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Albert's honors police, fire department Hometown Heroes

August 26th, 2018

Written by Lu Ann Franklin Times Correspondent and Photos by Kale Wilk, The Times

Honoring hometown heroes from area police and fire departments with watches and framed certificates has been a tradition at Albert's Diamond Jewelers for decades.

"We had two fires at our store when we were in East Chicago. The Fire Department saved our store and our lives," said Fred Halpern, chairman of the board of Albert's Diamond Jewelers, during Saturday's ceremonies to salute 12 police officers and seven firefighters.

"These are people who do all these good things. They need the recognition," he said. "We've been blessed, and we're able to give back."

Each year the staff at Albert's reaches out to police chiefs and fire chiefs in surrounding communities to nominate someone who has gone above and beyond the call of duty for the Hometown Heroes award, said Christine Martinez, Albert's spokeswoman.

"This is my favorite day of the year, honoring heroes from throughout Northwest Indiana. It's so wonderful to hear about our officers," said Josh Halpern, president of Albert's, as he presented a Citizen Thin Blue Line Watch to Munster police Lt. Ed Strbjak.

Strbjak, who has been a Munster police officer for 35 years, was honored for organizing fundraisers and tributes to Officer Joe Pacheco, who lost his battle with brain cancer in January.

The 59-year-old Strbjak also recently responded when a father and two young children were struck by a car going at a high rate of speed in a neighborhood just south of Stewart Park.

"I just happened to be driving in my car with my wife, Kim, when we saw this," the officer said about the incident.

"I switched into my reaction mode. The little girl had a massive head injury. My wife is a NICU nurse and helped stabilize the little girl. God put me there so they can recover and lead successful lives," Strbjak said.

Hammond police Cpl. Daniel Sangkaratana, 37, joined the department 11 years ago and patrols primarily the Hessville section of Hammond. He was nominated by Chief John D. Doughty for responding to an incident on June 1.

"We had a gentleman going around trying to abduct girls. I caught him. A citizen jumped in to help," Sangkaratana said about the incident on Parrish Avenue.

According to published reports, Patrick Baum saw a man exit an SUV and go after the officer. When the man identified as Randol Thomas Palmer Hall, 27, of Matteson, Illinois, reached for Sangkaratana's gun, Baum tackled the suspect and helped the officer hold him down until other officers arrived.

Another hometown hero — Lt. Joel Hasselgren — was named Firefighter of the Year for 2017 by the St. John Fire Department. The 27-year-old also serves as a paramedic.

"I joined the Fire Department in 2014," Hasselgren said before receiving his watch and certificate. He received his paramedic training at St. Anthony Hospital's program.

Family members surrounded two Schererville police officers honored on Saturday.

Officer Anthony Buonadonna, 42, has served with the Schererville Police Department for 17 years while Officer Matthew Djukic, 46, joined the department 22 years ago.

"We are assigned to the crime reduction unit," said Buonadonna, as his 7-year old son Dominic vied for his attention. "We were co-officers of the year for our department in 2017."

Lake County Sheriff Oscar Martinez attended the ceremonies and was also honored with a watch and framed certificate.

"I've been with the department 26 years. My parents came from Mexico and settled in East Chicago," said Martinez, who chose to go into law enforcement rather than join his family's factory business.

"I just wanted to go another way," he said. "This is something I have a passion for."

Martinez said he's proud to see police officers being honored.

"I think this is awesome," he said of the event, which also saluted him for the Highway Drug Interdiction program that targeted large drug shipments coming through Northwest Indiana from all over the nation and from other countries.

"We're able to seize the assets and use that for training and equipment for our officers," Martinez said. "It saved the taxpayers money."

Albert's Diamond Jewelers is one of only two stores nationwide that carry the Citizen Thin Blue Line watch, said Les Mokrzycki, Citizen Watch brand representative for Illinois and Indiana.

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