is a hero,” Drelles said, addressing Talley’s seven children, who range in age from 7 to 20. “He lived his life through God to be a role model for you. Your father is a real-life example of the good in this world.”

Talley’s wife of nearly 28 years, Leah, wasn’t surprised by her husband’s actions.

“He saw the right thing to do and probably stormed through and did it because he wasn’t going to have any more people hurt,” she told the Register. “That’s the kind of man he was.”

No Greater Love

At Talley’s funeral Mass, the extraordinary form of the Roman Rite celebrated in Latin and held at the Cathedral-Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Denver on March 29, Archbishop Samuel Aquila offered condolences to the Talley family on behalf of the entire Catholic community.

“Jesus has told us ‘greater love than this no man has, than to lay down his life,’ and Eric lived that,” the archbishop said. “In … testimonies from other officers, it was evident that he was a man of God, one who put Christ first in his life.”

Fr. James Jackson (R) delivers a homily during the funeral Mass for Boulder police officer Eric Talley at the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception on March 29, 2021, in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Daniel Petty/Archdiocese of Denver)

Talley represents the best in law enforcement, the archbishop said, as he offered prayers and gratitude for all police.

“I want to honor you, for too often, you are taken for granted,” he said, addressing police officers. “Yet in situations like this, you are the ones who protect human life.” 

Finding Faith

With a master’s degree in computer science, Talley had served as a Boulder police officer for 11 years after making a career switch from IT at age 40. In addition to patrol work, he was a founding member of the department’s drone team, convinced such technology would be vital in protecting both the public and police. He also worked in the “Explorer” program, which educates youths and young adults interested in law enforcement careers. Talley often joked that he entered policing because it was less stressful than troubleshooting computer systems.

“It fit right in with his nature of wanting to protect,” Leah Talley said, adding that when the two first met, Eric worked in security. “He was very good at it. We would go shopping, and he would be catching shoplifters even when he wasn’t on the job. He has a second-degree black belt [in karate]. That training, coupled with his nature … gave him a good background for police work.”

Just three months after meeting, the couple decided to marry. She was Catholic; he was Protestant.

“No one thought it would work,” said the former audiologist, now home-schooling mom. 

In 2005, the couple moved from Indiana to Colorado. They began attending the traditional Latin Mass and, after some initial hesitation from Eric, fell in love with it. In 2007, he converted to Catholicism. 

“In the early part of our marriage I was always wanting something, and he’d always wanted something,” Leah said, describing their then-lackluster faith backgrounds. “He had always wanted, I think, what the Catholic faith offered in its foundation: a good family, a happy home, children. He wanted to be part of what a Catholic family was, even though I don’t think either one of us identified it as a Catholic family.”

As their faith grew, it saw them through the challenges of marriage and family life.

“It held us together,” Leah said. 

To Love Like Christ

The funeral liturgy of the traditional Latin Mass, which was filled with angelic chant, served in part to thank God for Eric’s life, Father James Jackson, of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, said in his homily. The priest is pastor of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in Littleton, Colorado, where the Talley family worships. 

“He was a good man, an honorable and faithful father, a faithful husband, son, friend; a faithful and heroic officer of the law,” the pastor said. “But I will stop there, since traditional Catholics do not want to be canonized at their funerals. They want prayers for their stay in purgatory; prayers for the loved ones they left behind.” 

To those who wonder where Christ was during the Boulder massacre, he was undergoing his passion, death and resurrection, Father Jackson said, atoning for the sins of humanity.

“He saw everything that happened in Boulder,” the priest said, noting that Christians would commemorate Christ’s salvific work, on which rests hope for salvation, later that Holy Week. The funeral Mass, he added, thanked God for that gift of redemption. 

From L-R, Fr. James Jackson, Fr. Daniel Nolan, and Fr. Daniel Kluge celebrate a traditional Latin Requiem Mass for Boulder police officer Eric Talley at the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception on March 29, 2021, in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Daniel Petty/Archdiocese of Denver)

“What he did for Eric, he did for all, even his enemies,” Father Jackson said.

