Erik Estrada will forever be associated with “CHiPs,” the 1977 to 1983 California Highway Patrol motorcycle cop drama in which he starred as Frank Poncherello. Fifteen years ago, Estrada turned his childhood dream of becoming a cop into reality. These days, he’s busting child predators for the ICAC (internet crimes against children) Task Force through the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office in Virginia.
Estrada says he was four years old when he decided to become a police officer, after his mother began dating a New York cop Estrada remembers as “the greatest man.”
“My mom fired my real dad because he was stuck on the needle, then she began seeing this New York cop who was just the best,” Estrada said. “He’s no longer alive but he was with our family for about 10 years and he’s the reason I became a cop,” Estrada told The Maine Edge. “The first man I ever loved was a cop, he was my hero.”
“When I was 18, I saw a girl that I wanted to get to know, and she was in drama club, so I followed her. That’s when I changed my mind, for a while, about being a New York Cop,” he said, laughing.
After setting his sights on acting, Estrada said he took on every opportunity that came his way, which brought him to Ogunquit for summer stock performances at the historic Ogunquit Playhouse.
Estrada’s ultimate goal, he said, was to earn enough money from acting to get his mother out of New York City’s Spanish Harlem projects “and have her living the way she should be living as my mom,” he said. He gave himself a make it or break it time limit.
“I told myself I’d stick with it until age 30. When I was 27, I got lucky playing a cop on TV,” Estrada said of his career- breaking role on “CHiPs.”
Suddenly it seemed, Erik Estrada was everywhere, from the cover of T.V. Guide to the list of People magazine’s “10 Sexiest Bachelors in the World.”
When the series concluded in 1983, Estrada sped off to Albany in pursuit of real police work only to discover at age 32 that he was considered too old to be accepted as a new officer.
He took on guest-starring roles in various TV series, and eventually landed a co-starring role as a trucker in the enormously popular Mexican television series “Dos mujeres, un camino.”
Determined to realize his dream, Estrada went to Muncie, Indiana, and became a reserve officer which required a minimum time investment of 99 hours.
“I stuck with it and kept going back every year to put in my time,” Estrada said. “I was on the day shift at first, and when they’d send me out on a call or to serve a warrant, I’d find tons of people around my car waiting for autographs and photos.”
He asked to place on the night shift, thinking he’d have better luck avoiding autograph hounds if they couldn’t so readily identify him.
“This was in the winter when it was snowing and cold, and I couldn’t believe how much more action there was at night than during the day,” Estrada recalled. “I knew it was only a matter of time before someone came along at 3:00 in the morning and messed my hair up really bad (laughs).”
When he felt he actually was getting too old for street work as a patrol officer, Estrada said he decided to channel his passion for law enforcement in an area where he felt he could truly make a difference. He moved to Virginia to join the Bedford County Sheriff’s Dept. and spent the next eight years working under Sheriff Mike Brown as an ICAC investigator.
“I told him I wanted to get these guys on the internet who were trying to hurt our children,” Estrada said. “He said it would take a year to train me. After I scored a 98 on the written exam, he took me on. When he retired, I moved over to the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office, where I am today.”
Estrada says he regularly hears from concerned parents seeking help in protecting their children from online predators. He said there are a few precautionary steps parents may take now which may help prevent a lifetime of heartache.
“Parents should be aware of the websites their children are visiting,” he said. “Talk to your kids and grandchildren and tell them to never give out personal information to anyone online. They should never give their name or address, and they shouldn’t give out information about their parent’s names or the school they attend.”
Estrada also strongly suggests parents tell their children to never accept gifts from anyone they don’t know, and they should never, ever attempt to visit someone they met online.
“Child predators are crafty,” Estrada said. “They might try to send your child a ticket to travel somewhere. Once they have the child in the car, that’s it. They could punch your child in the stomach, take them somewhere and strap them to the floor. That is not far-fetched, we’ve had cases exactly like that. Everything you could possibly imagine happening has happened.”