He was only 28 years old, but Nathan Hayden Heidelberg was already serving as a mentor -- and, at times, a father figure -- for others.
As an officer with the Midland Police force, he was a teacher and motivator for the younger Texas cops and for civilians in need, he could be a godsend. Once when a woman called the department in desperation about a son whom she could not control, Heidelberg stepped in -- not just to take the phone and calm the woman down or to pay a one-time visit. Instead, Heidelberg became a lifeline for the young man, whose father was absent from his life, Midland Police Chief Seth Herman recalled.
Hearing just how much of his time and care Heidelberg gave to the single mother and her son was bittersweet for Herman, who was only learning about Heidelberg's above-and-beyond devotion because he'd been killed after responding to a tripped burglar alarm March 5.
“Not long after his passing, I received a call from her, telling me about how Hayden had helped several times,” Herman said. “The young man had behavioral issues. It’s the kind of call that’s not necessarily a criminal matter. He didn’t have a father figure in his life, and Hayden talked to the young man for an extended period of time.”
The overwhelmed mother often called Heidelberg for help when her son got out of hand, Herman said, and the officer reached out to the son, hoping “to ease the tensions and help him.”
When Heidelberg – who had been with the department since 2014 -- died, the support structure he had provided the youth fell apart.
“Hayden was willing, whether he was on duty or off-duty, to help this family with the issues they were dealing with,” Herman said.
And that's just one example, the chief said, of how Heidelberg “was devoted to serving the public.”
“There’s a vast difference between being a public servant and serving individuals within the public,” Herman said.
The chief added that his young officer helped train new members of the department.
“Hayden represented the epitome of public service,” Herman said. “He was there to help people. He showed up to work every day with a smile. He was one of those people you meet who brighten your day. He had a love for people and for doing the right thing.”
The circumstances surrounding Heidelberg's death are contentious.
The homeowner who fatally shot Heidelberg said when he heard police – who were responding after a security alarm went off – he thought they were intruders who had entered his house, and so he fired his gun.
Officials, however, say Heidelberg announced he was with the police department. Shortly afterward, authorities say they heard gunshots, and Heidelberg was struck above his vest.
The homeowner, David Wilson, faces second-degree manslaughter charges, and the case is under investigation by the Texas Rangers. Wilson’s lawyer spoke about the tragedy to local media: “We would like to express our deepest sympathies to Officer Heidelberg’s family and the Midland Police Department for the events that led to his death. We are cooperating with investigators to attempt to learn all the material facts as soon as possible. David Wilson believed that his family was experiencing a home invasion and only fired his weapon to protect his family.”
Herman and Heidelberg’s fellow officers are still receiving condolence letters from law enforcement agencies around the country as well as overseas.
Heidelberg was the first officer to die in the department since 1961, when two cops were killed.
“Having gone for that long without a loss on duty, it really drove home the dangers of the job,” Herman said. “The devastating loss brought us all together, it solidified our belief in being public servants and being a family. There’s not a day that goes by that everyone doesn’t think about Hayden.”