Officer Talley loved with the love of Christ, asserted Father Daniel Nolan, also of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, assistant pastor at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, who led the March 30 memorial service in Lafayette, which preceded Talley’s burial in a Catholic cemetery. 

“I would argue Officer Talley’s life was not taken, it was given — he gave it,” Father Nolan said. “It was love that enabled Officer Talley to do this. He loved his fellow man, he loved strangers he’d never met … he loved his family, his faith, Our Lord.

“Our Lord challenges his followers … don’t love others with your strength, your soul, your mind. Love them with mine. ‘This is the commandment I give to you: Love one another as I have loved you’” (John 15:12).

‘100% a Hero’

The Boulder police officials, the Colorado governor and the friend who eulogized Talley at the memorial service affirmed his heroism stemmed from his wholehearted, loving service to others. 

Talley’s personnel file is full of thank-you letters from grateful citizens he had served, noted Boulder Police Chief Maris Herold. He represents excellence in policing, she said.

“Eric was brave, and in the end, willing to die to save others,” Herold said. “The Boulder Police Department will never forget Eric or his family’s sacrifice.”

Talley’s concern for others found him shoveling to help a woman whose water pipe had broken, keeping vigil with fellow officers who were ill, and collecting and delivering items to a boy in the hospital who wanted “police stuff,” noted Colorado Gov. Jared Polis.

“Just as Officer Talley loved his family, that love extended far beyond his home to the Boulder community and well beyond,” he said. “His life is an inspiration.”

Talley’s compassion and kindness are visible in his children, Drelles said. The day he went to the Talley home to break the news of his death to his family, he was clueless how to comfort them.

“Something unexpected happened. Eric’s kids jumped into action, started making phone calls, and, instead, they gave me comfort,” he said. “In the darkest hour of their life, they made sure that we were okay. The lesson Eric taught his children is to serve others before yourself, exactly as he lived his life.”

Friend from college Chris Turner said he believes that behind Talley’s well-known zeal for games — the family has some 450 board and card games — was the opportunity they offered to spend time with family and friends, old and new. Whatever the activity, work or play, Talley was fully present and invested, Turner said.

“By giving 100% of himself, you always knew what you were getting with Eric,” he said. “100% a hero.”

A Man of Hidden Virtues

Confident in her husband’s policing skills, Leah Talley said she didn’t fear for his safety.

“The only time I doubted that was probably about five minutes before I got the news he had been shot,” she said. “I just knew something was wrong. I hadn’t heard from him.”

Then, a friend who had learned of the Boulder shooting, called to ask about him. 

“I thought, ‘Oh, that’s where he is then. That’s why he hasn’t called,’”she said, trying not to think the worst“In that split second, the doorbell rang. Then I knew who was behind the other side of the door.” 

Denver Archbishop Samuel Aquila (L) delivers brief remarks during the funeral Mass for Boulder police officer Eric Talley as Father James Jackson (R) looks on at the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception on March 29, 2021, in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Daniel Petty/Archdiocese of Denver)

Devoted, loving, humble, selfless, kind and caring. That was her husband, Leah Talley said. 

“A man of hidden virtues, I think, even to me,” she said, her voice breaking. “He touched other people’s lives in so many ways and was always willing to do everything for them.” 

He was the same with the children and with her, she said.

Talley enjoyed woodworking and surprised her one Christmas with a beautiful kneeler he had made.

“He knew I wanted to kneel and pray,” she said. “He was always so willing to do everything for me. I never felt I ever did quite enough for him.” 

A Hero Revealed

The outpouring of love and support from across the nation for the Talley family has been uplifting, Leah said.

Both the funeral Mass and the memorial service were livestreamed due to limited seating in the churches for pandemic protocols. The services drew hundreds and were preceded by long processions of law enforcement vehicles.

