Lunney retires, leaves legacy of law enforcement
By JOHN DERBY &
September 8, 2017
Longtime lawman Pat Lunney literally sailed off into
the sunset last Friday — his last day on the
job as chief of investigations for the Merced County
District Attorney’s Office.
Lunney, well-known in Merced as the former Police
Chief, wrapped up a 42-year career by turning in his
badge, gun and county-issued sedan, and headed into
retirement with a sail boat — a “day cruiser”
— waiting on the shore of some exotic bay in
a completely different latitude.
The night before he celebrated with colleagues at
a packed downtown bar that probably has never seen
such a show of top law enforcement brass.
District Attorney Larry Morse led a round of cheers,
calling Lunney a “visionary,” and a very
good friend. In the crowd applauding were three area
police chiefs including Norm Andrade of Merced, along
with Sheriff Vern Warnke, former Sheriff Tom Sawyer,
former Judge Frank Dougherty, Chief Deputy D.A. Rob
Carroll, Undersheriff Jason Goins, Sheriff’s
Captain Greg Sullivan, and many more.
“I loved my career every step of the way,”
the 69-year-old Lunney told the Times. “I didn’t
mind getting up today. I always liked getting up to
see what had happened the night before, or to see
where we were on a case. … But if I don’t
quit now, I’m going to stay another six or seven
years, and who knows how you will feel after that
There are some who say Lunney was the youngest police
chief in the country when he took over the Merced
office in 1983 at the age of 35. “ I don’t
know if that is entirely true,” he said, but
added that he probably was for this size of city.
He replaced Chief Harold Kulbeth at a time when there
were around 60 officers on the force. Some said Lunney
“was out of the mold.”
Born in Wyoming, he moved to Merced because his parents
had already followed careers here.
Lunney went to Merced College for a couple of years
before attending UC Davis. The draft was still in
effect in those days, and the Vietnam War was shut
down, but young men were still having to serve if
they were called on.
In Lunney’s case, he had been trained in the
ROTC program so he was perfect for the Army. He became
an officer and served actively for a short time.
“I was 27, and I had no idea what I would become,”
But then there was a help-wanted ad in Merced for
new members of the police and fire departments. He
chose the police, because they paid a little bit more.
The starting salary was less than $1,000 a month.
And he was hired almost immediately.
The town was much smaller in the mid-1970s, and there
were really no gang problems, and few people dealing
with drugs. Shootings and homicides were rare. And
there was virtually no homeless residents in sight.
It was a time when officers — in about six patrol
cars on any given shift — would sometimes give
local drivers a ride home if they had drank a little
while out on the town.
In addition, the nearby Castle Air Force Base was
a positive. “It was good for the community,”
Lunney said. “For the most part we never had
any problems with the airmen. And if you did have
a problem, you didn’t have to arrest them and
put them in the system. All you had to do was go over
and talk to the Base Commander, and they would take
care of it all.”
Lunney watched, however, as Merced grew and transformed,
and the gangs and drugs became major problems. He
moved up the ranks with steady determination. He was
smart, and brought change and innovation to whatever
job he had in the department. He was well liked by
his peers, as well as the top brass, who knew that
he was management material and could handle special
Things did change when Mothers Against Drunk Driving
laws were passed in the state. Police officers became
enforcers of a much stricter law, and both the city
and the state wanted to see results. The “Kind
Cop” became less kind. Meanwhile, drugs like
heroine and crack cocaine were starting to show up.
Lunney was serving as police chief when Castle Air
Force shut down in 1994. When asked how that affected
the community, he said: “It eventually caused
a major change, and the change was adverse.”
It cost the community jobs and much needed income.
Airmen and families who used to rent, slowly moved
away, and there was a vacancy factor that was filled
with low-income housing options. A socioeconomic shift
At the same time, Lunney initiated the MPD's first
ever Gang Violence Suppression Unit (which is still
He also went on to assign a resource officer to a
high school campus in Merced — at a time when
some thought it was a bad idea. Today, the practice
is not only widely accepted, the City Council attempt
to find more funding to expand the program.
He added two substations in the north and south of
parts of Merced, and he took volunteer senior officers
and created a community service patrol.
In the 1990s, Lunney was also among the first chiefs
in the state to update the department’s computer
systems with state-of-the-art public safety software.
And over his 15-year stint as the city’s top
cop, Chief Lunney would earn statewide recognition
for community based policing.
Leaders took notice, and in 1999, at the age of 52,
Lunney found himself being interviewed by State Attorney
General Bill Lockyer for a job as Director of Law
Enforcement for the California Department of Justice.
“I remember I was actually in opposition to
what I was told about task forces and forensic labs
around the state,” he recalled. “I told
Lockyer the division couldn’t do well what they
were trying to do. If they wanted to be effective,
they needed to scale back some of their scope, and
focus on what I call ‘Centers of Excellence.’”
Lunney suggested that the state would be better suited
if the various offices specialized in different kinds
of forensics, instead of each one trying to do it
Lockyer, known as a policy guru, liked what he heard,
and Lunney was hired.
Once again, Lunney was on the cutting edge of law
enforcement, and now looking for solutions to California’s
growing crime problem.
At the Department of Justice, he was instrumental
in developing the intelligence assets of the state
in the wake of the 9/11 tragedy. He was also in a
leadership role at the department when the underlying
Bureau of Forensic Services built its DNA data base
that is in successful crime-solving use today. He
also helped bring valuable investigative aid to Merced
after the death of MPD officer Stephan Gray —
they caught the killer in 17 days — and to Modesto
during the Laci Peterson case.
When Lockyer was termed out of office in 2007-08,
Lunney was wondering what to do, or if he should retire.
That’s when Merced County District Attorney
Larry Morse got on the phone and begged him to come
back to Merced and work as a chief investigator.
Lunney happily accepted the offer, and quickly became
a calming and confident force behind the scenes of
a hectic office that is log-jammed with legal cases.
He also helped create this region's first volunteer
Crime Stopper program. That included finding a board
of directors, fundraising and maintaining the anonymous
call-in operation that collects tips to solve crimes
and offers rewards.
In 2014, the former police chief campaigned for the
open County Sheriff seat in 2014, but lost to current
Sheriff Vern Warnke.
Today, all Lunney wants to think about is enjoying
retirement by letting the sea winds take his sail
boat into new relaxing waters.
But local residents might also see him around at different
times of the season.
He told the Times he’s keeping his house in
Merced — a place he will always consider as