Published : Wednesday, January 3, 2018 | 3:18 PM
On January 3, 2010, retired Deputy Sheriff Charlene “Charlie” Rottler, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, died from injuries she sustained while working on patrol at Altadena Sheriff’s Station.
Most people are unfamiliar with Charlie’s story. This is unfortunate but not surprising. She and her training officer were involved in a traffic collision with a drunk driver on November 5, 1972. That she did not die that day or in the months that followed is nothing short of a miracle. That she survived as long as she did was a testimony to God’s grace and her indomitable spirit.
On Wednesday, May 25, 2011, she was added to the Los Angeles County Peace Officer’s memorial for her sacrifice.
That Charlie became a deputy sheriff at all was a bit of an accident. Her husband was the one who wanted to be the deputy. He took the written exam twice, failing it both times. Charlie decided to take the exam to help him out. After she took the test, it was her plan to help him pass on his third attempt. The problem was that she passed it the first time and the test administrators wanted to schedule her for an oral interview that afternoon. She got on the phone and asked her husband what to do. She decided to go for it.
Charlie excelled in the academy. Sheriff Lee Baca (then a deputy) was one of her drill instructors. She graduated from Academy Class 129 in June 1969, just ahead of her husband, another Charlie, who finally did pass the written exam. The family debate from that point forward was which one of them was Charlie 1 and which was Charlie 2.
After graduation, Charlie was assigned to San Dimas Station and worked complaint and other support functions. Women were first assigned to patrol stations in the 1940′s, but most of them never got any closer to a radio car than the front desk. This was not true with Charlie. She managed to find male deputies who she could ride with in an “unofficial” capacity.
Charlie began breaking into the boy’s club in 1969 in another way. Shortly after graduation, she became the only female member of the Sheriff’s shotgun team. There was no Department mandate to do this. She won her way onto the team by merit.
It was hardly surprising that Charlie volunteered to be a full-fledged patrol deputy when that opportunity was first offered to women in the summer of 1972. Twenty women volunteered and were chosen for this “trial” program. A patrol school was created to prepare these women for working in a radio car. The Department had no patrol school prior to this time.
Charlene and the rest of her female partners graduated on August 31, 1972 and she was assigned to Altadena Station the next day. During the graduation ceremony, they stood for inspection for Sheriff Peter Pitchess wearing skirts and white blouses and carrying their guns in a purse. This was to be their regular uniform while performing patrol duties with their male partners. (See photos)
On November 5, 1972, her daughter’s eighth birthday, at approximately 1:00 A.M., Deputy Sheriff Trainee Charlene “Charlie” Rottler and her partner Doug Oberholtzer were traveling down Altadena Drive responding to a battery just-occurred call. Deputy Oberholtzer was driving, while riding in the backseat was Bonnie Clary; a newspaper reporter working on a yet another story on the first women deputies working uniformed patrol.
As the patrol car approached an intersection just west of Altadena Station, a drunk driver ran a stop sign and the radio car broadsided the vehicle. A passenger in that car was killed. Two other passengers were injured. Bonnie Clary suffered a broken leg and Doug Oberholtzer a broken bone on his hand. Typically, only the drunk driver was uninjured.
Charlie’s injuries were catastrophic.
Denise Alvarado, Charlene’s daughter, now a Los Angeles City Firefighter Paramedic, described her mother’s injuries this way.
“My mom’s left lower extremity was the only part of her body that was not injured. Her skull and front face was completely crushed. A plastic surgeon did an extraordinary job [repairing the damage] for 1972. … I was told she had over 350 stitches to her face alone. Her head must have broken some part of the shotgun that was mounted in the front of her patrol car.”
“Her seat came off the car and she bounced all around. Her internal organs were all ruptured but the main damage was to her intestines. The doctors said if she made it through the surgeries she would die from the infection that would occur from the ruptured organs. Her back was broken in many places and it was thought her spinal cord was severed. Her heart was not affected but everything else was.”
Initially, the responding firemen thought Charlie was dead. When they realized their mistake, they rushed her to Huntington Memorial Hospital. She endured over 20 hours of surgery on that first day and was in a coma for the next month. The doctors told her family not to expect her to come out of it. She was being looked after round the clock by candy-stripers.
When Charlie finally did wake up she saw one poor girl sitting in a chair by her bed trying to read under the light of a weak lamp. Charlie’s first waking words were to suggest to the girl that she needed better light. After the young woman pulled herself down off the ceiling, she ran out of the room to get help. But this was only the beginning of Charlie’s ordeal.
Sadly, Charlie’s injuries compelled her to retire from the Sheriff’s Department in April 1974. She endured 55 major surgeries over the rest of her life trying to repair the injuries she sustained in that traffic accident in 1972. When she finally succumbed to them in January of 2010, her body had so deteriorated that she had been compelled for some time to attach herself to a feeding tube each night to ensure she received enough nutrition. Other people might have had an in-home nurse perform this task. Charlie had enough moxie to do it herself. At the time of her death, she had only one foot of small intestine remaining in her body.
Charlene Rottler did not know the meaning of the word quit and she never felt sorry for herself. She continued to fight and to be an inspiration for her family and friends. In 1996, the Sheriff’s Museum dedicated a display in honor of Charlie and her partners who led the way for women to patrol in 1972. Charlie was quite proud that she was still able to fit into the skirt and blouse the ladies were compelled to wear back in the day and she modeled it with pride for the cameras.
Charlie and her peers are an inspiration to all the women who have donned a Sheriff’s uniform (pants and a shirt, not a skirt and white blouse), after them. They have inspired their children and their grandchildren and deserve every accolade that we can give them. Despite suffering horribly from the accident that ultimately claimed her life, Charlie was proud to be a deputy sheriff and would be deeply touched and moved to receive the honor and accolades that she is now being awarded for her sacrifice.
Altadena Sheriff’s Station honors Charlie’s memory by wearing their full Class A dress uniform, complete with necktie on the anniversary of her passing.