“I told him that I love him”, a brother’s tribute.
By Keith Ellis for Illinois Trooper Gerald Wayne Ellis, killed in the line of duty on March 30, 2019.
How do you describe life after something like this? How can you possibly convey the hurt that spills down into every nook and cranny of your “new normal”? A knock on the door. Often times is something you’d never think twice about. On the other hand, that knock can completely change your life. You know why they are there. You freeze. Maybe if I don’t answer it……..you can’t breathe. Holding your breath and closing your eyes. You can see it in their eyes. He’s gone. You say, “no!”. As if that will somehow make it untrue. They stand silently, giving you a moment to attempt to grasp the words that you’ve just heard. You’ve heard them, but you don’t want to listen. That was the last day of life as we knew it.
We were in shock. After the initial painful phone calls, there was silence. Cold, hard, deafening silence. While I’m sure an entire team sprang into action, we had no choice but to sit and wait. There was nothing we could do. Arrangements were made and we made the trip to Illinois. I honestly can’t recall much of the drive. I vaguely remember the first few days other than the immense pain.
I vividly recall the car ride to the first day of the services. Signs all across town spelled out a name that I knew. We wept at the sight of each one. This was real. This was happening and it wasn’t just a horrible nightmare. Our hearts pounded as we got closer. There were some formalities and we waited to see him. Our turn came. We walked towards the casket. There he was. We stopped in our tracks. This can’t be real. We wept as we stood there with our hands and knees shaking. I reached down to touch him. My hand on his chest, I told him how much I missed him. I told him how sorry I was that this happened to him. I told him that I love him.
A father, a husband, a son, and my little brother. My only sibling. An Illinois State Trooper. All of those titles he held proudly. Especially father. He loved his 2 little girls. When he wasn’t on duty he was on “Dad duty”. They were his happiness and his joy. The giggles that came from those little girls were a testament to that.
He also found joy in hunting with our father. Even if the deer didn’t know they were invited that day. The time they spent together was the real trophy. Of course, my deer was always bigger. That’s one of the ways that we expressed our love for one another. We could aggravate one another, but when someone else tried it, I was my brother’s keeper. There is a reason we refer to fellow servicemen and women as our brothers and sisters. That is a bond that cannot be broken. Even in death.
I wish I could tell you the number of times I’ve picked my phone up to call him. I wish I could tell you the number of times I’ve laid awake at night wanting nothing more than to hear his voice. I know he’s still with me. Just in a different way. Sometimes it’s in a song on the radio. Sometimes it’s a red bird landing the moment I think of him. I used to call him up and we would joke about things, share a few laughs and make plans to get together.
We would talk about how fast the kids were growing up. We would start to feel the years when we imagined them going to high school, their prom and graduation. How proud we would be on their wedding day. Now he won’t get to be there. Someone took that from him.
Even though we are working on the anger and the hurt we feel surrounding this entire situation, we are left feeling completely defeated. As more and more information was disclosed to us regarding the circumstances that led to Jerry’s death, the wound became deeper and deeper. Officers are out on the front lines enforcing laws. Laws that are put into place to keep our community safe. We can’t help but to share the frustration they must feel when these cases make their way to court. How can one man be shown so much leniency by our justice system? This leniency allowed him to continue to be free and continue to break the law. He was shown grace and mercy and he showed Jerry none. The message was never sent to him that his actions were dangerous and reckless. His punishment did not fit his crimes. If you continue to send this message, we must prepare for more loss.
How much is a life worth? How many second chances should one get? How long can we afford to condone this type of behavior? When will we start recognizing that it’s not just driving under the influence? When will we start seeing it as the potential pain, suffering and loss that it is? You make the choice to purchase intoxicants. You make the choice to consume them. You make the choice to operate a vehicle and you make the choice to put your own life and the lives of others at risk. This isn’t something that happens on accident. How many chances do you have to make the right choice before you drive while intoxicated? How many chances does the court bestow on you before you realize you’re one choice away from killing someone? I can tell you, from our perspective, it was entirely too many.
Editor’s note: Illinois Trooper Gerald Ellis was killed in the line of duty when he intentionally collided with a wrong way drunk driver, preventing it from striking another vehicle containing a family that was traveling in the same lane as the vehicle. The drunk driver, a multiple repeat offender, was also killed in the crash.
