It was 10, or maybe 11 a.m., on Sunday, August 3, 2008, and I was at Wal-Mart when my cell phone rang.
It was Deputy Superintendent Arthur Ryan calling me. He was acting as chief that weekend since Superintendent Lavallee was out of town.
Deputy Ryan sounded excited. He was calling to tell me about an incident that had gone down overnight at Santoro’s, on Gorham Street. An officer had made an arrest and did some things that really impressed the deputy.
At the store, I told Deputy Ryan I’d call him back once I could take some notes.
Later that day, I called the deputy and found out Officer Charles Panek was working a detail at Santoros, about 2:48 a.m., when a fight started outside.
Below is what I ended up writing that day.
Officer Charles Panek was working inside when he was told there was trouble out front.
As he stepped into a large group of people, Ryan said, Panek heard one man had flashed a gun. He approached that man, later identified as Jonathan Mercer, 20, of 81 Shaw St., second floor.
Mercer began to walk away, and drew the gun as he did so, prompting Panek to draw his own gun and demand Mercer stop, according to Ryan.
The men struggled and Mercer dropped a 9mm handgun, which hit the ground and fired, according to Ryan. No one was struck.
Panek was surrounded by about 75 people who Ryan said turned violent just as more officers arrived.
The crowd even attacked officers with pepper spray, Ryan said.
“It was an extremely dangerous situation that could have ended very badly,” Ryan said.
One officer was treated and released from Saints Medical Center for an injury suffered in the scuffle. Ryan did not identify the officer.
Panek joined the force about two years ago but spent one of those years deployed overseas with the military.
“Officer Panek acted heroically in this situation,” Ryan said. “His actions likely prevented a much more serious incident.”
I mention this because it really struck me today. That was the one and only time Deputy Ryan has ever called me like that, and I think that speaks volumes.
He sounded proud, and he sounded impressed, and he really wanted people to know about this guy who was working for him.
Charles Panek was pronounced dead last night at 11:41 p.m. He drowned after jumping from a boat for a swim in the Merrimack River in Tyngsboro. Dozens of officers had searched for him since earlier in the day when he failed to surface.
I got a message informing of this as soon as I woke up this morning, and that call from Deputy Ryan was the first thing that I thought of. I told a friend of mine about it as I stood on her porch having a cigarette.
In January of 2009, when Panek got the department’s second-highest award, the Medal of Valor, for his actions that day, Deputy Ryan said “The thought that he might be shot did not deter him from duty.”
Just a few months later, on Dec. 18, 2008, Panek would go through a similar incident outside of Santoro’s.
He was attacked by a 30-year-old man while breaking up another fight, and took a hell of a beating in the process. At one point Panek was even picked up and thrown into a light pole by the man he was trying to arrest.
With a back injury, cuts and scrapes, Panek got up and chased that guy down.
He didn’t even get an award for that one.
Most people would probably recognize Panek from the details and patrol shifts he has worked in downtown Lowell. Others would recognize his sleeve of tattoos.
A co-worker of mine once asked me “who’s that cop with all the tattoos” after Panek worked a city council meeting. I explained to her that he was a veteran of both the Marine Corps and National Guard, who had just gotten back from Iraq.
He’s grinning above in the upper left, in a red shirt, along with all the other Marines who serve with Lowell Police. This was from the Corps’ birthday last year.
A co-worker of mine, John Collins, spoke to Panek’s family today. They said he was soon going back to war, in Afghanistan this time. He had volunteered, his family said.
I guess Panek thought his work wasn’t done. As a resident of Lowell and as someone who has seen him in action, I sure as hell wish he was right.
Rest in peace Officer Panek.