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State trooper killed in I-94 crash survived being hit by car early in career

Jerry Ellis and his oldest daughter, Kaylee, as she puts a tiara on the Illinois State Trooper's head. | Provided

Just months into his job as an Illinois State Police trooper, Gerald “Jerry” Ellis responded to a call of a man threatening to jump from an overpass in the northern suburbs.

As Ellis worked to shut down traffic lanes on Interstate 94 so officers could talk the man out of jumping, an impatient driver tried to get around the closure and hit Ellis just as the man plunged off the bridge.

Both would survive that close call in June 2009.

But early Saturday, about 10 miles south, Ellis was again hit by a car on I-94 — this time fatally.

Ellis’ was inside his state police SUV when it was struck head-on by a wrong-way driver about 3:25 a.m. in the westbound lanes of the expressway near north suburban Green Oaks, according to Illinois State Police. He was taken to Condell Medical Center in Libertyville and pronounced dead at 4:04 a.m.

Ellis, 36, was an 11-year veteran of District 15 in Downers Grove, which patrols Illinois tollways.

The wrong-way driver was also killed in the crash, state police said. That person’s name has not been released.

Trooper knew dangers, was proud to serve

The late trooper’s father, Terry Ellis, said his son always put his family — especially his two young daughters, Zoe and Kaylee — ahead of all else.

Illinois State Trooper Jerry Ellis watches his youngest daughter, Zoe, hit a piñata at a family reunion. | Provided
Illinois State Trooper Jerry Ellis watches his youngest daughter, Zoe, hit a piñata at a family reunion. | Provided

“It’s been a real trying day,” Terry Ellis said in a phone conversation hours after his 36-year-old son’s death. “I don’t wish this for anybody to have to go through…losing a son.”

Terry said his son decided to become a trooper after returning from a tour of duty with the U.S. Army in Iraq.

The veteran completed a law enforcement major in college and interned with the ISP District 14 office in downstate Macomb, where he grew up and where his grandfather had worked as a chief desk clerk.

“He decided to take it a step farther and he wanted to be a trooper,” Terry said. “He was proud to be a state trooper.”

Terry worried about the dangers of his son’s new job, just as he had when his son was deployed overseas.

The two spoke the day before the fatal crash about another trooper, 34-year-old Brooke Jones-Story, who was struck and killed by a semitrailer Thursday near Rockford. Three troopers have been killed on the job over the first three months of 2019.

“When all these troopers started getting hit, I started really worrying,” the father said, remembering his son’s first I-94 crash a decade ago that required knee surgery.

“He said, ‘Dad, it’s just part of my job.’ He knew the danger of it and he was alright with it.”

Latest trooper death ‘bitter salt in an open wound’

It’s been about 22 years since two Illinois troopers were killed in such a short timeframe, and 66 years since the force has suffered three trooper deaths in a single year, ISP Acting Director Brendan Kelly said.

“And it’s still only March,” Kelly told reporters during a press conference following the lengthy police procession that carried Ellis’ body from the hospital to the Lake County coroner’s office.

Kelly called his department’s latest on-duty death “bitter salt in an open wound.

“I ask everyone to consider the fragility of life each and every time you get behind the wheel of a vehicle,” he said. “How many more of these tragedies have to occur at the hands of drivers making dangerous choices behind the wheel? When will drivers open their eyes to the dangers they face and take them seriously?”

EDITORIAL: Troopers are being killed because we fail to keep roads safe

Kelly met with Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Monday to discuss the spike in crashes involving troopers and urged the public to drive cautiously around emergency vehicles.

“This year is frankly unprecedented when looking at all statistics,” Kelly said then. “This is a new level of disregard that we’re seeing by some driving members of the public.”

ISP’s first on-duty death this year came Jan. 12, when Trooper Christopher Lambert was hit by a car after stopping to help at the scene of a three-car crash on I-294 in north suburban Glenview.

A Wisconsin man was charged in that case with reckless homicide of an officer and two counts of reckless homicide involving Scott’s Law, which says that drivers must move over and slow down for emergency vehicles.

Nearly 500 violations of the Scott’s Law — named for Chicago Fire Department Lt. Scott Gillen, who was killed on an expressway in 2000 — have been logged so far this year, compared to just 184 during the same period last year, according to Kelly, who has pinned the uptick on distracted and impaired driving.

Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White joined Kelly Saturday in “issuing a call to action to motorists throughout Illinois: Stop driving while distracted. Stop texting while driving. Stop driving while impaired.

“Please protect those who protect us by moving over when approaching a stopped emergency vehicle,” White said in a statement.

Trooper ‘always put family first’

Jerry faithfully called his parents at least once a week at their Macomb home from the one he shared with his wife and daughters in north suburban Antioch. And every once in a while, Jerry would make the trip to go hunting with his dad.

“We made plans every year to go deer hunting,” Terry said.

Almost every Christmas, Jerry Ellis and his family would go down to his parents’ home to celebrate. For Easter this year, Terry asked his son what type of candy to send for his two granddaughters. “If it’s candy, they’ll eat it,” Jerry told his dad.

“He was a good father and a good family man. He always put family first,” Terry said. “It’s going to be hard for two young girls like that to grow up without a dad.”