Sugar Land Police Officer Marcus Lee Zabura.
Sugar Land Police Officer Marcus Lee Zaruba lost his battle with cancer in 2009 at the age of 29, but his pursuit of justice will continue to live on for years to come.
Zaruba, an 2003 alumnus from Sam Houston State University, is continuing his legacy through a non-profit foundation, which is dedicated to giving back to police departments and funding criminal justice scholarships. The Marcus Lee Zaruba Criminal Justice Foundation sponsors a half marathon and a school education and fundraising effort in his hometown of Baytown each year.
"He loved it," said his sister Mary Pinney. "Ever since he was born, there was no other thing he wanted to be but a police officer."
The Second Annual Jail Break Run will be held in Baytown on Feb. 11, beginning and ending at the Baytown Police Department after a vigorous stretch up the Fred Hartman Bridge over the Houston Ship Channel. The inaugural event was held last year with about 150 participants and those numbers are expected to double in 2012, said Det. Aaron Crowell, President of the Baytown Police Association.
"The Marcus Lee Zaruba Foundation has been instrumental in the partnership to assist our officers in their time of need," said Crowell.
While half of the funds will go toward scholarships at Zaruba’s alma maters, including Sam Houston State University, Lee College and the University of Houston Police Academy, the other half will benefit the Baytown Police Department’s Helping a Hero Fund. That fund assists officers who may need financial help because of unforeseen illness, injury or circumstances, and to purchase needed equipment for the Baytown Police Department. The fund also is available to smaller departments in Harris, Liberty and Chambers Counties and was most recently used to help a civilian police department employee with cancer and victims of the Bastrop fires.
"We have been asked many times, "Why do you do all this?," Pinney said. "Yes, it was inspired by one of my heroes, my little brother, Officer Marcus Zaruba. But as a family we saw what peace he got when he found out that his medical and funeral costs were taken care of and we want to do the same for as many officers as we can. We also want to make sure that scholarships are set up to aid any criminal justice student that has a desire to get into law enforcement. You are all there when we need you, so we want to be ready when you need us."
Police officers pay tribute to Zaruba at his funeral. The fundraising efforts are a tribute to the men and women in Sugar Land who assisted Zaruba, his wife Jessica and his family in their time of need. During his short eight week battle with cancer, Zaruba’s colleagues in the department stayed by his side at home or in the hospital and raised funds to cover his medical care and living expenses.
"They would come by and make him laugh," said Pinney. "If he wanted water, they would show up with five cases of water. But it was really the laughter that made him forget what he was going through."
One of Zaruba’s favorite parts of his job was to visit children in school. He even had his own trading card, bearing his photo, badge and favorite quotation. He wanted kids to know that police were there to help and were approachable, Pinney said.
That is why the family established the Pennies for Justice program, an annual fundraising effort that brought students and police together every October. The program, which was held in 15 elementary and junior high school, allowed officers to showcase the K-9 unit, the SWAT vehicles and their services, and students to donate coins to help officers in need. Classrooms that raised the most money were taken on a field trip to the police station and treated to a pizza lunch.
In 2011, 463 Baytown classrooms participated, collecting more than a ton of coins worth more than $17,000.
As a patrol officer in Sugar Land, Zaruba excelled at helping the community and with keeping the community safe, said former Police Chief Steve Griffith, who now serves as Assistant City Manager.
"He particularly excelled at helping people, whether they had car problems or issues with a neighbor," said Griffith. "He would take the extra step to ensure that whoever needed help was satisfied. He also aggressively pursued crime. We have property crime issues and he would make lots of traffic stops. He also helped back up other officers when they needed him."
Zaruba at his graduation from Sam Houston State University in 2003. Zaruba also was an avid supporter of SHSU, requesting before his death that donations be made to the college in lieu of flowers.
"My Mom went to Sam Houston first," said Pinney. "Marcus was a SAM fan - the truck he had was even orange. He had some many good friends there. It was a big college, but it had that small town feel. He always talked about the criminal justice department and his professors."
Hannah Orosco is one of two students who have received the scholarship. "I think it is a wonderful thing for Mrs. Zaruba to do in memory of her husband for her to help students who aspire to achieve the same goals and standards in the field of law enforcement that he had,” said Orosco. “It was a real honor to be one of the first recipients selected to receive the scholarship. Receiving the Marcus Zaruba Scholarship has definitely influenced my drive to succeed, knowing the story behind the scholarship, and I think it is a great way to help students reach their potential."
For more information about the Marcus Lee Zaruba Foundation, visit www.mlzcjfoundation.org or call 832-767-8535.