By Dan Campana
As family, friends and the northern Illinois law enforcement community mourned the death of Rockford Police Officer Jaimie Cox in November, a brother in blue 850 miles away sat down to pay an artistic tribute to a man he never met.
As he’s done dozens upon dozens of times in two years, Jonny Castro, a Philadelphia police forensic artist, got online to learn about an officer cut down in the line of duty in order to paint a digital portrait which forever preserves the memory of that officer.
Cox, a 30-year-old Army National Guard veteran, had been with Rockford about a year before his death. His police and military background, as well as his actions in what seemingly started as an ordinary traffic stop, stood out to Castro as he created Cox’s portrait.
“Jaimie’s story was the definition of ‘never give up.’ Even though he was in a fight for his life, and he found himself in a tough spot, Jaimie still was able to neutralize the attacker,” Castro explained. “He died defending himself and the citizens of Rockford.”
Castro has been drawing his entire life and described portraits as his “strongest” format. He attended Hussian School of Art in Philadelphia before dropping out to join the Army after the Sept. 11 attacks. Castro served as a military police officer with a New York State-based unit. His deployment included time at the Abu Ghraib Prison in 2004 and 2005. After completing his military service, Castro applied with the Philadelphia Police Department where he has worked since 2006.
Before joining the department’s graphic arts unit as forensic artist two years ago, Castro spent a total of nine years on patrol during which he worked plainclothes and tactical assignments. Those experiences help him identify with the dangers faced by the officers who have become his portrait subjects.
“I’ve been in a lot of the situations these officers found themselves in. It’s a scary feeling,” Castro said. “Most of them were killed going above and beyond their job as an officer, so painting their final portrait is the least I can do to honor them for their families and departments.”
Last year, Castro used his talents to digitally paint 76 portraits which included police officers, an Army paratrooper, a New York City firefighter and even K-9s. With the help of a display setup bought by his wife, he essentially taught himself how to paint digitally by watching online tutorials. Castro’s first police portrait coincided with the one-year anniversary of the death of Philadelphia Police Sgt. Robert Wilson III, who was killed on duty in 2015.
“He was promoted posthumously and never had any pictures taken in uniform,” Castro said. “I decided to do a portrait of him wearing his sergeant’s uniform. I added his Medal of Honor and his Medal of Valor onto his blouse coat pocket, and posted it to my art Facebook page. It got a lot of positive feedback was shared hundreds of times.
“So, from then on … (I’ve) focused strictly on honoring the fallen officers,” Castro added.
That has led him to do a staggering, yet sad, total of approximately 160 portraits of fallen officers, firefighters and military personnel. He’s also painted civilian murder victims and others lost to tragedy. Castro estimates it takes eight to 10 hours to complete each portrait depending on the level of detail – such as ribbons, badges and patches – he puts on their uniforms.
After reading Cox served in Afghanistan as part of the Army National Guard, Castro added an Operation Enduring Freedom ribbon to Cox’s uniform.
“I feel that little detail was an important part of their life, so it shouldn’t get overlooked,” Castro said.
Rockford Police Chief Daniel O’Shea initially was unaware of Castro’s portrait of Cox, but described it as “awesome” after see it last week.
“I and the Rockford PD are extremely grateful and thankful for Officer Castro’s efforts, not only for Jaimie, but for all responders and military personnel he has memorialized,” O’Shea said. “Officer Castro utilizing his God-given talents in such a positive manner, while also serving as an officer himself, shows how selfless he is. He is truly an amazing person.”
Prints of Cox’s portrait made it to his family after one of Cox’s friends reached out to Castro. That’s how it works most of the time – a friend or relative of the officer sends a message or gives Castro a call. He makes it a point to ship a portrait to someone who knew the officer or, at the very least, to their police department with a note for the chief to pass the artwork along to the family.
“I have a book filled with letters and cards from their loved ones. They send me photos all the time of the prints I sent framed and hanging on their living room walls,” Castro shared.
Castro displayed a smaller version of each portrait in his office. In a Dec. 28 Facebook post, Castro wrote of his hope for fewer faces on his “Wall of Heroes” in 2018.
“Hopefully by this time next year, this board won’t be as full,” Castro commented.