Lisa Roberson and Brad Dicken, The Chronicle-Telegram
ELYRIA — A day after his death, those whose paths crossed often with slain Officer James Kerstetter said he’ll be remembered as one of the city’s top cops.
“He was one of the best police officers I know, really one of the best persons I know,” said Elyria Police Chief Duane Whitely.
Kerstetter, 43, died Monday after being shot inside the West 18th Street home of Ronnie Palmer, who was killed by officers who came to the scene when Kerstetter called for help saying he had been shot.
He was the first Elyria police officer to die in the line of duty in 67 years, and Whitely said he could think of only one word to describe the emotional state of his department Tuesday: stunned.
“We are all stunned — no question about it,” he said.
Through their grief, officers tell the story of a man who was a cop’s cop.
“He would give you the shirt off his back whether you were his personal friend or his brother in blue,” said Officer Tom Baracskai, president of the Elyria Police Patrolmen’s Association. “If you called him, the first thing out his mouth would always be ‘What can I do for you?’ ”
Kerstetter was 28 when he started working for the Elyria Police Department.
He came on during the mid-1990s when Elyria hired a number of officers to beef up police presence in the community. He was an experienced officer who came from the Lorain County Sheriff’s Office.
His personnel file showed he was hired by the Sheriff’s Office as a corrections officer in 1989 and worked his way up to a deputy, a position he took in January 1994.
The Elyria West High School graduate also worked part-time police jobs in LaGrange and Grafton.
Sheriff’s Capt. James Drozdowski, who was Grafton’s police chief while Kerstetter worked there, said even then Kerstetter enjoyed police work and helping people.
“He was a good guy, and he was a good officer,” he said. “He was in law enforcement for the right reasons.”
That file also said Kerstetter had served as a military police officer while in the U.S. Army from 1986 to 1989. He had been assigned to the Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland, according to the file.
He also listed former jobs when he was younger including stints at restaurants, a gas station and the Elyria Township Road Department.
Police friends said that Kerstetter was ambitious, driven and determined. His ultimate dream was to become a detective.
Kerstetter had been looking to be promoted but never made sergeant. He had filed a lawsuit in 2007 against the city, arguing that Civil Service guidelines that dealt with how seniority was used to calculate eligibility for a promotion were unfair. At the time of the lawsuit, Kerstetter had been No. 3 on the list.
The lawsuit ended last year after the city agreed to recalculate the list, but the rankings didn’t change, Assistant Elyria Law Director Michael Szekely said. The issue was being appealed, according to court records.
“It wasn’t a nasty lawsuit or anything,” Szekeley said. “It was just about the order of test scores.”
Szekely said he would often see Kerstetter on city business.
“He was a great guy. I remember several times him sitting in my office talking about travel and sports,” he said.
The lawsuit never changed how Kerstetter felt about his job.
“He just felt it should be a different way, but he never took it out on the other guys,” Whitely said.
Kerstetter had the respect of his peers.
“He was one of the hardest-working guys here,” Baracskai said. “He was always at work and always wanted to do his full share.”
While some cops could easily be described as bullheaded and hard, that wasn’t Kerstetter, Baracskai said.
“He was always level-headed, always calm,” he said. “He would walk into a situation and say a joke to defuse a tense situation.”
Lorain County Emergency Management Director Tom Kelley said he has known Kerstetter since he was a kid and lives just down the road from him in Sheffield.
“All he ever wanted to be was a police officer,” he said. “He was into his job, but never went into it like he had a big attitude.”
Kerstetter’s job was not without its dangers.
Simple days could turn risky in an instant.
One such incident was Dec. 27, 2005.
Kerstetter was called to the Washington Avenue bridge to help calm a distraught man. The man was crying hysterically and begging officers to kill him. Soon, the situation escalated into a fight as the man rushed Kerstetter, who responded by spraying the man with pepper spray. Kerstetter and two other officers wrestled the man to the ground and eventually were able to handcuff and arrest him. Once the adrenaline stopped flowing, Kerstetter realized he had injuries to his back and knee.
Within days, Kerstetter was back at work.
Kerstetter’s personnel record on file at Elyria City Hall painted a picture of an exemplary officer.
One of his first performance reviews said Kerstetter had an “excellent future with EPD” because his “enthusiasm and drive earned him the respect of his supervisors, his peers and the citizens he comes in contact with.”
Tucked inside the inch-thick folder that chronicled his career was evidence that he worked well with the public. One example was a handwritten letter from a woman who was having problems with people throwing rocks near her home. Kerstetter was the responding officer, and the woman sent him a note to thank him.
“It is reassuring to know the Elyria Police Department is on the job,” it said.
It was accompanied by a batch of homemade cookies for the officer, the file noted.
Because of Kerstetter’s attitude on the job, police Capt. Dan Jaykel wrote in another review that Kerstetter was “a role model for other officers” and “a fine example for younger officers to follow as he always put his best efforts forward.”
Kerstetter’s file at the sheriff’s office also contained positive performance reviews and laudatory letters from his superiors, including a 1994 letter praising him for a traffic stop involving a suspicious vehicle that was being driven by a burglary suspect.
During his career, Kerstetter served as a field training coach, accident reconstructionist, instructor at the Lorain County Community College Police Academy and a countersniper on the Special Response Team, Whitely said.
“He didn’t do anything halfway,” Whitely said.
Paul Graupmann, the commander of the LCCC Police Academy, agreed, saying Kerstetter was the epitome of a professional police officer.
“Jim was a great asset to this academy. He had a passion for police work and was a great guy to be around,” Graupmann said via e-mail.
Kerstetter leaves behind a wife, Tammy, and three daughters, Misty, Shelby and Bailey.
Baracskai said Kerstetter’s pride in his family was obvious — when he wasn’t talking about work, his conversations were dominated by another topic: his daughters.
“He talked about his kids nonstop,” he said.
Contact Lisa Roberson at 329-7121 or firstname.lastname@example.org and Brad Dicken at 329-7147