By Julia Prodis Sulek
Staff Writer, Contra Costa Times and Bay Area News Group
WALNUT CREEK -- BART Officer Michael Maes has always been a "by the book" kind of guy, his relatives say, a stickler for rules and a natural leader even though he is the youngest of 10 children.
For him to have accidentally shot a fellow BART officer, who was not only his boss but a good friend, is incomprehensible, family members said Friday, providing the first portrait of the officer responsible for Tuesday's friendly fire killing.
"I can't think of a time he's ever been reckless," said Sarah Jardin, 29, Maes' niece and goddaughter who spoke with him the morning after Tuesday's tragedy. ''So it's certainly shocking that this would happen.''
When Susan Maes Lundstrom texted her younger brother this week to say she loved him, he texted back: "Tuesday was the worst day of my life.''
Investigators have still not explained exactly how or why Maes accidentally shot Sgt. Tom Smith after they and three other officers entered a robbery suspect's unlocked, empty, Dublin apartment. Smith was wearing a bulletproof vest, but Maes' errant bullet somehow found a way into Smith's chest cavity. He died at the hospital, leaving his wife, who is also a BART officer, to raise their 6-year-old daughter alone.
Maes, 49, who is divorced and raising his own 14-year-old daughter, must also find a way to carry on.
"It's overwhelming,'' said John Maes, one in a family of five brothers and five sisters. "You get a big family together, you have to give somebody a chance to grieve and mourn and try to reflect and deal with the situation the best you can."
The 10 Maes children grew up in unincorporated Walnut Creek, with the five boys piling into an old motor home for camping and fishing trips. They all graduated from Los Lomas High. Michael Maes went on to earn a degree in criminal justice from (Cal State East Bay) what was then Cal-State Hayward. He worked his way through college as a security guard at Nordstrom and then became a police officer for the town of Moraga before joining BART police in 2000.
"He was kind of like a Type A personality, meticulous about the way he kept his home and his things," John Maes said.
Jardin, Maes' goddaughter, said he often planned camping trips and family outings with Jetskis.
"He's always about following the rules,'' she said. "With Jet-skiing, he wants everyone to go the speed limit; he will only let you ride if you're the right age and follow the life vest laws." Whenever "Uncle Mike" was around, she said, "there was no running around the pool."
With 19 nieces and nephews, "everyone looked up to him," she said. "Even though he was the baby, he grew up to be very responsible and is such a leader in our family.''
Jardin said that her uncle -- who is on standard administrative leave with pay during the investigation of the shooting -- has received "overwhelming'' support from friends and officers near and far. "He's getting lots of calls and visits," she said.
Even Patrick Smith, the older brother of the fallen officer, acknowledged earlier this week that there are "two families grieving here.''
Just how can Maes move forward after this horrifying tragedy, much less ever go back to the police force, if he is cleared to return?
It's a question perhaps best answered by one of the few men who would really know: former Oakland Police officer Andrew Koponen.
In a rare interview, Koponen, who was one of a pair of rookie cops who accidentally shot and killed an undercover Oakland officer in 2001, said it "takes years to work through."
"It's been 13 years. I talk very softly on this subject,'' Koponen, now 42 and living in Livermore, said Friday. "It had a devastating impact on everything that happened and everyone involved."
In his case, which stunned the Oakland police department and included years of legal depositions and self reflection, Koponen and fellow rookie Tim Scarrott came upon undercover officer Willie Wilkins wrestling a young suspect and pointing a gun at his head. They ordered him to drop the gun, not realizing he was an officer. When he didn't, both officers fired. When backup arrived moments later, the two officers realized what they had done. Both were cleared in the shooting.
Koponen returned to the force, but resigned after seven years and hasn't returned to law enforcement since. He is married now and staying at home to raise his 2-year-old son.
"It was a long road to recovery, but now I've got my wife and my kid and I'm happy again," he said. "It's a joy to take my son out, but there is a person right there that doesn't have that -- in my case, it was Willie Wilkins' son. At some point, you have to pick up your head and move on. It takes years."
Koponen was reluctant to say much more, but he agreed to a brief interview because he hoped in some way to help Maes. He attended the West Coast Post-Trauma Retreat in Napa County, he said, and suggested it could be a good start for Maes.
Joel Fay, the retreat center's police psychologist, said recovery will in part depend on how the BART police community treats Maes.
"The department has to have a mindset that we are going to keep Michael Maes as part of our agency and that people when they see him, they go up to him and give him a hug and let him know how much they care about him, that these sad tragedies happen," Fay said. "For Officer Maes, knowing that he is still part of this organization would be really important.''
At some point, he will have to forgive himself, Fay said.
"But that may take a while."