The death of a colleague really shook Jeff Shelton.
The Wellington lieutenant is behind beefed-up police attention on the roads, a quest to catch drunk and drugged drivers.
That’s nothing new for veteran officers like Shelton, but today he’s driven by the loss of his longtime friend, 64-year-old retired Elyria firefighter Mark Horton.
A head-on crash Feb. 12 near Jones Road in Wellington Township killed Horton, who was also a Sheffield Township trustee, and also took the life of 21-year-old Cody Wallace of New London, who investigators suspect had used drugs.
Horton worked with Shelton’s father, Earl, at the Elyria fire department.
“Mr. Horton made it 29 years as a full-time firefighter, risking his life, then he loses it due to the fact someone is using alcohol or drugs,” said Shelton.
“Yes, it’s bad when the family finds out, but I want the public to be aware that it’s bad too for the first responders that show up. They get those gruesome images in their mind. They’re the ones who remove your loved one from the car. If my guys can help stop some of this, it will take some of that pressure off of fire and EMS.”
Now Wellington police want to work with their Oberlin counterparts to tackle drunk and high drivers between the two cities.
“We’re still working out the details regarding manpower and staffing, but we’re agreeable to working with Wellington,” said Oberlin interim police chief Mike McCloskey. “As far as specifics of the plan, we haven’t gotten to that point yet.”
Shelton said St. Patrick’s Day weekend could be the start of the collaboration.
“My goal is to run a saturation patrol from the city of Oberlin to everything southeast and southwest down here,” he said. “They seem to be on board. The highway patrol will be down here too. If an officer from Wellington or Oberlin gets in trouble and needs backup, they can call it in and we’ll have the manpower to provide that backup.”
The heavy load undertaken by the Wellington fire district and South Lorain County Ambulance District on weekends can be eased by law enforcement, Shelton said.
“Those guys have to run like crazy,” he said. “Our main goal is to make it so they aren’t dealing with all these fatalities. We want to keep our community members alive.”
He said the WPD will arrange a ride home for any impaired driver who asks.
“I tell my guys that if they see someone walking to a car and they look impaired, offer them a ride,” he said. “Offer to call someone, so we’re not putting them in a situation where we have to arrest. Don’t get me wrong, though. If we catch you in a car, you’re going to be charged and go to jail.”
Last year, members of the WPD, including Shelton, joined a state-funded impaired driving task force meant to combat the increasing number of southern Lorain County deaths.
Officers in Oberlin are not part of the state task force, but McCloskey said that could soon change.
Wellington officers plan to begin dedicating a third patrol car on weekends strictly to handle traffic violations.
“There’s five of us here sworn into the task force,” Shelton said. “With all the fatalities we’re having in the area, we all got together and decided we needed to step things up, even when the task force isn’t out and running. We’ve had about six fatal accidents down here in the past seven months. We’re all a sister and brotherhood together.”
Shelton runs the department’s third car from 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights.
“We need to cut down on the number of people driving on drugs and alcohol,” he said. “I’m not calling the bars out, but they need to know when someone trying to get a drink needs to be cut off.”
Since a late 2015 stabbing and melee at Mosey Inn in downtown Wellington, Shelton said that business and other village bars have been much better at reporting dangerous behavior.
Why do so many people decide to take the wheel while under the influence, knowing it could cost a life?
Shelton said it comes down to lack of inhibitions and seeing a taxi ride as an inconvenience.
“I’ve been doing this job 20 years,” he said. “I call it liquid courage. It’s why the four-foot-tall guy decides he wants to take on the seven-foot guy. He thinks he’ll win the fight, just like he thinks he is perfectly fine to drive. He doesn’t realize it because he’s impaired.”
Jonathan Delozier can be reached at 440-647-3171 or @DelozierNews on Twitter.