The windy, overcast morning weather was appropriately subdued for such a solemn day as the procession for Sgt. Kerry Winters of the Ulster County Sheriff’s Office made its way down Route 9W in Saugerties on Thursday, Sept. 29.
Winters, 51, died on Sept. 22 after he was found unconscious during a dive training exercise with the department’s In-Water Rescue Team at the Ashokan Reservoir. He leaves behind a wife, Michele “Mitchy” Winters, and two adult sons, Kerry Winters Jr. and Kyle Winters, both in their 20s.
The funeral procession began at 9 a.m., winding through Saugerties from the Buono Funeral Home to St. Joseph’s Church in Glasco. Along the route, several businesses and organizations had changed their roadside signs to reflect their condolences on the loss of the Saugerties native and 31-year sheriff’s office veteran, who worked as an intake officer at the county jail. “I know that he lived in Saugerties for most of his life. Many of those are probably businesses and organizations that he had frequented since high school,” said sheriff’s Lt. Dirk Budd.
The road was flanked by emergency responders, with over 40 law enforcement agencies and numerous fire departments showing up to direct traffic and show their support. At Simmons Plaza, groups of uniformed emergency responders clustered while they waited for the procession to make its way by the plaza. Though they talked casually amongst themselves and sipped hot beverages from the nearby Salvation Army tent, the air was somber.
Some had never met Winters, but came to pay their respects to their colleague. Alongside the police and fire officials, some civilians had arrived to watch the procession. Steven “Reno” Balazs of Saugerties was among them, waiting in his car along 9W. Though he did not know Winters personally, Balazs said that he has a number of friends who were police officers. “They spoke very highly of him,” said Balazs.
“He was a really well-liked guy. He was a funny guy,” said Budd, noting that Winters had a talent for making difficult work situations less so with his sense of humor. “He’ll really be missed. He was taken from us too early,” Budd added. “He had plenty more good work to do. He was an integral part of the water rescue team and an important supervisor in intake.”
As the procession approached, the emergency vehicles bordering the road silently flashed their lights. A stream of a dozen police motorcycles and nearly 60 other vehicles — both civilian and official — made their way slowly to the church. As the last of the procession passed through, an enormous flag was hung from the ladders of two fire trucks, a collaborative gesture between the Glasco and Saugerties fire departments, according to members of the Glasco Fire Company.
The procession arrived at St. Joseph’s Church at around 10 a.m. Conspicuous against the sea of subdued colors were the bright yellow shirts of the In-Water Rescue Team who served as pallbearers, delivering Winters’ casket into the church. The service was private, attended by only 175 of the 1,000-plus mourners, according to Budd. It was broadcast on a loudspeaker outside of St. Joseph’s, the same church where Winters and his wife were wed 29 years ago. Outside the church, nearly 100 more gathered to hear Father John Kearney say the funeral Mass.
Following the Mass, the procession made its way to St. Mary’s Cemetery in Barclay Heights. A number of uniformed personnel preceded the arrival, their cars lining the fence of the modest cemetery. The bagpipers and drummers stood attentively in the cemetery as the numerous procession vehicles passed them, parking in the empty field adjacent to the graves. Two officers from the sheriff’s department stood solemnly at the entrance, their badge numbers covered by “450,” Winters’ shield number. After the water rescue team laid Winters to rest, Father Kearney and Pastor Johann Christoph Arnold of the Bruderhof led prayers and a choir sang the hymn “Going Home.” Winters was then honored with a gun salute.
Following the salute, as the vast crowd stood silently, only the sound of crickets and the lone trumpet playing taps could be heard. After the trumpet played its final notes, the mourners waited soundlessly as three helicopters from the state police and the New York City DEP Police flew overhead. The internment concluded with the bagpipers playing “Amazing Grace” and in the silence that followed, waves of uniformed personnel departed with dignified strides. Mere moments after the ceremony ended, the morning’s clouds gave way to sun.
Beyond the cemetery fence, several onlookers had gathered to observe the ceremony from a respectful distance. Claire Schnell, who lives nearby, said that her children had been friendly with Winters in high school. Though she has seen officer funerals before, she said she was moved and astounded by the magnitude of the ceremony. At the far end of the cemetery, a couple who said they knew Winters’ wife from around town had stopped on a walk to somberly watch the end of the service. Even those in the community who did not know Winters seemed earnestly distraught by this unexpected loss. For those who did know him, Sgt. Kerry Winters will be remembered as loving family man and a dedicated law officer.