Highway dedicated to slain Louisiana state trooper

Advocate staff photo by BRYAN TUCK -- Iberia Parish Sheriff and former Louisiana State Trooper Louis Ackal speaks at a highway dedication ceremony for fallen State Trooper Donald C. Cleveland Thursday along La. 94 near the Lafayette/ St. Martin Parish line. Ackal was Cleveland's Shift Lieutenant.
Advocate staff photo by BRYAN TUCK -- Iberia Parish Sheriff and former Louisiana State Trooper Louis Ackal speaks at a highway dedication ceremony for fallen State Trooper Donald C. Cleveland Thursday along La. 94 near the Lafayette/ St. Martin Parish line. Ackal was Cleveland's Shift Lieutenant.

The last time Candice Cleveland saw her husband, 25-year-old Trooper Donald Cleveland, he was leaving his family’s Breaux Bridge home at 5:30 a.m. on July 2, 1977.

Like she always did, Candice Cleveland told her husband to be careful. As his part of the ritual, he said he would.

Less than an hour later, other state troopers knocked at her door to tell her that her husband was dead, killed by a 17-year-old named Dalton Prejean.

Donald Cleveland had been a state trooper for one year, one month and two days. He was found in a ditch off La. 94, his fingers still wrapped around his unfired service revolver.

Thirty-six years later, Candice Cleveland, now Candice Harris, joined her children, grandchildren, current and retired state troopers, other area law enforcement officials, politicians and other friends Thursday in dedicating a stretch of highway to her first husband.

La. 94 from the Lafayette Parish/St. Martin Parish line to Louisiana Avenue in Lafayette became the “Trooper Donald C Cleveland Memorial Highway.”

“It was terrible times for everyone,” said Iberia Parish Sheriff Louis Ackal, who was a State Police shift commander at Troop I and Cleveland’s boss when he was killed.

Harris said she and her husband were married in 1971. Donald Cleveland, who was from the Livingston Parish village of Albany, thought long and hard about a career as a pastor, she said.

But “he wanted to be in law enforcement” and decided on a path that led to becoming a trooper at Troop I, Harris said.

“No one wore it (the badge) more proudly than he did,” Col. Mike Edmonson, State Police superintendent, said Thursday before unveiling the state highway sign dedicating La. 94 in Cleveland’s name.

“We never will forget him,” Edmonson said.

It was just before daylight on July 2, 1977, and just minutes after he left his Breaux Bridge home, when Cleveland pulled over a car with four males inside on La. 94 near the Lafayette Parish-St. Martin Parish line.

The four men had just left a lounge nearby. Before getting out, the driver of the car — Prejean — switched seats with the front-seat passenger, who got out and walked toward Cleveland.

At the same time, Prejean got out on the passenger side, planted his feet in a shooter’s stance, and fired four shots.

Cleveland died in a ditch. Prejean was executed on May 18, 1990, after almost 13 years on death row.

Besides his young wife, Cleveland left behind a 3-year-old daughter, Cathleen, and a 1-year-old son, also named Donald, who now is married with three small children.

The whole family attended the dedication Thursday, held under canvas shade at a steamy 2 p.m.

Cathleen, now almost 40 and with the married name Gomez, said she remembers snippets of her and her dad playing in the back yard of their Breaux Bridge home.

“I remember him getting ready for work,” Gomez said. “I was pretty much a daddy’s girl. It was just him and I.”

Cleveland’s son said his memories are not of his father, but of people telling him about his father. “They tell me about how wonderful a person he was,” he said.

Harris said she remembers word for word their last words on that last morning, a Saturday.

“I said ‘Please be careful.’

“‘I will be careful, Candy, I’ll always be careful.’

“‘I’ll see you when I get home,” he said.