Laughing through tears, Dee Leal recalls the thoughtfulness, love and devotion from the ‘Ernest’ fellow who had her back

Officer Ernest Leal with wife, Ret. Officer Dolores Leal

Officer Ernie Leal was openly courting a fellow HPD officer he was obviously crazy about. The magnetism was taking hold even though the two had not yet had their first date.

Today, the female half of the couple admits she was initially hesitant – until she learned how deeply committed, honest, sincere and, yes, loving, this man in blue really was.

She joked that she almost always called him “Ernest” while his friends and fellow officers used the more informal “Ernie.” She said through a good-natured laugh that it made her sound in charge, like he was being supervised.

The proof of his earnest love and devotion started to unfold when Dee jokingly “demanded” proof that Leal was not married. The last thing she wanted to do was date a married man.

Proof of Sincerity

“If you’re married,” Officer Dee Cisneros said in a serious investigative mode of, well, a police officer, “I don’t want to see you. I want to see your divorce decree.”

She now laughs about the memory of her fellow patrol officer from North Command.

The next thing you know, Leal appeared at the residence of the object of his affection he presented Dee with a copy of his divorce paperwork.

“He went and got it,” she remembered in an interview in remembrance of her loving husband, who died of COVID on Nov. 27, the first HPD officer to die of the virus in the line of duty. “He didn’t get offended. It was a certified copy!”

She recalled her suitor saying, “I knew you wouldn’t believe me unless I got a certified copy.”

The HPD romance began in the early 2000s. Each stage has plenty of laughs and unforgettable moments. A certified decree proving you’re not married?

“Who does that?” Dee asked, recalling the presentation of the written decree. It wasn’t the first evidence of her future husband’s loving devotion and generosity.

As the story goes, after the presentation of the evidence came the official “first date.”

“I really didn’t want to date anybody,” Dee recalled. She and Leal had already gotten to know each other off-the-job and had often lunched together during work hours. She finally decided it was time to “do something” with the smiling admirer.

“I’m going to take you on a trip,” he avowed, putting all kinds of anxious concerns in Dee’s mind. “We’ve got to leave really early – 5:30 on a bus.”

A bus?

So, on the weekend morning she and Leal boarded a charter with his fellow members of the Knights of Columbus and their wives to travel to Lake Charles for a day of gambling.

“The bus was completely loaded with people I didn’t know. We were the only two police officers. These were people he had known from his church. They loved him.”

Typically, some of these “gamblers” were more serious blackjack or poker players, while others just play the slots. Dee was in the latter category, as Ernie Leal knew she would be.

“He gave me a roll of quarters,” Dee recalled, laughing. “His thoughtfulness was very touching and moving to me. He never left my side. From the moment he took me to Kyle he was always around.”

Before we detail “the Kyle story,” we must reveal what happened to the roll of quarters.

During the early days of the courtship, both parties were veteran Houston police officers, Indeed, Dee was the second woman to become a part of the legendary HPD Chicano Squad. But both she and Leal spent most of their years on the force in the environs of what many in the department refer to as “North Shepherd.”

On the gambling trip, Dee was ready to spend her own money, independent, as always, despite this determined individual’s thoughtful concern.

Learning Where Kyle is

“It was a roll of quarters,” she said. “It wasn’t the amount; it was the thought. I had a budget and I didn’t want to spend it. I kept the roll. I never even spent any of it.”

It was the first example of Leal’s belief that he always wanted to be a good provider for the woman who would become his wife.

Dee Leal still has that same roll of unused quarters among many years of mementos and cherished memories that bring big smiles moistened with tears of grief from the biggest loss of her life.

This love story began, one might say, “on patrol” or “on the job.”

As an endless number of officers will testify, when eligible singles become available the word gets around. In this classic case, Carmen LeClere, an enterprising clerk in Homicide, eagerly told Dee about Officer Leal. LeClere, you might say, was the matchmaking type.

For as long as Dee graduated from HPD Cadet Class No. 108 in 1983 she has maintained her home in Kyle, a small town located between San Marcos and Austin. Dee said she stayed at LeClere’s house on Yale, which was only a short distance from the West Montgomery station.

Leal knew where Yale was and soon learned the location of Kyle, Texas, good and proper.

Let’s continue with the details of the love story.

Working patrol, Dee was at the scene of a robbery at the Bank of America at Shepherd and Pinemont. Suddenly she got deathly sick and requested a replacement. Fortunately, the robber had been caught and the serious tasks were in the rearview mirror. Dee needed to go to the hospital but first headed to Carmen’s house nearby.

Out of the blue another HPD officer appeared! It was Ernest Leal. Carmen was supposed to take Dee to the hospital but here was this officer who volunteered for the transportation task.

“I don’t know you that well,” she said to Leal. At this juncture they hardly knew each other. That changed very quickly.

And get this: Dee was doubled over with the pains of “just women’s stuff” and “didn’t want a strange man to go with me to the hospital.” He was a fellow police officer – but he was a stranger.

A while later, Dee – drugged-up for the pain – thought Carmen picked her up to take her home to Kyle, where her mother Lydia resided near her uncle and aunt’s house.

She slept most of the way. When she woke up she found herself in Leal’s personal car.

“What are you doing?” the alarmed patient exclaimed.

