Steve Armenta Park: Sacred Ground Remembered

Parks, like people, have stories. And the little park at the corner of West 7th and K Streets in Benicia has a story of tragedy and remembrance that is worth hearing.

Many in town know it as “the Taco Bell park,” because it sits right next to that well-known dining establishment. It’s a grassy neighborhood park with swings and a play structure, and you can sit in the shade and hear the clerk speaking to customers at the drive-through window picking up their orders.

Others may remember it as the site of the old skate park, before it was replaced by the bigger and more deluxe X-Park up at Community Park. In those days, its official name was Willow Glen.

Now it has a new name: Steve Armenta Park. And therein lies the story.

It’s a safe bet that virtually no one who swings on the swings or picnics on the grass there has any idea about the life and death drama that played out in the lot across the street from it.

It was December 5, 1973. Steve Armenta, a dark-haired, mustachioed 40-year-old narcotics field supervisor for the California Department of Justice, was working undercover on a drug case in Benicia. Looking to buy illegal drugs from a dealer and bust him to get him off the street.

He had worked lots of drug cases in town, the cops here knew him and liked him and in the words of one, he had become “part of the community.”

Suddenly, things went terribly wrong. After making the buy, Armenta and other agents moved in to arrest the dealer when shots rang out. His body fell, mortally wounded. The husband and father of two children died two days later in a Sacramento hospital.

The only peace officer in Benicia’s history to be killed in the line of duty.

That was close to 50 years ago. Time moved on. The heartbreak of that moment eventually passed. For most, but not all. Some never forgot.

Those who did not forget sought to remember Steve Armenta in a manner befitting his sacrifice—close to the sacred ground where he fell. This is where Taco Bell park, the skate park, old Willow Glen Park come back into the story—that was the perfect spot to honor him.

And so, at last, they did.

The city approved the name change, and a whole bunch of law enforcement people—Benicia police, DOJ agents, many of them retired, many who knew him personally—raised money and pitched in their own money to make sure the job was done right.

So many people were involved in this effort, there’s not enough space to list them all in this article. But you can see their names on the plaque embedded in stone at the base of the standing bronze monument that features Armenta’s likeness.

There’s a bench there too. Have a seat. You’re now within sight of where a man laid down his life to help his friends and this community. No greater glory, as has been said.

Steve Armenta monument and plaque

He started his job that day like he did every other day, not knowing what to expect.

In this way, he resembles every other man and woman in law enforcement, then and now. As poet David L. Bell, writes,

And each day when he leaves for work,
He prays to God above,
Please bring me home after my shift
So I can see the ones I love.

The dedication ceremony for Steve Armenta Park was held earlier this year. Many in law enforcement attended. One of the dignitaries present was his daughter, Peggy Lynn Armenta, who was a teenager when her dad died. “The one thing I know,” she said in remembrance, “is that he loved what he did.”