OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) – A National Guard member and three Oklahoma police officers, including an officer who died in the line of duty, were honored for heroism and sacrifice during a ceremony at the Oklahoma State Capitol on Tuesday.
Gov. Kevin Stitt presented the Oklahoma Medal of Valor to Sgt. Pedro Gonzales III of the Oklahoma Army National Guard.
He also presented the Oklahoma Purple Heart to the late Sgt. Craig Johnson, who was a member of the Tulsa Police Department, officer Aurash Zarkeshan, also with Tulsa Police, and Oklahoma City Police Department officer Zachary Barby, according to a news release issued from Stitt’s office.
“In Oklahoma, we recognize that the freedom we hold so dearly is protected by public safety officers and heroes who put their lives on the line every day,” Stitt said. “I am humbled and honored to recognize some of Oklahoma’s finest citizens on behalf of our state.”
Gonzales received the Oklahoma Medal of Valor for saving the life of an elderly, female neighbor on Sept. 19, 2020, when he stepped between the woman and a man attacking her with a knife. He held the attacker off, enabling his neighbor, as well as his girlfriend, to escape and call 911. He was stabbed in the face and neck while protecting his neighbor. He has fully recovered and is back on duty with the Army National Guard.
“Sgt. Gonzales is the embodiment of what an Oklahoma National Guardsman is,” said Maj. Gen. Michael Thompson, the adjutant general for Oklahoma. “Without a thought for his own safety, Pedro put himself between a would-be killer and a defenseless neighbor. That is the essence of what the National Guard does, we come to the aid of our neighbors, during the worst days of their lives, without a second thought.”
The Oklahoma Purple Heart is presented to public safety members who suffered life-threatening injuries in the line of duty.
Johnson and Zarkeshan were honored for their bravery during a traffic stop in Tulsa on June 29, 2020.
The officers pulled over David Ware, a motorist who allegedly refused to get out of his vehicle after receiving 12 orders to do so. The officers used both a stun gun and pepper spray to get Ware to comply. As the officers struggled with Ware, he allegedly pulled out a gun and shot both at close range. Johnson fell to the ground. Ware then allegedly shot Zarkeshan again, hitting him in the head.
“The driver left the scene, but Zarkeshan was able to provide information to responding officers that led to the quick apprehension of the suspect,” the news release states.
Johnson died from his wounds the following day. Zarkeshan spent five months rehabilitating from his injuries. He is now back at the Police Department on modified assignment.
Johnson’s wife Kristi attended the ceremony and posthumously accepted the award.
“Our family appreciates Craig being honored and we are humbled by the ongoing show of support,” Kristi Johnson said.
Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum lauded both officers for their heroism.
“I’d like to thank Governor Stitt for honoring two of Tulsa’s heroes – Officer Aurash Zarkeshan and Sgt. Craig Johnson,” Bynum said. “Their bravery and sacrifice will always be remembered by the citizens of Tulsa, and this recognition on behalf of the entire State of Oklahoma means a great deal.”
Barby received the Purple Heart for his actions on the morning of Nov. 11, 2020. He and several other police officers were attempting to apprehend a suspect believed responsible for two murders and a kidnapping.
The suspect allegedly opened fire at officers. Barby was shot once in the torso, but a bulletproof vest protected him. The suspect was shot and killed.
Barby was treated at a hospital for severe bruising to his upper right abdomen.
“Officer Zach Barby and his colleagues put their lives on the line to apprehend a suspect in a series of horrific murders,” said Oklahoma City Mayor David Holt. “It is only thanks to modern protective equipment that Officer Barby is still with us today. He was willing to do whatever it required to protect the people of our city. It is fitting that the State of Oklahoma is honoring him today, and on behalf of the people of Oklahoma City, we are grateful to Officer Barby and his family.”
The awards Stitt presented on Tuesday are the first state level awards for heroism given through the Oklahoma State Awards Program (OSAP), according to the news release.
A nine-member committee of state public safety officials that is chaired by Lt. Gov. Matt Pinnell determined the award recipients.
“The Oklahoma State Awards Program Committee is pleased to recognize an incredible inaugural group of award recipients,” Pinnell said. “This program is a fitting way to honor Oklahomans for their distinguished service to our state.”
OSAP committee members include the Adjutant General of the Oklahoma National Guard, the commissioner of the Department of Public Safety, the director of the Department of Corrections, the director of the Department of Transportation, the president of the Oklahoma Sheriffs’ Association, the president of the Oklahoma Association of Chiefs of Police, the president of the Oklahoma State Firefighters Association and the president of the Oklahoma Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association.