Whether it was shaping a fledgling Lakewood Police Department, teaching Iraqis the basics of police training or helping youths and military families in the community, Larry Saunders never ran out of energy.
Even in retirement Lakewood’s first police chief didn’t sit idle.
“He did not allow for a spare minute,” said current Chief Mike Zaro. “If there was time to give back, he did.”
Saunders, 67, died Wednesday while on a run at Fort Steilacoom Park.
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It appears his death was tied to a medical complication, but it was unknown Thursday exactly what, Zaro said, adding that Saunders had no heart or medical conditions that his family was aware of.
State Sen. Bruce Dammeier said Thursday he was one of the last people to speak with Saunders.
They had a brief telephone conversation about 5:15 p.m., about 45 minutes before Saunders’ body was found, while the former chief was jogging.
He said nothing sounded out of the ordinary.
“He was in good humor,” Dammeier told The News Tribune.
Saunders was well-known in the community because of his 40-year law enforcement career and his almost three decades in the Army.
Despite being stationed elsewhere during his military career, Saunders and his wife, Sally, considered Lakewood their home. Their children attended Clover Park schools and Lakewood became their permanent residence when he left the Army.
He became the chief of police in Lakewood in 2004, two years after the city incorporated, but before it formed its own police department. At the time, the young city contracted with the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department to provide police service.
When the city formed its own department Saunders led the transition. He was responsible for helping to hire the 130 people needed to fill the department.
While at the helm, Saunders tackled Lakewood’s high crime rate — at the time of the department’s formation the city’s crime rate was second-highest in the state.
“He’s the one who hired me at Lakewood,” Zaro said. “I just watched him and was in awe of his ability to serve. He never ran out of energy. He just always seemed to have this drive to give back.”
That drive was evident in everything Saunders did, his friends say.
After retiring from Lakewood in 2008, he didn’t wait long before moving into his next role as public servant. A year after he retired, he returned to the Army for a 15-month assignment as the senior adviser to the Baghdad Police College.
The assignment took him to Baghdad, where he trained aspiring Iraqi officers.
When he returned to retirement, Saunders stepped up his involvement with several civic and nonprofit groups in the region.
His volunteerism ranged from membership in Lions and Rotary clubs to helping establish Rally Point 6 in Lakewood, an organization dedicated to mentoring military service members, veterans and their families.
Dammeier said Saunders’ commitment to veterans issues was tireless. He was equally comfortable talking to generals as he was young corporals.
“He was always connecting people,” Dammeier said. “He was focused on the next generation of veteran leaders.”
Saunders also was involved with the Tacoma-Pierce County chapter of the American Leadership Forum.
He was active in the Boys and Girls Club of South Puget Sound and helped establish the club’s Gary and Carol Milgard Family HOPE Center, which opened in 2007. He later joined the larger organization’s board and was chairman from 2012 to 2015.
“He saw first-hand what happens to young people who get on the wrong track,” said club President and CEO Mark Starnes. “His motto was always let’s help these kids before they get involved with law enforcement and get them on the right track.”
Saunders was instrumental in creating a Boys and Girls Club program in Lakewood’s Springbrook neighborhood. He knew the need for strong role models in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.
“He was a pretty powerful person, being chief of police and everything, but he was always down to earth,” said Diane Formoso, founder of Caring for Kids.
Formoso knew Saunders for more than 20 years. Calling him her “kindred spirit,” Formoso said the pair could work simultaneously on the same cause — meeting the needs of local children — and come together when necessary.
“He got it,” she said. “He understood poverty, he understood what needed to be done. He understood it all. I knew I could call on him for anything.”
Saunders’ body was found just after 6 p.m. Wednesday on a trail at Fort Steilacoom Park. He had been running at the park and was found by another visitor a couple hundred yards from his truck, Zaro said.
As soon as Lakewood police officers learned of the former chief’s death, they gathered Wednesday night at the park to escort his body to the nearby Mountain View Memorial Park.
A procession of police vehicles with flashing emergency lights accompanied the ambulance to the funeral park on Steilacoom Boulevard.
According to a Jan. 5 post on his Facebook page, Saunders listed his passions as his grandchildren, boating, skiing, “old man” workouts and good beer.
He is survived by his wife; son, Tim Saunders; daughter, Megan Saunders; and grandchildren, Finn, Maddie, Marina and Greyson.
Staff writer Kari Plog contributed to this report.