“I’m taking you home,” Leal replied.

Right by her Side

Well, he really didn’t know where she lived but had Carmen’s directions.

Instead of the prescribed destination, Dee led him to her aunt’s house.

Still alarmed, Dee wondered about the status of her prescriptions.

“I picked ‘em up,” Leal said. “Here they are.”

Dee found herself surrounded by two large body pillows. Leal obtained them “to try to make the trip comfortable for me. I was very leery. I knew he was an officer but –”

Juan and Gloria Mosqueda were the old-fashioned types. They had been married more than 50 years and believed in propriety during courtships. Dee was concerned, even alarmed at what they must have thought when this officer/escort stayed to care for the patient, sleeping in the spare bedroom.

Finally, when Dee woke up from the grogginess, she was astounded to learn her uncle and aunt were so impressed by Leal’s attention and devotion. They thought he might be a fiancé until Dee told them, “I hardly know him.”

In hindsight, she said she got the message from her uncle and aunt, that there were many reasons why she should get to know him better.

Just how had he “cared for” a sick patient? Aunt Gloria eased her feelings, explaining that this caring individual made sure everything was done properly.

“How far has he taken care of me?” Dee asked.

“Don’t worry,” her aunt said. “We’ve been here all the time. He adores you.””

Recalling the unique incident almost two decades later, Dee laughed and said, “It was just the kind of guy he was, a strange person. He took people home and took care of them.”

Leal had her back then and when she returned to duty, she found he was “always there” at her back on patrol, making sure she didn’t get messed with. He did this by driving by her on-scene investigations when his own duties allowed.

Like Leal’s best practices on the job (please see the accompanying profile), much attention to detail was his constant duty. One day Officer Dee suffered a severely injured foot when an errant driver ran over it trying to get around her squad car. The patrol car was blocking traffic from entering Houston’s latest flood-waters episode. This time an ambulance took her to the hospital.

“You know what they do to you in the hospital,” the veteran officer said. “They take off all your clothes.”

Now Leal had not yet established a dating relationship with Dee, but he was being his usual thoughtful self when he asked his mother, Rosa Leal, for help with supplying his fellow officer, the Kyle girl, with some clothes.

“His mother brought to me some sweatpants and a shirt,” Dee said, laughing that the first time her future mother-in-law met her she wasn’t wearing any clothes.

“How does he know what I wear? It was like the thoughtful gestures he would do, things like that. You know, he was always there for me.”

These years later she calls her mother-in-law “Rose” and recently told her, “Thank you for allowing me to love you son. You did a good job. There couldn’t be a better person. He thought the world of you.”

Ernie (Ernest) and Dee got married on March 22, 2003. “This year it would have been 18 years,” Dee said ruefully.

‘Like a Fairy Tale’

Officers Ernie & Dee Leal tying the knot!

The wedding turned out to be a hoot. Leal wanted “a Western wedding,” while Dee was not in the mood for her second wedding to contain a lot of hoopla. “I wanted him and me and a few others,” she said.

Before long the groom had assembled a much larger group of friends Dee now refers to as “half the department.” It took place at the Wedding Chapel in Tomball, where the bride was brought to the altar by a horse-drawn carriage. The dashing and daring groom in the black cowboy hat and Western duds with the ring was Ernest Leal.

“He really wanted to have a wedding and he did,” the bride recalled. “I never expected that out of a guy.”

Over those almost 18 years, Leal became “the guy who takes care of me,” his wife said. “Everywhere I went he was there too, right by my side.”

Officer Dee Leal retired in May 2004 but that didn’t mean her husband had to work for the same outfit she did to keep her back.

The retired half of the family stayed active in a volunteer capacity – an understatement, really. To name several examples, she has been active with the Assist the Officer Foundation and is a lifetime member of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. There really is no limit to her volunteer work with veterans, Hispanic groups, senior citizens and youth organizations.

Dee laughs when she says it would be difficult to list all of the volunteer organizations. But we will give it a go.

Before putting together the list, the real point here is that wherever the retired officer has gone to perform her volunteer duties her husband, the Houston police officer “who is really married to his job,” has been right beside her.

Dee’s father is a Korean War veteran and Leal’s father was a Navy man. This means that Ernie and Dee have demonstrated a knack for helping veterans, serving in the auxiliary unit of the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW). Dee has held local, state and national positions with the American G.I. Forum. Leal served as chaplain of the local chapter.

The two have been active in sponsoring the Hispanic Officer of the Year awards and “believed in scholarships. “We wanted officers to get to the next level, whether a college degree or a higher rank to earn higher salaries and benefits,” Dee explained.

This activism extended to the Texas Hispanic Council on Aging and the AARP, United Way, the Houston Lady Lion and, Navidad en el Barrio (NEEB).

The list of organizations is so lengthy that we no doubt have left out some.  The important point here is that wherever Dee has gone to serve in her retirement and the resulting tasks that she has undertaken has seen the strong support of the man who was always at her side.

She said his generosity and acts of love are unsurpassed. He had a habit of buying her gifts on a regular basis and surprising her with them when he got home. When he was at a loss for a special surprise, he sent or brought her flowers.

“He has been there for me every minute,” she said. “Any time I’ve needed something he’s been there to provide. It’s been like a fairy tale.”