The city of Mobile turned blue after officer Justin Billa was killed in the line of duty last week, but that’s only part of the outpouring of support his family has received from across the country.
Billa was killed while preparing to confront a murder suspect outside a Toulminville home on Feb. 20. Police had been investigating the death of 58-year-old Fonda Poellnitz, whose body was found discarded along Ridge Road earlier that evening.
Poellnitz’ ex-husband, 72-year-old Robert Hollie, was a prime suspect, and Billa and another officer were setting up a perimeter and waiting for backup outside Hollie’s home on Avondale Court in Mobile. Suddenly, Hollie opened fire with a handgun, fatally striking Billa.
Reports of an officer down brought out dozens of police cars as well as the Mobile Police Department’s SWAT Unit. A standoff with Hollie ended after several hours when members of the SWAT team were able to gain access to the residence.According to MPD Chief Lawrence Batiste, Hollie was deceased from a self-inflicted gunshot wound when officers found him inside the home. While the standoff was over, police were just beginning to address the loss of Billa, who died at USA Medical Center.
At the age of 27, Billa left behind a wife, Erin, and his 1-year-old son, Taylor.
“A police officer dedicates their life to the principles of honor, duty and courage. Officer Billa exuded all of those qualities in his professional and personal life,” Mayor Sandy Stimpson said in his first statement after Billa’s death. “This is a difficult day, but we take strength in knowing that when an officer falls, our resolve to serve those in need is not diminished. Our dedication to protecting those in danger is not weakened.”
Billa was laid to rest on Tuesday, Feb. 27, in Mobile Memorial Gardens Cemetery following a memorial service at Cottage Hill Baptist Church. The evening before the service, members of the Mobile Police Honor Guard, a volunteer group, stood watch over Billa’s casket at the church.
The department also presented Billa’s family with a folded American flag and organized a traditional 21-gun salute at his graveside service. When he first spoke to Billa’s death, Stimpson said the loss of an officer affects all of Mobile, adding the only thing that could make the situation worse would be the city failing to honor the sacrifice he made.
Stimpson and others remembered Billa as a dedicated police officer, a great husband, a great father and a “genuinely good guy” at the memorial service.
Capt. Douglas Parmenter, of the MPD’s Third Precinct, told those in attendance Billa was enthusiastic about police work. He relayed a story from Billa’s wife about the time the officer canceled plans with her to get the chance to work undercover.
Billa also meant a lot to the community he served. Parmenter told mourners a 4-year-old boy came to the precinct over the last week to donate almost $5 to Billa’s family to help them because “Justin made him feel safe.”
Executive Director of Public Safety James Barber was chief of police when Billa graduated from the police academy in 2016. Barber said Billa had a calling to be a police officer and described that calling as “an instinct to protect other people,” even at the risk of one’s own life.
“He loved to serve and loved to help others,” Barber said. “Part of America and part of each of us died with him.”
Barber mentioned the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Washington, D.C., dedicated to 21,000 men and women who have died in the line of duty. The memorial, he said, is a “reminder to every one of us, it’s not how we die that makes us heroes, it’s how we lived.”
“Jason lived that life,” he added.
As for the other officers in attendance Tuesday, Barber had a message for them.
“We’re all fighters,” he said. “We’ll continue to fight. We will fight for those who cannot protect themselves. We will fight for each of us who have fallen and we will fight for everyone who will fall.”
State Rep. Margie Wilcox (R-Mobile) spoke on behalf of Gov. Kay Ivey and the Alabama Legislature. She said both chambers of the Legislature would be recognizing Billa through resolutions during the session.
Mobile City Council Vice President Levon Manzie described Billa as a “hero,” saying the council appreciates and doesn’t “take for granted the sacrifice and service” of the city’s police force.
“We appreciate him,” Manzie said. “Our citizens have shown in very unique ways that they are appreciative of the sacrifice he’s given.”
The response from everyday citizens throughout Mobile and beyond has been massive, according to posts Erin Billa has made on social media. Hundreds have shared photos of the MPD badge with a black mourning band used to remember fallen officers.
On Tuesday, locals lined Cottage Hill Road to show support for Billa as a funeral procession rolled by. Students at Fonde Elementary showed support for Billa on Tuesday as well by placing a message in balloons on the school’s fence line along Cottage Hill Road. Students and teachers at Just 4 Development Laboratory, near the Third Precinct headquarters, wore blue in honor of Billa.
Others have given financial support through the department’s memorial fund for Billa’s family. The police training academy has also sold T-shirts and bracelets to benefit the family, and thousands attended a barbecue benefit over the weekend sponsored by Gulf Coast Autowerks, along with other local businesses, at Cowboys and Angels.
Erin Billa said the love and support from the community has “brought me to my knees.”
“My husband made a difference,” she wrote in a social media post. “He put on that uniform because he loved his job. He has touched thousands of people, and I am so proud.”
Billa’s death also highlighted another common danger faced by law enforcement: response to volatile domestic violence.
“We know domestic violence cases are among the most dangerous calls to action policemen have,” Stimpson said. “They happen every day, not just in our community but all across America. Police officers go into dangerous situations and show great bravery while often dealing with people in the very worst moments in their lives.”
He also encouraged anyone “suffering in silence” through unreported domestic violence to reach out to authorities or to the other resources available in the community. He specifically cited Penelope House, which works with victims of domestic violence across several counties in Southwest Alabama. Resources are available by calling 251-342-8994.
While Billa’s death has made headlines across the country, Stimpson has said it’s also important to remember the life of Hollie’s other victim, Fonda Poellnitz. Family members reported Poellnitz and Hollie attended church together just hours before she was killed.
While the family has painted Hollie as the aggressor in the couple’s troubled two-year marriage, state court records indicate Poellnitz was charged with misdemeanor domestic violence in 2000, 2002 and then again in 2015. Hollie filed a protection-from-abuse order against her the same year after she allegedly “threatened to shoot [him] and drag [him] out of the house.”
During a candlelight vigil held in Poellnitz’ memory on Feb. 25, members of her family and friends spoke about the dangers of staying in an abusive relationship. A Celebration of Life for Poellnitz is scheduled for March 3 at Mt. Olive Baptist Church on North Lafayette Street in Mobile.
Dale Liesch, Jason Johnson and Gabriel Tynes contributed to this report.
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