Justin Sollohub turned circles through the air, his arms opened wide as if to embrace the wind.
Moments before, the packed sanctuary at Harvest Church of God had fallen silent at the sight of Sollohub skydiving. The 27-year-old officer’s face filled two flat screens hung from the church ceiling.
Wide-eyed, Sollohub grinned at the camera.
For many, the last words they would hear him say: “I guess it’s going to be the thrill of my life,” he told the camera.
When the clip ended after Sollohub safely landed, the screens went dark. The bright colors of his blue sky diving helmet and orange jumpsuit faded as the funeral came into focus.
Sollohub was shot Wednesday while on routine patrol; he died a day later when UAB medical personnel took him off life support.
Click here to see a slideshow of photos from Monday's funeral.
The blues, blacks, khakis and whites of the uniforms representing public safety agencies from across the state and nation stitched a patchwork quilt of brotherhood in the pews. Thousands crowded that dark, somber sanctuary Monday to remember the slain Anniston police officer -– the man who approached every day with the same fearlessness he used to launch himself from that plane, friends and family members said.
“He didn’t know how not to hustle,” said Anniston Sgt. Nick Bowles, Sollohub’s supervisor. Bowles, one of three people to give personal tributes to Sollohub during the funeral, spent nearly 20 minutes remembering his friend’s dedication to good police work.
Laughter rumbled throughout the room as Bowles compared Sollohub to a first-class hunting dog that always wanted to show off his good work. Bowles recounted a recent day on the job with Sollohub: The energetic officer spent the morning pulling over suspicious vehicles. Later he came back to the station, two suspects in tow. A huge grin split his face, as if to say, “Look what I got, Boss!”
Bowles’ voice softened as he talked about how he and other supervisors wondered how they’d motivate their officers in the wake of the tragedy.
“But then it hit me, we won’t have to motivate them at all,” Bowles said, words growing stronger. “If those roles were reversed, Sollo would still be out there (working his beat).
“And that’s a fact.”
Sollohub’s longtime girlfriend brought funeral attendees to their feet by the end of her speech.
“Justin was not just my boyfriend, not just the love of my life, not just my soulmate,” Brooklyn Wesley said in a clear, loud voice. “He was my best friend.”
Wesley remembered the night Sollohub introduced himself to her at a local restaurant and bar. As Wesley sat in a booth, talking and eating with friends, Sollohub plopped himself down beside her.
“’My name is Justin, but they call me Sollo. And I’m a police officer,’” she warmly recalled.
The two talked for a couple of minutes. Wesley remembered her shock at his next words: “I think I want to kiss you.”
Small peals of amusement rang across the room.
Sollohub took it a step farther when she told him no, Wesley said.
‘“Well, if I can’t kiss you, can I at least smell your face?’” Wesley said as deeper laughter rolled through the belly of the sanctuary.
Later that night Wesley and Sollohub took a picture together. Sollohub told Wesley to save it; the snapshot would be perfect on a table at their wedding, she remembered.
Blake Arthur, a Delta Chi fraternity brother of Sollohub’s, said his college friend was a natural choice for best man at his own wedding. Arthur talked about Sollohub’s college days at Jacksonville State University, emphasizing his unparalleled compassion for other people.
“Sollo at his worst was better than most people at their best,” Arthur said, voice breaking for a moment.
About 70 Delta Chis attended the funeral and gathered around the flag-draped coffin to light a candle and present Jeniffer Morris, Sollohub’s mother, with a white carnation.
Later in the ceremony, a friend played some of Sollohub’s favorite songs on the guitar. As the first twangy chords of “Wagon Wheel” echoed through the room, Sollohub’s sister Stephany began to tap her feet, smiling as tears streamed down her face.
As a police officer killed while on duty, Sollohub was honored with a variety of law-enforcement funeral rituals.
State troopers on horseback stood guard at the church doors. Honor guard groups from the Fraternal Order of Police, the Calhoun County Sheriff’s Office and the Alabama State Troopers took turns standing watch by the casket before the ceremony started. During the closing prayers outside the church, helicopters flew over the gathered mourners and officers fired a 21-gun salute.
As "Taps" sounded the closing of the two-and-a-half-hour ceremony, an oversized American flag snapped in the breeze from where it hung over the eastern bypass. The bright cloudless afternoon seemed a natural reinforcement of a comment Wesley made during the funeral.
“When Justin left this life... Wednesday, he was OK,” Wesley said. “The days I think I can’t go on, I know I can because he would want me to.”
She ended her speech quoting the words Sollohub wore tattooed on his arm.
“I know that I can do it because, ‘in God I trust,’” Wesley said.