Michigan Traffic Safety Resource Prosecutor
On average, someone is killed in a drunk driving crash every 53 minutes. Every two minutes, someone is injured because of this entirely preventable crime. At any given point, there are potentially two million people on the roads who have three or more drunk driving offenses. These drunk drivers intentionally choose to drive drunk, knowing that they may seriously injure or kill another innocent driver or passenger.
Newspaper headlines and articles are typically written with the following words:
“Woman who killed best friend in drunk driving accident sobs as she gets sentenced to probation.”
“Tragedy struck last Friday evening as three people were killed in an accident on I-69 in Pike County. Initial investigation indicates that drugs played a role in the accident, in which Brian Paquette of Newport News, Virginia drove his SUV the wrong direction in both the northbound
and southbound lanes of the interstate.”
Even appellate court opinions commonly use the following language:
“This case arises out of a fatal motor vehicle accident that occurred on March 20, 2017, at the intersection of Woodward Avenue and State Fair Avenue in Detroit, Michigan. At the time of the accident, defendant was allegedly driving reckless while she had cocaine in her body and lacked a valid driver’s license.”
“While driving his truck in the early morning, defendant struck and killed a bicyclist. Defendant consented to a blood test after the accident, which revealed the presence of several controlled substances, including anti-depressants and cocaine.”
“A car being driven by defendant collided with a sports utility vehicle, killing three of its passengers. The accident occurred after defendant led police on a chase at speeds in excess of ninety miles per hour. After the accident, defendant’s blood alcohol level was 0.135.”
“Defendant’s conviction arose from his involvement in a car accident that killed one person and seriously injured another. The accident occurred when defendant, the driver of a Dodge Ram pickup truck traveling at a high rate of speed in a residential area, while under police surveillance, disregarded a red signal at an intersection and collided with a minivan that had entered the intersection on a green light.”
How powerful is this word “accident”? The word suggests something of the unforeseen, an event that could not have been anticipated and for which no one can be blamed. From reading the above-mentioned headlines and court opinions, these events were undesirable and unfortunate happenings and unintentional occurrences on the part of the intoxicated drivers. In essence, it was something that could not be predicted or avoided by the intoxicated driver; it was just something that happened. It is clear, however, that is not the case. These events are not “Acts of God,” but predictable results of specific actions. They are “crashes!” Using the word “accident” in describing these tragedies implies the resulting injuries are unavoidable and that society should merely accept these injuries, fatalities, and damage as an inescapable or inevitable part of our daily lives. This is not a novel idea.
Distinguishing between “accident” and “crash” dates back to a 1997 campaign launched by the National Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). “Changing the way we think about events, and the words we use to describe them, affects the way we behave,” wrote Pamela Tatiana Anikeeff, Ph.D., NHTSA Senior Behavioral Scientist, on August 11, 1997, describing NHTSA’s new “crashes are not accidents” campaign: “Motor vehicle crashes and injuries are predictable, preventable events. Continued use of the word “accident” promotes the concept that these events are outside of human influence or control….”
Since 1997, NHTSA no longer uses the word “accident” in materials it publishes and distributes. In addition, NHTSA employees no longer use the word “accidents” in speeches or other public remarks, in communications with the news media, individuals or groups in the public or private sector. Many law enforcement agencies, including both New York and San Francisco Police Departments, abandoned use of the word “accident” recognizing it could deter the focus on traffic safety necessary to reduce death rates.
Always remember that “Words have impact, words evoke images and stir emotions.” Additionally, in November 2019, the Michigan Department of Transportation released a video explaining the distinction between a crash and an accident. More information and the video can be found on a new webpage: www.Michigan.gov/CrashNotAccident. The website encourages people to go to www.crashnotaccident.com, where they can sign a pledge promising to help educate others about why “crash” is a better word than “accident.” The site includes links to share a poster on social media. “Before the movement to combat drunk driving, intoxicated drivers would say ‘it was an accident’ when they crashed their cars,” the poster states. “Planes don’t have accidents. They crash. Cranes don’t have accidents. They collapse. And as a society, we expect answers and solutions. Traffic crashes are fixable problems, caused by dangerous streets and unsafe drivers. They are not accidents. Let’s stop using the word ‘accident’ today.”
