Robert "Bob" Gonzales, a lifelong Santa Paula resident who served as the city’s mayor and police chief, died after complications from heart surgery at the age of 71.
During his decades-long career in law enforcement and public office, Gonzales became a well-known figure in the city of Santa Paula. Current Mayor Carlos Juarez highlighted Gonzales’ position as a leader and mentor in the community. Juarez himself used to work under Gonzales at the Santa Paula Police Department.
"Each of us knows someone in our lives who we've looked up to and who has inspired us by his or her leadership and guidance," Juarez said in a statement. "One such person was Robert 'Bob' Gonzales."
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Gonzales was serving as chief administrative officer for the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Office at the time of his death Tuesday in Los Angeles, where he had been undergoing treatment at UCLA. In a statement, Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown mourned the loss.
"He touched many of us with his warm smile and positive nature," Brown said. "He left a big impression on us, and he will be greatly missed.”
Gonzales was born and raised in Santa Paula, growing up in a single-mother household after his father died when he was young. He graduated from Santa Paula High School and went on to receive his associate’s degree in criminal justice from Ventura College in 1970.
In 1972, Gonzales joined the Santa Paula Police Department, where he would work for the next 33 years. He rose through the ranks and held every sworn position at the agency, culminating as the agency's chief from 1999 until 2005, when he retired from law enforcement.
Cmdr. Allen Macias recalled working under Gonzales when he was first hired by the department in 2003.
"He was the leader; he was very compassionate about the job," Macias said. "Most of all, he had a special relationship with each individual officer."
Former Assistant Police Chief Ish Cordero said Gonzales was instrumental in getting him hired full-time in 1987.
"He was an icon in the community," Cordero said. "He was a role model to a lot of us in law enforcement. He was well-liked and well respected not only in the community but by other departments, other chiefs."
Gonzales said his personal law-enforcement theory wasn't complicated. In 2005, he told the Star it was simply this: "Put the bad guys in jail."
At the time, he said his retirement plans might lead to working with at-risk kids.
"That's really the key to preventing crime," Gonzales said. "If you work with kids at an early age, you stop it before it happens."
Stepping down from his position as chief did not mark the end of Gonzales’ career in public service. The next year, Gonzales was elected to the Santa Paula City Council, where he stayed for two full terms from 2006 until 2014. During his time on the council, Gonzales worked two years as mayor and two more as vice mayor.
"In many ways he was larger than life, so the loss will be felt throughout our town," Santa Paula City Manager Dan Singer said in a statement.
In addition to his work in public office, Gonzales served as a trustee on the school boards for Santa Paula's elementary and high school districts. He was also a trustee with the Ventura County Community College District from 1996 to 2004.
On Wednesday, a procession transported Gonzales' remains from UCLA, where he died, to Santa Paula. The procession briefly stopped at the city's police memorial on Santa Barbara Street. Gonzales had given his last public speech at the site last month.
The occasion for that speech was a Santa Paula police reunion — organized in part by Gonzales — that brought together past police officers, dispatchers, civilian employees and volunteers, Juarez said.
“He wanted to do that before he passed,” Juarez said. “So today, we made the recommendation ... the procession pause for a few moments in front of the police memorial for one of his last presentations ... It’s kind of a great moment in time for us.”
Gonzales' survivors include four adult children and eight grandchildren.
Jeremy Childs is a breaking news and public safety reporter covering the night shift for the Ventura County Star. He can be reached by calling 805-437-0208 or emailing email@example.com. You can also find him on Twitter @Jeremy_Childs.
This article originally appeared on Ventura County Star: Former Santa Paula mayor, police chief Bob Gonzales dies at 71