October 20, 2014

Elyria
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Remembering Jimmy: The Kerstetter family gathers, shares stories

ELYRIA — Elyria police Officer James Kerstetter chose to work the shift most cops worked toward leaving: the night shift.

With 15 years on the force, he probably could have sought to work a quieter shift, but working at night offered the dedicated father the chance to do something he loved: placing his daughters on the school bus each morning.

“It never mattered what was going on, he wanted to be out there with us,” said his daughter, Shelby Kerstetter. “And, if it rained, we just waited in the car.”

More photos below.

Since Monday night, when Kerstetter was shot and killed by a man believed to be mentally ill, friends and co-workers have painted a picture of a model police officer when talking about Kerstetter.

But Wednesday evening at his parents’ Galaxy Drive, Elyria Township,  residence — the place he called home until he left for the military — his family just wanted to talk about Jimmy.

“He was never Jim or James,” said older sister, Kelly Strickler. “To us, he was just Jimmy.”

In an emotional interview, nearly Jimmy’s entire family tried to top each other to see who could tell the best Jimmy story — the one that captured just who he was when he took off his police uniform and replaced it with his standard off-duty ware: shorts, a T-shirt and flip-flops.

But before the family shared stories of the Jimmy known today — a calm, cool and collected cop — they wanted to let people know one family secret.

Jimmy didn’t always want to be a police officer.

“Actually his childhood dream was to become a garbage man,” Strickler said.

“He loved the garbage men so much that every Thursday he would take them Kool-aid from the house,” added his mother, Carol Kerstetter. “If it was Thursday and you wanted to know where Jimmy was, look outside because he was probably talking to the garbage man.”

The family is not sure what sparked his fascination. Maybe it was because the guy who picked up the family’s trash was so nice to Jimmy, and his job let him ride in a cool truck.

“He loved garbage trucks,” said his father, James Kerstetter Sr. “I remember one year when Jimmy was about four years old and we all went camping. Well, Jimmy went missing, and we couldn’t find him anywhere. Then, I went looking for a garbage man and sure enough, there was Jimmy sitting up in the truck smiling.”

“And, I whooped his butt good for that one,” Carol Kerstetter said before quickly letting it be known that she really thought her only son was a good boy.

It was that first story of a mischievous Jimmy that started a cascade of  “remember when’’ as the family sat around the living room talking.

At times, it was his sisters, Strickler, Kristy Sawyers and Kathy Kerstetter, who talked about Jimmy the little brother who liked to wrestle with his older sisters and steal their homework to pass off as his own.

“We were the two youngest and when the older ones went off to school, it was just us,” Sawyers said. “And, we got into a lot of trouble when we were kids. I guess you can say we were the troublemakers. Now, I’m going to be 100 percent of the problem all the time. I don’t have someone who I can give that 50 percent to.”

Other times, his parents spoke of a son who was good-natured, protective of his family and keenly aware that his lot in life was to serve others. His father is a retired Elyria Township fire chief who thought it was a good thing that his son wanted to be a cop. He encouraged him to go into the military first to be a military police officer.

Then, there was Jimmy the husband and father. The guy who taped the games his kids played in and coached from the sidelines. The man who told his daughters to do their homework before going outside. The father who made sure he always told his daughters he loved them before leaving for work.

“I never thought I would see that side of him, but when he had his children, it changed him,” Carol Kerstetter said. “He worked all the time and wanted to be the best provider for his family he could be.”

Even if that meant taking a cooking class, as his mother called it. Really, Sawyers said, the class was a professional grilling class because Jimmy wanted to be a master griller.

“He just has this really nice grill, but if you ever went over there for a meal, you would know that something would happen,” she said. “He would get called to work or the propane tank would be empty or he would need something else or something else would go wrong. He never actually cooked for us.”

He may never have used the skill, but he wanted to be prepared for anything, said Carol Kerstetter. He was even prepared for how he would handle the inevitable: the moment when his daughters would start dating and bring home boys.

Misty, the oldest and a senior at Brookside High School who just learned she was accepted to The Ohio State University, was the first.

“But Jimmy just told her ‘Misty, if you have a boy in your bedroom, open your window because if I come home and he’s there, that boy is going out the window,’ ” Strickler said.

The family knew Jimmy would never actually throw anyone out a window, but if he was the king in his castle, his daughters — Misty, Shelby and Bailey — were definitely his princesses.

“That night I tried to talk to Misty, she was in her room, lying on her bed and I told her that sometimes God lets bad things happen, but she just couldn’t hear me,” Carol Kerstetter said. “All she said is ‘Grandma, my dad is my best friend and I don’t think I can go on without him.’ And, I think all of the girls feel that way.

“All Bailey keeps saying is ‘Who is going to put me on the school bus now?’ ”

It doesn’t take long for a stranger to see the common thread that runs through the family is the same thread that runs through the city. Jimmy was a cop, but he was also the guy who would pull aside a niece or nephew to straighten them up, help a customer at his part-time job at Marc’s carry groceries to their car or speak to a classroom of children about being a police officer.

His presence in the community often snuck up on the family when they least expected.

Kathy Kerstetter remembers a time when she was working at Elyria Plastics Products and she walked into a conference room for a seminar on drugs only to find her little brother was the guest speaker. She didn’t let people know in the beginning that Jimmy was her brother, but by the end she couldn’t help but boast that the stellar officer in front of her was someone she loved.

“He just wanted to get the message out to people,” Kathy Kerstetter said. “He was always out in the community.”

He wasn’t just out in the community, but he made it a point to be a part of the community all the time, much to the chagrin of his daughters.

“He talked to everyone, all the time,” Shelby said.

But as outgoing as Jimmy was, his family said he found his perfect mate in a sweetheart of a woman who is quiet and stays out of the spotlight. He met Tammy Kerstetter when both were teenagers working at Wendy’s.

“She’s a girl that is his perfect opposite,” Carol Kerstetter said.

“We always used to joke that we didn’t have a choice in Jimmy, but Tammy did and she chose him,” Strickler said.

Tammy Kerstetter joined the family gathering Wednesday, but was mostly quiet. But she smiled as she listened to the stories about her husband.

What Tammy could not say, Jimmy’s family did.

“This is such a tragedy and our hearts are truly, truly broken, but the outpouring of support has been amazing,” Sawyers said. “We can never thank everyone enough.”

“It’s overwhelming,” Carol Kerstetter said. “We are so appreciative of everything and everyone who had something good to say.”

The support shows the family how much Jimmy meant to not just them.

“We had no idea how much he touched people. We had no idea what he did,” said his brother-in-law, Tim Strickler. “But we are starting to know now.”

And, to all those who have dropped off food, took up a collection for his daughters, offered to make sure his grass was cut all summer, left flowers at the Elyria police station, wrote a message of condolence on Facebook or simply said a prayer for the family, they have this to say:

“We know that he will be missed by this family and a lot of people,” said Carol Kerstetter.

“Although we are upset inside, we are just gleaming because we know Jimmy touched so many people,” Sawyers said.

Contact Lisa Roberson at 329-712 or lroberson@chroniclet.com.