As law enforcement officers and prosecutors, when investigating and/or prosecuting a drunk/drugged driving crash, distracted driving crash, or a reckless driving crash, it is important to avoid using the word “accident” in police reports and in opening statements or closing arguments. We have a responsibility for road safety in Michigan, and as we go forward, we need to continue to reassess our efforts to combat the threat to safety on our roads. One simple way we can make a difference is by eliminating the word “accident” and to use the appropriate word “crash.”
Deputy Marcus James
Sacramento County Sheriff’s Office, California
Rancho Cordova Police Division
Deputy Marcus James has 24 years’ experience in impaired driving enforcement and he is a Drug Recognition Expert. He has done over 2000 DRE evaluations. He currently focuses on training and mentoring officers in the area of impaired driving enforcement.
Deputy James has developed a training program that is a two-week, one-on-one, individual training class, both classroom and in the field. The training program often is the first time the officers have been exposed to impaired driving enforcement. The education and training each officer receives is key to arresting impaired drivers.
Deputy James created a new version of his agency’s impaired driving report and trains each officer in case law pertaining to impaired driving. He has sought out information pertaining to oral fluid testing as another mechanism for detecting impaired drivers.
Deputy James is passionate about impaired driving. He understands the need for training and educating, not only other officers, but the community as well. He has changed the mindset of many officers and is in touch with the community he serves.
Deputy James regularly attends Town Hall forums to discuss impaired driving and teen driving. He volunteers his time annually to the Stephanie Bellotti Teen Driving Foundation where he speaks to teen drivers about impaired driving and its impact.
Deputy James was also hand selected to sit on the State Impaired Driving Task Force, representing the CA Sheriff’s Association. This task force is responsible for developing protocol, procedures, training and education in the area of impaired driving with a focus on cannabis. The task force will present their findings to the Governor in 2021.
Deputy James is in consistent contact with his local MADD office making sure there is contact and connection with any impaired driving related crashes involving a fatality or injury. His support of MADD’s local office is unmatched. He never misses an opportunity to do what he can to work with MADD.
Deputy James was nominated for MADD’s outstanding officer in 2019. He has received five MADD DUI pins and has made over 400 arrests and done over 2,000 DRE evaluations.
MADD is proud and honored to select Deputy Marcus James as our June Officer of the Month. Thank you Deputy James for your partnership with MADD, dedication to duty and for making our communities a safer place to live.
MADD National would like to thank MADD-California’s Lori Bergenstock, Program Coordinator, and Rhonda Campbell, Victim Services Specialist, for nominating Deputy James for this recognition.
Strong drunk driving laws are key to saving lives. That is why we’re so grateful to our legislative partners who have championed MADD’s mission to end the No. 1 killer on our nation’s roads. It is why, each year, we honor lawmakers whose outstanding work has put us closer to a future of No More Victims.
These are MADD’s 2019 legislative heroes in Congress:
The RIDE and HALT Acts introduced in 2019 would require alcohol detection technology in all new vehicles.
Representative Debbie Dingell of Michigan introduced legislation to require drunk driving prevention technology in all new vehicles days after the Jan. 6, 2019 drunk driving crash claimed the lives of an entire Northville family. Dingell proposed a more wide-ranging measure in September. The Honoring the Abbas Family Legacy to Terminate (HALT) Drunk Driving Act requires federal regulatory action by 2024 to install drunk driving prevention technology in all new vehicles. The HALT Act is named for the five members of the Abbas family killed in this unthinkable tragedy: Issam and Rima Abbas and their three children, Ali, 13, Isabella, 12, and Giselle, 7. Thanks to Rep. Dingell’s leadership and tenacity on this issue, there is now momentum behind taking action to require life-saving systems in all vehicles.
MADD meets with Rep. Nita Lowey, a 2019 MADD legislative champion for her work to end drunk driving.
