CLEVELAND, Tenn. -- As Officer Justin Maples' casket was being loaded onto a horse-drawn caisson for his final journey, his young sons, wearing dark shirts with an American flag on one side of the chest and a Cleveland city seal on the other, reached out to touch the casket.
Earlier on Thursday, Maples' three boys -- 5-year-old Jace, 2-year-old Jacobi and 15-month-old Declan -- sat with their mother, Danielle, and the rest of the family on a row directly in front of the casket. Before the music and speakers began, the two older sons pointed at photos and video showing their father on big screens at the front of the sanctuary at First Baptist Church.
"The boys will grow up to hear many people tell them about their dad," Cleveland Mayor Tom Rowland said in his opening remarks. "He will always be to them an example of a real hero. Justin will always walk tall in their memories."
Maples, 35, received a hero's farewell Thursday from hundreds of police officers across East Tennessee and private citizens. He died Sunday in a single-car accident while responding to help other officers who were pursuing a suspect in a vehicle theft.
He is the first Cleveland police officer killed in the line of duty since 1971, when Officer Kenneth Wright was shot.
Police motorcycles and patrol cars from cities from Knoxville to Chattanooga joined in a miles-long funeral procession through Cleveland from First Baptist Church on Stuart Road to Hillcrest Memorial Gardens in the southern part of town.
Hundreds of spectators watched, many with American flags and some with placards thanking Maples for his service, as the hearse stopped in front of the Bradley County Courthouse and the casket was transferred to a North Carolina Highway Patrol horse-drawn caisson for the trip to the cemetery.
Cleveland Police Chief Wes Snyder spoke with a broken voice about the fallen officer.
"Sadness and sorrow make it difficult to speak through a microphone," Snyder began. "One doesn't become a hero because they die. They become a hero because of the way they live. So today we come not to say goodbye but to celebrate a life."
Maples began his day last Sunday by taking his family to church, Snyder said, then started his police shift that afternoon.
Responding to an urgent call for backup from Bradley County deputies pursuing a reported stolen car, Maples lost control of the patrol car and hit a utility pole in the 1600 block of South Lee Highway.
The suspect abandoned his vehicle near Keith and 25th streets and was caught on foot.
Ronnie Lee Market, 46, of Careyville, Tenn., was charged with three counts of reckless endangerment and one count each of theft over $1,000, evading arrest, possession of drugs and driving on a suspended license, authorities said. He is not expected to face any charges in Maples' death, authorities have said.
During the funeral service, Bradley County Sheriff Jim Ruth presented Maples' widow with the department's Purple Cross.
The Rev. Terry Harris, Maples' pastor from The Crossing church in Chattanooga, recalled how the young officer was sure of his faith. He then read a poignant email from Danielle Maples to her late husband.
"How many more times will I smell your shirt until the smell is gone?" she wrote.
A local organization, Cleveland One Hundred, will set up a scholarship for each son, to be ready when they reach college age, the mayor said.