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Coming Home

Release Date
Tue, 05/14/2024

A plaque and flag in memory of a CBP officer who died years ago is returned to his family

by John Davis

William Cleaver was scrolling through the internet when he saw a posting on a law enforcement forum that made him stop and take notice.

“If I’d been on that site three times since I joined, it would be a lot,” said the current supervisory U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer and retired New York police officer. “For some reason, I just clicked on it.”

Box and flag for CBP Officer Manuel Santana found on a flea market table in upstate New York
The box and flag for CBP Officer Manuel Santana found on a flea market table in upstate New York. Photo courtesy of Supervisory CBP Officer William Cleaver

Cleaver saw that New York State Correction Officer Timothy Zeller found an engraved memorial plaque and accompanying flag, folded and framed in a triangle display case at the Stormville Flea Market in upstate New York. The forum posting said the plaque read “In memory of Manuel Santana.” The flag clearly showed the CBP seal. The price tag for both: $5.

“It doesn’t belong here,” Zeller, a 14-year law enforcement veteran thought as he looked at the piece, knowing how special a flag like this would be. He added he still knows nothing about this officer to this day. But a flea market table was definitely not the rightful home. “I wanted it returned to the family or at least back with someone from CBP.”

Supervisory CBP Officer William Cleaver, New York Field Office. Photo courtesy of William Cleaver
Supervisory CBP Officer William Cleaver, New York Field Office. Photo courtesy of William Cleaver

Both Zeller and Cleaver knew they had to try to help reconnect the plaque with the officer’s family. But checking CBP’s “In Memoriam” page – Santana was not listed because he didn’t die in the line of duty – as well as the agency’s human resources office and the union. Cleaver was coming up with nothing, but he was also undeterred.

“I didn’t give up,” he said. “Once I get my hands on something, I don’t stop!”

Months later, his tenacity – a trait that he admits might be part being a native New Yorker, part being a CBP officer – finally paid off. Wanda Evans, a deputy branch chief in CBP’s Office of Human Resources found nothing in her agency’s records about Santana. But she also remained tenacious in her efforts, putting into action the request to contact the federal government’s Office of Personnel Management. There, the connection finally was found for the family of the CBP officer who passed away in 2005.

Wanda Evans, a deputy branch chief with CBP's Office of Human Resources
Wanda Evans, a deputy branch chief in CBP’s Office of Human Resources. Photo courtesy of Wanda Evans

“When we got that name, we wrote a letter to the family member and gave her my telephone number,” Evans said. The family member soon called Evans and explained how the piece had been lost during a series of moves and how happy they would be to have it back. Soon after, it was shipped to Santana’s family. “We got it back to the family member.”

Due to privacy concerns, the family was unable to comment directly for this story. But Evans said they were extremely grateful the box was returned, and Santana was able to come home.

"They were so gracious accepting it and so glad it was found," Evans said.

Evans also wanted to recognize the large number of people who were on her team, working on this diligently through the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We worked as a team,” she said.

Evans added it makes her proud that CBP treats its employees as family, even long after they have left the agency and even this world.

“Once CBP, you’re always CBP, no matter what,” she said, pointing out CBP sees her fellow workers as important as flesh-and-blood family members. “Just to know that employees have worked with us and dedicated a good portion of their lives to CBP, it’s well-deserved.”

Photograph of Supervisory CBP Officer William Cleaver
New York State Correction Officer Timothy Zeller. Photo courtesy of Timothy Zeller

Zeller said he collects law enforcement and military memorabilia when he can to make sure the honor that was bestowed upon those who gave so much is always remembered. He’s proud his hobby turned out in this case to be a chance to provide a homecoming to a piece of a memory that should never be forgotten.

“I can’t tell you how special a moment it was when those [CBP folks] stepped out of the car, and I gave them that flag,” he said, remembering the moment he first put it into CBP hands and knowing it would soon be with Santana’s family again. “We were part of something special.”

And he said he felt blessed to be in the right place at the right time to set the return in motion and credited the people from CBP who made sure Santana’s memory would not be forgotten.

“It’s about doing the right thing in a world where a lot of the time people don’t always do the right thing,” Zeller said, hoping that if given a similar situation, someone else would do the same for him and his memory. “Life is too short; you never know.”

Cleaver is a nearly 40-year veteran of law enforcement, including the last 18 years with CBP. He considers the return of the plaque and flag to Santana’s rightful family to be one of the highlights of his career with the agency.

“It’s hard to explain, but it’s something I feel strongly about,” he said, adding his own family has served this nation since before the Revolutionary War. He said he couldn’t not help. “Anyone who serves their country deserves at least the type of effort I put into this.”

Last Modified: May 14, 2024