When a child loses a parent, it’s only natural if they want something to remember them by. Photos and memories are important, for sure, but it can be an extra comfort to have something tangible that has sentimental value. So after Weld County Deputy Sam Brownlee passed away, his cop car came up for auction – and his son Tanner knew he had to have it.
In November 2010 police went in fast pursuit of a stolen vehicle in Morgan County, Colorado. Speeds subsequently exceeded 100 mph in a chase that lasted more than an hour. The hunt eventually crossed into the Weld County jurisdiction, which is when Deputy Brownlee and his colleagues joined in.
An attempt to disable the stolen vehicle was unsuccessful. However, the pursuit eventually came to an end when the car’s tire blew. The suspect’s car was then encircled by officers, at which point shots were fired and Brownlee was hit. Tragically, the cop didn’t survive his injuries. He left behind his second wife and two step children as well as two biological sons, Tanner and Chase, from his first marriage.
Tanner was only 15 years old when his father was killed. And other than old snapshots, he and his family didn’t have a lot of things that would help trigger memories of his dad. But five years after Deputy Brownlee’s death, the Weld County Sheriff’s Office put his cop car up for auction.
The vehicle was a Dodge Charger. It had nearly 150,000 miles on the odometer, and its sale was in aid of Concerns of Police Survivors (C.O.P.S.), an organization that gives support to families of officers killed while on duty. In other words, people just like Tanner, Chase and their mom.
Tanner’s dad is believed to have thought highly of the car. And in turn, placing the winning bid at the auction would have been a special moment for the boys. “It’d mean a lot to me and my brother,” Tanner explained to WKBW in May 2015. “We’ve been through a lot.”
“This is kind of the end of Sam’s legacy here,” County Sheriff Steve Reams told WKBW. “It’s the last tangible thing we have that he was connected to.” So not only was the charity benefitting from the auction close to the Brownlees’ hearts, but the car itself was, too.
Tanner never made it known how much money he could realistically spend on the squad car, but he had raised $3,000 toward it on a GoFundMe page. Kelley Blue Book, which specializes in valuing new and used cars, listed the vehicle as being worth around $12,500.
Yet even though Tanner had never taken part in an auction before, he wasn’t about to let that stop him. The fallen cop’s son had a scheme all worked out. “I think I’m just going to look around, see what everyone else is doing and try to copy them. Just up them by one,” he said. So it wasn’t much of a plan, but it was a plan nonetheless.
“I think if it goes past the limit we have, I just have to hope that someone has it in their heart to win the car and give it to me and my brother. We don’t really have a backup plan,” Tanner admitted. Then soon enough, he placed the opening bid of $2,500, and the auction was underway.
But that opening offer was quickly trumped. In fact, the bids soon sailed past Kelley Blue Book’s valuation and rapidly doubled and then quadrupled. And as the price hit $50,000, it became apparent that Tanner had reached his limit. Any ideas he had of owning his dad’s car were gone.
The hammer eventually came down when the bid got as far as $60,000. The vehicle was sold to a local rancher named Steve Wells, someone Tanner wasn’t familiar with before the auction. But Tanner and his family were about to make the rancher’s acquaintance in the most dramatic way.
As it happened, Steve Wells had something that he wanted to give to Tanner. Yes, no sooner had the rancher received the keys to his new vehicle than he turned to the person he’d outbid and said, “Tanner, here’s your car.” Incredibly, Steve had just spent $60,000 on a gift for a complete stranger.
Tanner had no idea what was happening. When asked by a reporter if he knew his bidding competitor would hand him the keys at the end of the auction, the cop’s son replied, “Nope. I shook his hand and I didn’t know.” Understandably at a loss for words, Tanner added, “It means so much to me.”
At first Steven Wells declined to be interviewed about why he’d gifted a car to a total stranger, preferring the focus to remain on Tanner. Eventually, though, the generous rancher broke his silence. “It never crossed my mind not to,” he told CBS4 in May 2015. “I wanted to hand the keys to that young man.”
Now, $60,000 is a huge amount of money to just about anyone. For Steven, however, it didn’t seem like much of a big deal. You see, although he earns a living from his 32,000-acre Northern Colorado ranch, in the past he made a bit of cash from another source, too. Several years ago, a large section of his land was found to contain oil and gas, and as a result it was turned into a drill site.
“It’s no secret we’ve made a lot of money,” Steven admitted to CBS4. “I have been able to donate to things in a way that financially I never dreamt I could have and that’s important to me.” In fact, helping out others in need is important to the rancher on account of something personal that happened in his childhood.
“I’m adopted,” Steven explained. And though he realizes his situation could have led to a very different life, instead he received the greatest gift of all: a loving family. He said, “I was adopted by outstanding parents. I couldn’t ask for anything more, and I’ve always felt that need to give back.”
“Here was a man who lost his life as a deputy sheriff for the people of Weld County,” Steve continued. “His son wanted something to remember him by and the fact that he could sit behind the wheel of the car and look through the same windshield his dad did was extremely important to me. It was just something I felt I had to do.”
Steven concluded, “When the auction was over and I walked up and I handed him those keys. That is a lifetime moment. It was for him, and it was for me. That was a moment that, for me, meant everything.” And after driving off in his dad’s car, Tanner vowed to donate his $3,000 GoFundMe earnings to the C.O.P.S. charity, too.