“I don’t know how to thank a nation that I never knew was so supportive of policing, especially in this climate we’ve been in. It has been truly edifying,” Leah said. “Eric was always a hero to me, but now everybody else knows he was a hero.”

COMING UP: Moral courage and the many cultures of death

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CRACOW. Thanks to the pandemic, it’s been two years since I was last in Cracow, where for three decades I’ve done extensive research and taught great students while forming friendships with many remarkable people. It was wonderful to be back in one of the world’s greatest cities, and soon after I arrived in late June, I took a long walk to see what had changed. The first major difference I noticed was that the plaza in front of the central railway station (named for my late friend Jan Nowak-Jeziorański, a World War II courier for the Polish Home Army and the man from whom the future John Paul II got real news via Radio Free Europe’s Polish service) has a new, strikingly modern memorial, dedicated to the memory of Colonel Ryszard Kukliński.

That name is not well-known throughout a western world that has largely forgotten the meaning and lessons of the Cold War. But if Jan Nowak-Jeziorański was right when he spoke about the Polish colonel in the mid-1990s, Ryszard Kuklinski was a genuine hero of the long, twilight struggle against communist totalitarianism — the man who helped prevent a bloody Soviet invasion of Poland to crush the nascent Solidarity movement.

An accomplished officer in the communist-era Polish Army, Ryszard Kukliński began to doubt the truth of what he had been told about the West when, as a member of an international commission, he met American military men in Vietnam in the mid-1960s. His doubts about communism and its purposes intensified by orders of magnitude in 1968, when the brutal Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia ground the Prague Spring to dust under the treads of Soviet tanks, and in 1970, when the Polish army shot Polish workers during labor strife. Privy to some of the Warsaw Pact’s most confidential strategic plans, he became convinced that, if the Cold War turned hot and the east bloc attacked the West, the Soviets would sacrifice Poland as retaliatory western tactical nuclear strikes hit the second wave of Warsaw Pact troops pushing west. So, in 1972, Kukliński, risking his life and his family’s safety, offered his services to the United States and for the next nine years was the West’s most important intelligence asset behind the iron curtain.

His greatest service to Poland and the cause of freedom came in the later months of 1980. Thanks to his efforts, the United States knew the entire order-of-battle the Soviet Union had organized to stamp out Solidarity, which had held its first formal congress in September 1980. With that information, and working in concert with the incoming Reagan administration, outgoing national security adviser Zbigniew Brzeziński, with the help of the AFL-CIO’s Lane Kirkland, was able to organize a comprehensive western response to a potential Soviet invasion of Poland: an international economic blockade that would have severely damaged the already-staggering Soviet economy. Faced with economic ruin, the Soviet leadership backed down and the Warsaw Pact divisions that had surrounded Poland withdrew.

Colonel Kukliński and his family were exfiltrated to the West; two of his sons later died under dubious circumstances that may have involved Russian retribution, and Kukliński lived out his life under an assumed name in the United States, dying in 2004. There was public controversy when he returned to his native Poland for a 1998 visit, with some charging that he had violated his officer’s oath by working for American intelligence for a decade. John Paul II, through various intermediaries, quietly passed the word that Kukliński was to be regarded in Poland as a national hero. Zbigniew Brzeziński, who held the exact same view, put it brilliantly, in a comment that appears on the Kukliński Memorial in Cracow: Colonel Kukliński was “the first Polish officer in NATO.” 

Communism was a distinctive form of the culture of death, for the effort to create “Homo Sovieticus” was a lethal assault on souls. Colonel Ryszard Kukliński took a courageous stand against that particular culture of death, knowing as he did that freedom is never cost-free: freedom lived nobly always requires sacrifice. His example should be pondered by Catholic citizens and Catholic public officials throughout the West today, who are called to resist, with similar moral courage and effect, that form of the culture of death that masquerades as the ideology of “choice.” May we and our elected officials be as principled and brave as the Polish officer who took what John Paul II described at the United Nations in 1995 as the “the risk of freedom.”