Representative Nita Lowey of New York has worked for decades to end the 100 percent preventable crime of drunk driving. Throughout her career, she has been a genuine force in this ongoing fight, including championing the successful effort to establish a national standard of .08 BAC, which has saved thousands of lives. Recently, Rep. Lowey proposed legislation to encourage more states to pass laws requiring ignition interlocks for all drunk driving offenders. Thirty-four states, including New York, currently have these laws, which have prevented more than 3 million attempts to drive drunk in the last 12 years. Additionally, through her position as Chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee, Rep. Lowey has worked to accelerate the development of in-vehicle technologies to prevent a drunk driver from operating a vehicle.
Senator Rick Scott of Florida introduced a bipartisan measure in October that could ultimately end drunk driving in America. The Reduce Impaired Driving for Everyone (RIDE) Act by Sens. Scott and Tom Udall of New Mexico would require the installation of passive advanced drunk driving prevention technology in all new vehicles within four years. This technology would prevent a drunk driver from operating a vehicle and save 7,000 lives a year. Sen. Scott is also a member of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, which is responsible for motor vehicle and highway safety programs and legislation. He has quickly emerged as a national legislative leader in the fight to eliminate drunk driving.
MADD has recognized Rep. Jan Schakowsky for a lifetime of work to end drunk driving.
Representative Jan Schakowsky of Illinois chaired a March 2019 hearing of the Consumer Protection Subcommittee that focused on the government-auto industry research program supported primarily by government funds for more than a decade. At that hearing, MADD National President Helen Witty challenged the auto industry to move drunk driving prevention technology development out of the research labs and make it available to consumers as soon as possible, where it could save as many as 7,000 lives a year. Rep. Schakowsky is committed to motor vehicle safety and a true advocate in the fight to end drunk driving.
Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico has consistently taken a leadership role in the fight to reduce drunk driving, including leading efforts to provide funding for a research program to develop a passive system for preventing a drunk driver from operating a vehicle. Now Senator Udall is working with Senator Scott of Florida on bipartisan legislation that would take the results of that research out of the laboratory and make the technology standard equipment in all new vehicles, like many other life-saving safety systems. The Reduce Impaired Driving for Everyone (RIDE) Act has the potential to save 7,000 lives a year and will add to Senator Udall’s legacy of advancing meaningful measures to save lives and prevent injuries.
Sergeant Steven Splan suffered a fatal heart attack several hours after cutting and removing a large tree that had fallen onto Bloomfield Hills Parkway east of Woodward Avenue at approximately... Read more »
Sergeant Corey Pendergrass died after contracting COVID-19 while on duty on June 13th, 2020. Sergeant Pendergrass had served with the Lauderhill Police Department for 20 years and had previously served with... Read more »
Master Sergeant Henry Turner died after contracting COVID-19 during an outbreak among staff and inmates at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola. Sergeant Turner had served with the Louisiana Department of... Read more »
Investigator Mark Brown died after contracting COVID-19 during a presumed exposure while on duty. He had been assigned to protest marches, COVID testing sites, and food giveaways during the pandemic. Investigator Brown... Read more »
Border Patrol Agent Agustin Aguilar died after contracting COVID-19 in a presumed exposure while on duty. Agent Aguilar had served with the United States Border Patrol for 19 years and was... Read more »
Trooper Caleb Starr succumbed to injuries sustained three weeks earlier when his vehicle was struck head-on by an intoxicated driver in Ionia County. He was traveling west on Grand River Avenue,... Read more »
Investigator Donald Sumner died after contracting COVID-19 during an outbreak among staff and patients at the facility. Investigator Sumner was a U.S. Air Force veteran and had served with the Patton... Read more »
Officer Roel De La Fuente died after contracting COVID-19 as the result of presumed exposure at the Pharr Commercial Facility in Hidalgo County, Texas. Officer De La Fuente had served with... Read more »
MADD’s 2020 Court Monitoring Report was recently released and can be found at this link. Of interest, nationally, the conviction rate is only 59% in the 15 states where MADD currently has court monitors. The report also lists state by state reports.
MADD National Law Enforcement Impaired Driving Summit Final Report
In November of 2018, MADD hosted a National Law Enforcement Impaired Driving Summit. Executive level law enforcement officers attended and discussed and identified barriers to strong impaired driving enforcement. This link will take you to the final report for the Summit which identifies those barriers and offers solutions to improve enforcement.