Ernie Cruz’s backpack probably saved his life.
It was Dec. 14, a Friday night around 10 p.m. Cruz was riding his 1987 Honda Silverwing motorcycle home to DeKalb after a day’s work in the meat department at HyVee.
He was slowing to turn into his driveway in the 900 block of Fairview Road in when a car slammed into him from behind.
Cruz wasn’t wearing a helmet. He hit the hood of the car, then skidded and rolled about 30 yards over the pavement. The driver who hit him slowed down only for a second before taking off toward Peace Road.
“I think the backpack saved me,” Cruz, 47, said. “My head didn’t hit the ground. All I did was hit the backpack, and skidded around, tore my pants, tore my leather jacket.”
DeKalb police officer Jeff Winters was the first to arrive on the scene. He talked to two people who saw the crash, including one who had chased the vehicle as it sped off toward Peace Road.
There was debris left behind, including a piece of evidence that would help Winters put it all together: A broken piece of plastic grillwork with the outline of a cougar on it. Like you’d find on a Mercury Cougar.
Winters kept that, along with part of a headlight that had broken off, in his duty bag. He was relatively sure of two things: The driver was local, and they probably wouldn’t repair the damage any time soon.
Winters, an 18-year veteran of the DeKalb force, kept his eyes peeled around town for an old Merc. Whenever he spotted one – whether while on duty or even while making an off-duty trip to Walmart – he would check for front-end damage.
“When you’ve got an accident with a guy on a motorcycle and [a driver] doesn’t stop to see if the person’s OK, it kind of gets you upset,” Winters said. “So I kind of took a personal interest in this one.
“There’s some things, certain cases will drive you to keep looking for more, because you know there is more.”
Months passed, and Cruz figured he’d never know who had left his bike inoperable and nearly killed him.
Then one afternoon in mid-March, Winters saw it. A black, 1993 Mercury Cougar with front-end damage turning from Fairview onto 7th Street, right in front of his squad car.
Winters stopped the car, explained to the driver what was going on.
“I went to the front of the car, and I’m like, ‘This has got to be it,’ ” he said.
Sure enough, the pieces Winters had kept with him the past three months fit perfectly. The vehicle was impounded. The driver that day didn’t have a license, but she said it was her friend who had been driving when the damage to the car occurred.
The next day, Winters found the woman who had been driving the car Dec. 14.
“Through the investigation, she admitted it was her and she was on her way to pick her friend up,” Winters said. “She was just nervous because she didn’t have insurance and [her license] was suspended, so she panicked and left.”
With the case solved, Winters had to share the news with Cruz. He stopped at the Cruz home after work. Ernie wasn’t home, so Winters told Sue Cruz, Ernie’s wife, the good news (that he’d found the person who hit her husband) and the bad news (she had no insurance to pay for damages.)
When Ernie Cruz learned that the police had caught up to the person who hit him, he couldn’t believe it.
“I’m really proud that we have officers like that in DeKalb right now because I had written off anyone ever finding who the culprit was,” he said. “I was almost in shock, I’m like, ‘You’re kidding. They found who hit me?’ ”
Cruz says he’ll probably have his bike back on the road by this spring. He also has a new appreciation for the difference police can make by solving crimes.
As for Winters, he said he was just happy to have made a good impression on someone – if police in any community are going to be effective, people have to trust and like them.
“Most people look at police officers as though they’re not really human, and I like to go out and joke with people and show them that we’re human to and we’re just doing a job,” Winters said. “The biggest aspect of why I do this is just being out with people. It’s different every day.”
Monumental shift: On the week of Thanksgiving in 2003, I wrote a column in the Daily Chronicle’s sister paper, the Northwest Herald, in support of same-sex marriage.
It was kind of a throwaway topic – not that it’s not an important issue, but it wasn’t really in the news at the time. There must not have been much going on – that community doesn’t host the IHSA state football championships like other places I can name.
I didn’t save a copy of the column, but I know the headline was “All couples should have equal rights.” I know that because it’s referenced in one of the angry emails a reader sent to the publisher, who was about four steps above me in the chain of command.
I think one person wrote in support of my view. Many others disagreed.
“The line of reasoning you have embraced is inherently dangerous and has led to the fall of empires,” one reader wrote.
“I hate to see a respected newspaper encourage something that’s detestable to God and certainly offensive to the majority of Americans,” another wrote.
It’s amazing how dramatically public opinion has changed in fewer than 10 years. Today, a column opposing same-sex marriage would probably get the same response.
That’s not the only issue on which Americans’ attitudes are evolving. Ten years from now, our government’s policies probably will be dramatically different on health care, pensions, marijuana – and maybe, just maybe, on how large a deficit the government can run before they’re forced to hit the brakes.
I won’t hold my breath on the last one, though.
Welcome spring: It was a nice feeling Thursday evening to see people actually walking around outside by choice.
It’s been a long winter. Happy Easter to all who celebrate it this weekend.
And to everyone: Enjoy spring. It’ll be here about two weeks.
• Eric Olson is the editor of the Daily Chronicle. Reach him at 815-756-4841 ext. 2257, email email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter @DC_Editor.