ELYRIA — Robert Melton spent seven years destroying his life with crack cocaine. It took one encounter with Elyria police Officer James Kerstetter to make him want to live again.
Kerstetter arrested him one night in 2007 after he had stolen an unused door off someone’s property. Back then, Melton was living out of a motel with his three children and girlfriend.
His life, he admits, was a mess.
“We got to talking about drugs, and he told me I didn’t need to be on that stuff,” Melton said. “I didn’t even listen to my father, but there was something about him telling me. Maybe it was the way his eyes looked toward me. I don’t know. But I was off of it the next day.”
Melton, who said he has been sober ever since that fateful run-in, was one of several hundred people who came out to honor an officer who touched so many lives at a candlelight vigil outside the Elyria Police Department on Friday night.
Kerstetter, 43, was fatally shot Monday night while responding to a call that a naked man was exposing himself to children and breaking windows. The man identified as the shooter, Ronald Palmer Sr., 58, was shot dead by officers coming to assist.
People filled the sidewalk and spilled onto West Avenue as they listened to friends, police officers and two of Kerstetter’s three daughters give thanks to a man they affectionately called “Jimmy,” “Sponge” or just “Daddy,” and to all police officers who serve and protect the city each day.
“He used to tell me he didn’t have many friends — now I think he lied,” said middle daughter Shelby, while looking at the crowd from atop the brick wall outside the police station.
Standing beside her was her older sister, Misty, who asked simply that the people who came to honor her father never forget him.
“Never!” the crowd shouted, almost in unison.
Those who Kerstetter helped or just said “hello” to while on patrol said they felt compelled to attend the vigil. Many of them dropped off flowers or cards at the makeshift memorial that began Tuesday on the brick wall outside the police station. Several placed sponges — a tribute to Kerstetter’s nickname on the police force — with messages of thanks scribbled on them.
Jackie Jessie, who grew up next to Kerstetter in Elyria Township, where Kerstetter’s father was fire chief, fought back tears while she talked about how wonderful her friend was.
“He was just a great man, great friend, great sense of humor. He was a lot of fun. In our neighborhood we were all close.”
Brandon Perkins, 15, said he was touched by Kerstetter’s kindness: Something as simple as the way he always greeted his parents at Speedway while the officer was on duty.
“I just came out to pay my respects,” he said. “He was a nice guy.”
Isaiah Newson, also 15, brought most of his family out to honor Kerstetter, who arrested him last year for an incident at the Roll Arena skating rink. He never held it against the officer and said Kerstetter treated him with respect.
“No officer should get shot. That’s low,” he said.
Kerstetter was the type of guy who you wanted to get to know, those who attended said. He never hesitated to do what he thought was right, as Melton, who is the same age as the fallen officer, experienced firsthand.
He said Kerstetter spoke on his behalf in front of an Elyria Municipal Court judge after the owner of the door Melton stole declined to press charges.
“He spoke up for me, and they dropped the charges,” Melton said. “I thought, ‘He did something for me, so I’m going to do something for him and stay off these drugs for good.’ ”
After the 20-minute vigil, the crowd waited around to sign a book donated by a mourner that will be given to the family.
Those who wish to honor Kerstetter are encouraged to line a funeral procession that will begin at Bauer-Laubenthal-Mercado Funeral Home to be followed at 10 a.m. by a public memorial at Ewing Field House on the Lorain County Community College campus.
Contact Adam Wright at 329-7155 or firstname.lastname@example.org.