Joe Peterson, longtime Wyandotte mayor, police officer, dies

Ariana Taylor
The Detroit News

Wyandotte — Joe Peterson, a longtime police officer and mayor for the city, was found dead early Sunday morning in his Wyandotte home by his wife.

The family believes Peterson, 65, suffered from an apparent heart attack. The Vietnam War veteran also was battling for the past 10 years the effects of Agent Orange exposure. 

"He loved his city, and he loved his job," his wife, Janice, told The Detroit News. "As mayor, people called the house every day for help, and he'd help as much as he could."

Joe Peterson

In the beginning of May, Peterson went to Wyandotte Henry Ford Hospital with a sore throat to get tested for COVID-19. He tested negative, but doctors decided to keep him overnight when they found his heart was beating too fast, Janice said. 

He was diagnosed with strep throat and sent home. The week before his death, Janice said Peterson was not feeling well and not eating. A doctor advised him to wait until Monday to go to the hospital for a blood test, as a precaution against COVID-19.

Peterson said in a May 4 Facebook post that he had recently received care for heart complications. He said he been at the hospital until staff was able to get his "heart back working."

Peterson leaves behind two sons with Janice, Matthew and Joseph Jr., and three grandchildren. 

"He was a really active, hyper person before he got sick. ... He couldn't sit still," Janice said. 

The city announced Peterson's death on Facebook, writing: "Mayor Peterson served the city in numerous capacities for many years and his love for Wyandotte was undeniable."

Peterson served on the Wyandotte City Council from 2005 to 2009 and was elected mayor in 2009, according to the city. He was in his third term when he died. 

Before that, he served with the city's police force for 27 years, holding several different positions, including narcotics undercover officer and detective sergeant. Peterson traveled across the country and to South America while working with a Drug Enforcement Administration task force for four years. Before he ran for city council, Peterson briefly worked as a probation officer in 2004. 

In November, the building that housed the police department and the 27th District Court was dedicated and renamed the Joseph R. Peterson building in his honor. 

Councilwoman Megan Maiani said Peterson was dedicated to the city and encouraged her to seek office. She said in 2017, he came to her house to investigate an issue, learned of her political aspirations and began calling her to persuade her to run. 

"He was a mentor, a second father, a protector," said Maiani, whose council term ends in 2021. "His door was always open for anyone to come to his office. ... He believed in the city of Wyandotte and knew there was change."

Wyandotte Mayor Joe Peterson at the Fourth of July parade in 2019.

Peterson was a veteran who served during the Vietnam War and was honorarily discharged as an E-5 sergeant. He was exposed to Agent Orange while in Vietnam, and for the past 10 years, the effects of it were slowly destroying his heart, lungs and kidneys, Janice said.

During the past two years as he became sicker, Peterson tried to make council meetings as much as possible, but most of his mayoral work was done from home, his wife said. 

U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell called Peterson one of her dearest friends. 

"Joe spent his life working for others, always caring about everyone, watching out for fellow veterans and fighting for his beloved Wyandotte," the Dearborn Democrat said in a statement.

"He just was there, a warrior who lived and cared. And the world has lost another good man who made it a better place because he was here."

Wayne County Executive Warren Evans said he was sad to learn of Peterson's death.

"Joe was a dedicated public servant, a veteran law enforcement officer, and a good friend," Evans wrote on social media.

Peterson was born in the Delray neighborhood in Detroit and was a resident of Wyandotte for more than three decades, according to the city.